Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Viggen 3-dr hatch
Extremely fast, excellent brakes, comfortable interior
Room for improvement
Torque steer, high-speed wander
21 Jun 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
CAR-MAKERS have known about it forever - but are no closer to an answer today than they were when the phenomenon first surfaced: front-wheel drive can be an inefficient way of delivering industrial-strength engine torque to the road.
Saab's new 9-3 Viggen is a case in point.
The company's new turbocharged slingshot weighs in with an impressive stack of power and torque, every kilowatt asked to propel about 8.5kg.
This brings it close to the hulking V8s from Ford and Holden, and comfortably ahead of cars like BMW's 328i Coupe or a CLK 320 Mercedes, which Saab sees as natural competitors.
But the front-drive configuration does not put the Saab anywhere near the front of the pack in terms of refinement.
Like a touchy heavyweight wrestler, it is better to be on good rather than bad terms with a Saab 9-3 Viggen.
The power of the 2.3-litre turbo four is such that throttle application, even in a straight line, must always be a delicately handled affair. Even more so if a corner or wet road is involved.
A relatively light squeeze of the accelerator sees the engine torque tugging resolutely at the wheel in a way that demands constant attention from the driver, just to keep the car pointed exactly where it is intended to go. This is despite inbuilt torque limitations imposed on first and second gears by the engine management system.
The plus side is that, unlike the horrifying antics of some high- power front-drive Volvo offerings, the Saab's front suspension at least keeps the thumping and crashing of axle tramp in abeyance. The breaking of traction - there is no traction control or limited-slip differential - is accompanied merely by a smooth shriek of tortured rubber.
The underlying issue with all this is that behind these antics is an essentially well sorted car that is a refreshing break from the somewhat cliched offerings from the competition.
With the torque steer removed, the Viggen is a supremely powerful car of impressive cruising ability and with a surprisingly flexible, comfortable ride.
The handling itself would be fine if the car was not so reactive to mid-corner throttle applications.
The braking is more than up to the task, using grooved - and on the front, larger - discs intended to dismiss water or dirt more quickly, larger front callipers and new high performance pad materials.
The car surges forward with the slightest application of accelerator and does not let up even when the speedometer is on the high side of 200km/h.
Shuffling through the five-speed gearbox is generally a smooth affair, but the fly-by-wire engine management occasionally shuts the power down too abruptly on upshifts, making smooth transitions difficult. The shift mechanism itself also baulked once on the one-two shift.
The engine itself is a reasonably heavily worked-over version of the 2.3-litre turbo that powers 9-5 Saabs and it would not be stretching credibility to describe it as an automotive gem.
Access to its power curve is easy with its maximum 342Nm of torque coming in by 2500rpm, holding right through to 4000rpm. Then the kilowatts take over, stretching through to a 165kW peak at 5500rpm. This means that, from 2500rpm to 5500rpm, there is a mountain of power to be exploited.
The power has been achieved by a larger turbo (a Mitsubishi TD04 HL) and a freer-flowing exhaust system, coupled to the highly intelligent Trionic 7 Saab engine management system that is able to control the power so well that the Viggen develops exactly the same torque in the rarefied air of 3000 metres as it does at sea level.
This is good news for winter sports people and is made possible by the engine's ability to vary its turbo boost between 0.95 and 1.4 bar (barometric pressure), depending on altitude.
The engine is essentially the same low friction, twin camshaft, multi-valve iron-block unit seen in the 9-5 and uses technology such as fly-by-wire accelerator control and separate ignition coils for each cylinder.
For a turbo, the engine runs an unusually high 9.3:1 compression ratio which helps efficiency (the Viggen claims impressive city/highway fuel figures of 11.3/7.1 litres per 100km) as well as power delivery at lower engine speeds.
Perhaps the only disappointment is the engine note - a casualty of legally required drive-by noise levels.
There is no automatic because only the Saab 9-5's five-speed manual gearbox will cope with the engine's power. This, too, has been upgraded with a reinforced casing, a heavier bearing for the output shaft and a stronger hydraulic clutch. The Viggen's drive shafts are also beefier than on regular 9-3 models.
That's the driveline. So what else makes this car so special?
Well, the car is unlikely to be mistaken for a regular 9-3, but at the same time it avoids the extrovert fit-out characterising various other creations from TWR, the UK organisation with which Saab shared development of the Viggen.
The Viggen is kitted out with the ubiquitous body kit, including new front and rear bumpers, side skirts and a spoiler on the rear deck lid. The TWR trademark is evident, but more subtle than in an HSV Holden, lowering the aerodynamic drag figure while decreasing lift for improved high speed stability.
The suspension has been given a thorough workover with different springs, dampers and anti-roll bars to any other 9-3. Efforts to decrease the torque steer included the use of stiffer bushings on the steering rack but the company claims engineers deliberately left some torque steer so the driver could "gauge exactly what is happening at the front wheels".
The Viggen, in addition to new 17-inch alloy wheels, also gets a wider front track.
Part of the Viggen's ride quality is explained by the use of specially developed Dunlop SP Sport tyres with sidewalls soft enough to allow unexpected levels of bump absorbency.
Inside, the Viggen gets new, more shapely front seats and a trim- out job that does not begin to look overdone until you get to the carbon fibre/titanium facing liberally applied to the instrument panel, glovebox and centre console.
There are also a new leather-trimmed steering wheel and subtle Viggen logo identification on the door sills and embossed into the seat backs.
Otherwise, the car simply gets the full 9-3 option job with climate control, electric sliding sunroof, electrically adjustable front seats with driver memory and a premium sound system with a six-disc CD stacker in the boot.
The overall picture is of a good-looking, accommodating sports coupe with astounding performance (local tests have the Viggen accomplishing standing 400 metre times under 15 seconds, which is starting to get seriously fast) but a chassis that begs constant attention.
Okay, so any car capable of covering ground as quickly as the Viggen is likely to require special care when being extended to its performance limits, but the issue with the Saab is that these limits are always a mere touch of the accelerator pedal away, especially at low road speeds.
Take the Saab into its real domain - the long distance, preferably unrestricted high-speed run - and it will mix it with the best of them, with the slight qualification that the steering allows some wander at very high velocities.
If you are front-drive aware, especially familiar with the characteristics of a particularly torquey front-drive, then the Viggen will feel natural. If you are accustomed to having all the latest electronic trickery to keep potential trouble at bay, then the fastest Saab will not be for you.
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