Bringing together prime examples of Lotus Esprit Turbo and Porsche 944 Turbo looks at first sight like a contest between opposites: cars with engines in different places, plastic against steel, two seats rather than four, Britain playing Germany. One fact makes this 150mph pair perfect rivals: in their day they were the fastest four-cylinder sports cars by a massive margin, pitched by their manufacturers at the kind of buyer who wanted the ultimate shove-in-the-back acceleration of a turbo.
For sheer punch there's little to choose between them. They respond very similarly, with a Jekyll and Hyde contrast between off-boost docility and the sudden fury that arrives when the turbo (Garrett in the Lotus, KKK in the Porsche) kicks in at around 2500-3000rpm. As with any early-generation blower, there's a delay between summoning of power and its arrival, but the turbo characteristics of these cars are more refined than most installations of the time. The important thing is that both are incredibly exhilarating and spectacularly quick through the upper half of their rev ranges, without being too short of torque while boost is building up.
Acceleration statistics (from Autocar) give the Lotus a small lead over the Porsche although differences between the two aren't easy to detect at the wheel. The Lotus achieves 0-60mph in 5.4 secs against the Porsche's 6.0, but the gap for the telling 50-70mph bracket (in the best gear) opens up to 2.9 secs against 3.7. Gearing is the main reason: although the Esprit Turbo weighs 165kg more (1386kg against 1221kg), it more than overcomes this handicap buy using a much sportier final drive ratio (3.88:1 against 3.375:1). This feature also explains the most significant subjective difference between these cars, for the Porsche is rather more relaxed when cruising on the motorway, as confirmed by its fifth gear offering 25.3mph per 1000rpm. The Lotus's slight torque deficiency – its peak is 220lb ft at 4250rpm against the Porsche's 248lb ft at 3500rpm – is also cancelled out by the gearing contrast, although neither car, in truth, lacks flexibility by turbo standards.
Beyond performance, there's also little to choose between these pocket supercars in handling capability. Both are stunningly effective when driven quickly thanks to their all-round precision and poise on the road, but nothing less is to be expected from companies that both boast rich motor racing heritage and important consultancies in sorting cars for other manufacturers. Suspension, steering and braking competence is similar, yet these cars tackle twisty roads in fairly contrasting ways.
The Porsche is the move forgiving, and therefore ultimately easier to live with – but less captivating for the enthusiastic driver. Steering character seems to sum up the difference. The Lotus's manual steering is wrist-flick quick (just two turns lock to lock) and wonderfully accurate, while its track-inspired lack of self-centring makes it very direct – but driving well requires concentration and manoeuvring is hard work. The 944 Turbo is effortless to control thanks to power assistance, but messages aren't communicated to the hands with the same clarity and the dull-looking tiller is geared as a less incisive 3.2 turns lock to lock.
An edge in civility extends throughout the Porsche's make-up, but greater satisfaction is available from the Lotus – as long as it's driven properly. Thanks to its tail-heavy weight distribution – 43/57, far less ideal than the Porsche's 51/49 – moments of excessive understeer or nervousness from the back end can occur if you don't brake for a corner in a straight line, settle the car, then let it power steadily through, but when you get your part of the act together the car does its counterpoint perfectly. Grip and balance are superb, but both cars need caution with the throttle in the wet, as the power surge on boost readily unsticks the back wheels.
Where the Porsche moves ahead is in various areas of refinement and usability. Ride quality is reasonable in the Lotus, especially at the higher speeds, but the Porsche is superior. The 944 cabin may lack the style and sense of occasion that envelops you in a leather-trimmed Esprit, but many Porsche fittings are of higher quality, the seats are more supportive, visibility is better (thanks partly to a higher seating position), instrumentation is neater – and the car can carry four. Although the Esprit has adequate space behind the engine for two people's weekend luggage (there's very little room under the front lid), the Porsche is in a different league for practicality thanks to its glass tailgate and acres of load space, especially when the occasional rear seats are folded flat. Noise levels from engine, road and wind are more subdued in the Porsche, but one Lotus sound – the braying of wastegate pressure release at every gearchange when accelerating had – adds aural appeal to an engine that's otherwise rather coarse and unmusical.
The choice between the two outstanding four-cylinder turbos of the '80s is down to how highly driving challenge – and reward – rates in you priorities. A 944 is certainly more sensible, but an Esprit the bigger buzz.
Thanks to Donington Park for use of the track for photography – and to Jim Griffin (Porsche) and Aubrey Arrowsmith (Lotus), whose remarkable 2500-mile car is for sale.
AT A GLANCE
Engine capacity: 2147cc
Max power: 215bhp @ 6000rpm
Max speed: 150mph
Price when new: £30,510
A1 value today: £16,000
Supercar style and performance for modern saloon money, plus the bonus of rust-free construction. Short on refinement, but does all the important things supremely well.
PORSCHE 944 TURBO (1988)
Engine capacity: 2479cc
Max power: 220bhp @ 5800rpm
Max speed: 153mph
Price when new: £36,874
A1 value today: £15,000
A fantastic all-rounder, whether on back roads or long motorway hauls, Effortlessly fast, but also comfortable, quiet and spacious. Better built than a Lotus, more economical, but overall running costs are more expensive.