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Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Turbo X and TTiD range

Our Opinion

We like
New-found levels of traction, balance, driver entertainment for Saab with XWD
Room for improvement
Limited status, no XWD in other models, ride harshness

27 Jun 2008

PETER Johansson has been carted all over the world to demonstrate the benefits of Saab’s excellent XWD, and this week he found himself at what must have seemed to him the lowest point in the campaign – Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground in Victoria’s deep south, where the wind howls, the air bites and even locals curse its bleakness in winter.

For a Scandinavian in particular, this is just about the end of the earth. But Johansson, who had not long since walked off an aircraft, soon adds some colour to the launch event – and some credence to the various claims that come with the Turbo X – with his considerable driving skill and his deep involvement in the development of “cross-wheel drive”.

More than a mere chassis engineer, Johansson is a racecar driver whose father Sigge, himself a renowned rally driver, designed and developed the first electronically controlled limited-slip differential in the 1980s. Sigge took out a patent, developed it further with Peter as test driver and then sold the rights to Haldex in ’87.

The original design forms the basis of the “eLSD” used in the limited-issue Turbo X, and while there is cause for celebration with its arrival, there is some bitterness in Johansson’s words when he describes how he has spent more than two decades with Saab developing three other advanced all-wheel drive systems, none of which parent General Motors saw fit to bring to market.

This AWD absence has, we’d argue, limited the sales and damaged the reputation of Saab, which went ahead and built its high-performance specials on a compromised front-drive chassis. Remember the 9-3 Viggen?

Of course, Johansson takes all this to heart considering his involvement and his lineage – he is the third generation Johansson to work for Saab, following his father and his maternal grandfather Tage Floden, who transferred from Saab’s aircraft operations (where he was a toolmaker after WWII) to its new car division in 1942 to make tooling for the first ever Saab production car, the 92.

As this scribe is driving the Turbo X as fast as his conscience allows around a dirt road section at Lang Lang, sliding with confidence through chicanes, powering around sweeping bends, all the while marvelling at how much latitude is dialled into the ESC, Johansson is in the passenger’s seat describing how unfair it is for the likes of Audi to receive all the AWD accolades. And all because of GM’s refusal to implement AWD for the Saab brand before now.

He gets no arguments from these quarters. On the same dirt stretch, driving a front-drive sports-tuned 9-3 Aero (with the new 132kW/400Nm 1.9-litre TTiD twin-turbo inline-four diesel) brings a fair amount of entertainment – and a number of familiar traits. Limited traction under a full boot from a standing start. Excessive ESP intervention. Torque steer.

Fitted with optional 19-inch wheels wrapped in 235/40 Pirelli P-Zero rubber, the Turbo X – armed with an uprated 206kW version of the 2.8-litre turbo V6 petrol, and optional six-speed automatic – funnels the same amount of torque (400Nm) as the TTiD into wet brown slush via XWD and accelerates with pace and little impediment. Torque transfers are subtle and seamless between the front and rear wheels. Torque steer doesn’t appear.

We had a short single run in the Turbo X, completed in a couple of minutes, to make this assessment. And now we’re left marvelling at how well XWD works.

It doesn’t wait for the front wheels to scrabble before sending drive to the back end. Despite being “on-demand” AWD, some quite brilliant electronics ensure that the rear wheels are engaged as soon as a gear is selected and – as we found on the dirt – the rear wheel/s with the most traction receive a huge slab of drive torque at take-off to send the X-rated Aero scarpering as required.

On the move, in a straight line, minimal torque to the rear axle maintains a front-drive feel. But when corners are taken, the rearward torque transfer – combined with some serious work on an ageing chassis, too, we might add – sees the Turbo X return the favour with an impressive amount of balance, control and traction.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when we swap seats with Johansson – the man said to have once outpaced a young Ayrton Senna in a karting race in Sweden – and he demonstrates in a long power slide how well torque is transferred to the outer rear wheel to reduce understeer. Exiting a corner under full throttle also sees up to 80 per cent of torque at the rear end to keep the car balanced.

Some all-too-brief bitumen driving, and some motorkhana and skidpan work, reinforces the message. Understeer that comes with little restraint in tight bends with the standard front-drive Aero package is much reduced in the Turbo X. The car feels solid at high speed. The braking performance – with hardware including 345mm-diameter front rotors, up from 314mm on the standard Aero – is outstanding.

The ride? Serious shock sent into the cabin over tramlines, and some harshness over other imperfections, leaves more to be desired. The engine, too, despite the extra 18kW/50Nm, still manages to feel as though it needs more responsiveness at low revs. And a little more refinement when the needle nears the redline.

The TTiD seems to us the more interesting engine, although the volume-selling (sigh: detuned) automatic version brings with it negligible improvements in fuel consumption over the single-turbo diesel, according to lab-tested figures that should also be reflected in the real world.

There is no question over the twin-turbo diesel’s extra muscle, as delivered in our taste test at Lang Lang. But considering its restriction to the expensive and narrow-focused $62,000-plus Aero specification, and its handling limitations that were exposed in no uncertain terms against the (much more expensive again) all-wheel drive Turbo X, it seems to us to be another Saab 9-3 that somehow manages to miss the mark.

There are now two dozen model variants – or FORTY-FOUR when counting transmissions – in the new but oh-so-slow-selling 9-3 stable, none with AWD other than the 27 (out of 30) units of the $88,000-plus Turbo X that were still available at the time of writing.

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