I can't say enough good things about the 944. It is one of the world's all-around best driver's cars.
I own one right now, and have owned a total of five of them, totalling around 200k miles, including 92k on my first one and 60k on my current one. I do all of my own work, and have serviced more than a dozen other people's 944s over the years.
What is there to like about it?
- I'll start out with what most (young) people dismiss it for today: Decent performance. OMG, it doesn't have 400hp, it must be slow, what am I gonna do?!?!?!!11!1!!
It's no V12 Ferrari, but if it is too slow for you -- or you can't drive it fast -- you really need to learn how to drive. It is easy to drive fast, and not lacking in the ability to move through traffic or go around a course.
- Excellent handling
- Excellent brakes
- Safe -- strong structure, safety cell/crumple zone design
- Reliable -- if you do the maintenance and take care of a few things that are inevitable with age and miles, it will always start and get you where you need to go.
- Tough -- can take abuse and rough roads repeatedly. Not quite a Mercedes, but stereotypically German (in a good way)
- Practical -- hatch back has good useable space, and when you fold the rear seats down it becomes cavernous
- Rust resistant -- galvanized body. You have to really abuse and neglect a 944 to make it rust. If you drive it daily year round and keep it clean, it should be fine for a long, long time. Body repairs should be carried out keeping sanding to the bare metal to an absolute minimum
- Comfortable -- Porsche really got the design of their seats right in the mid-80s. Notice that today's Porsche seats are hardly any different from the later style 944 seats. Very comfortable on a long trip, and noise levels inside are very civilized.
- Gas mileage -- 30 miles per gallon on the highway; how many sports/GT cars give you this? (some, but not most)
- Styling -- is purposeful and in good taste. While not as passionate as a Fioravanti-designed Ferrari, it is overall pleasing and has no bad angles.
- Parts cross-reference -- many components are out of the Audi/VW parts bin, so maintaining it is not always as expensive as magazine articles from ten years ago would have you believe.
- Engine and trans life -- properly cared for (fluid changes, etc.), you can realistically expect half a million miles out of a 944 engine and trans. An engine with 100k miles is just coming into its prime.
- Most of all, it is a very easy car to drive well, drive fast, and make the most out of. Another owner I know once wrote something to the effect of "drive one for two weeks and you'll swear it was the greatest car ever made," and I agree. I have other more exciting cars, but none that are overall better and offer as much.
What to look out for:
Most of them are neglected. Some specific issues:
- any car with its original clutch, or an older replacement will need one soon. Huge job. Look for a receipt for a clutch job, check the part number to see if it is a spring-hub disc, not rubber hub. If not, factor $2500-$3000 for a clutch. Expect the spring hub to last a very long time if you know how to drive and not burn it up
- timing belt/water pump/rollers -- needs to be done every five years/45k miles
- motor mounts last 5-10 years depending on OE or aftermarket
- oil cooler seals -- last 15-20 years. Seal kit is $40, but a lot of labor to replace it
- many have worn suspensions because they have 150k miles and all original components. The front control arms on later cars are expensive; on early cars they are straight off of VW Golf/Rabbit.
- heater controls -- climate control unit on later cars is $500 and are at the age of failing on neglected cars; on early cars it is a simple lever mechanism, but they break from stiff cables and can be annoying to rectify. Either version, you get warm air in the car
- battery box -- seam sealer cracks, and water leaks into right side footwell. You won't notice it until it gets bad and you have an inch of water under your carpet starting to soak through.
- odometers break from pushing the trip reset button while car in motion. Annoying, but not a big deal
- general old car stuff -- leaking sunroof, bad gas springs on hatch and bonnet, etc.
- cheap previous owner syndrome -- botched DIY repairs and cheap substitutes for parts. For example, PO of my current 944 misaligned the balance shafts when he did the timing belt job.
- abuse and neglect
You said a 944 is nothing special; I disagree.
It was an expensive car in its day, a great car by any standard, said by some to be the best handling car in the world, and it was the benchmark by which many other cars in the 80s were judged (by the press, the industry, and even other manufacturers).
The fact that they are so cheap now is because they have lasted many years and miles, most are neglected, and they are no longer desirable by the crowd that has to have the newest thing, and not yet old enough to be considered classics.
A 944 is inherently a great car, but anything could have happened to one in the past 20+ years. Buy a good one. A good one will serve you reliably for many tens of thousands of miles with predictable and reasonable service costs and intervals; a neglected one will be a money pit and could spoil your appreciation for these cars.
P.S. -- Here's a pic of my current 944. It is a late 1985 model, and I have owned it since summer of 2003. It is too good of a car to ever sell. It is like an early 80s diesel Mercedes; its value as transportation and usefulness is far greater than the money that selling it would bring. It's such a good car that it is not worth selling!