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First drive: Saab's Aero dynamic

Out of the blocks: So the Aero fairly flies out of a standing start and pretty soon has the speedo hovering in loss-of-licence territory.

Performance is the key selling point in Saab's Aero

21 May 2003

SAAB Australia has completed its 9-3 sedan line-up with the addition of the top-line Aero model and managed to keep the price under $70,000.

The final pieces in the 9-3 jigsaw will be the 9-3 Convertible in October with an Aero Convertible expected to go on sale here early in 2004.

Management expects the Aero sedan to boost Saab 9-3 sales from about 90 a month to 110-115 a month. This is about double the sales rate of9-3 in 2000.

It is an important car for Saab which sees the name Aero as almost a brand in its own right with many Australian buyers.

Saab research shows that more than a third of buyers get an Aero for its performance, more than a third buy it for its looks and more than a third are buying another Aero.

The key to the Aero is the performance package and additional sizzle in the features department. The company claims the Aero is class leading in value and says that it has to be the best-equipped car in its class because they know they cannot match some of the brand cache they are up against.

In the Aero, performance is the key selling propositon.

Even though there is a common 2.0-litre engine across the 9-3 range, power outputs vary considerably from various tweaks, the degree of turbocharging applied and, in the case of the Aero, a number of changes to the engine as well.

The main change to the Aero engine is greater boost that comes from a much larger turbo unit.

This produces 0.85 bar of boost - more than twice that of the base Linear 2.0-litre engine (which is a 2.0-litre even though it is badged as a 1.8).

The Aero also gets a unique, more aggressive camshaft, different higher performance pistons and rings, and larger fuel injectors and exhaust.

That sees the Aero engine producing 155kW at 5300rpm and generating 300Nm of torque between a respectably broad range of 2500rpm and 4000rpm.

Saab claims a 0-100km/h figure of 7.5 seconds which, on its numbers, outperforms the Audi A4 2.4, BMW 325i and the Volvo S60 2.4T.

Adding to the sporty nature of the package is a six-speed manual close ratio gearbox which is exclusive to the Aero. The optional five-speed Sentronic automatic gearbox is the same as in other 9-3 models.

Saab is banking on the optimum choice of gears, rather than high engine output, to allow drivers to wring out the best road performance from the Aero engine.

To complement the performance, there is a highway Hoover-like sports body kit which cuts lift at the front by 70 per cent and at the rear by 40 per cent over the base Linear sedan.

The suspension has been lowered by 10mm (about half an inch) and the springs and dampers have been re-tuned for firmer, more precise handling.

Specific 17-inch alloy wheels with open spokes complete the Aero look and expose the larger and very business-like 312mm brake discs.

Inside, Aero buyers get sports dual-tone leather seats and a six-disc Prestige entertainment system pumping out 300 Watts.

Aero buyers also get a leather sports steering wheel with gear-change paddles (automatic only), leather gear knob, trip computer, parking sensors (rear only), power front seats with three-position memory, six airbags, Saab Active head restraints, electrically foldable door mirrors, remote anti-theft alarm with tilt sensor, adjustable front armrest and split-fold rear seat.

A sunroof, bi-xenon headlamps with retractable washers and metallic paint are optional.

It also inherits from across the 9-3 range such features as traction control to reduce wheel spin, stability control to minimise skidding, cornering brake control to maximise handling stability and anti-lock brakes and braking distribution for optimum emergency braking.




Aero2.0 Turbo1553000.85
Vector2.0 Turbo1292650.7
Arc2.0 Turbo1292650.7
Linear 1.82.0 Turbo1102400.4


PricePowerTorque0-100 km/h
Saab 9-3 Aero$66,900155kW300Nm7.5 seconds
Audi A4 2.4$64,400125kW230Nm8.9 seconds
BMW 325i$67,405141kW245Nm7.6 seconds
Lexus IS300$73,534157kW288Nmn/a
Volvo S60 2.4T$66,950147kW285Nm7.6 seconds


ONE of the things about Saab that has always remained a mystery is why the company persists in using a four-cylinder engine and turbocharger.

Saab has made a virtue of the fact that it has all but perfected four-cylinder turbocharging. But why go to all that trouble for so long when all Saab needed was a decent a six-cylinder engine?It's as though someone branded their foreheads that having a turbo four was going to be the Saab point-of-difference. But what is the point of such a point-of-difference?Turbos are used to make small engines seem bigger. But they come with all sorts of complexity that a bigger engine does not need.

And turbos have driving characteristics like lag or lack of oomph while waiting for the turbo fan to blow like a hairdryer and force more air and fuel into the engine.

So engineers come up with all sorts of devices to overcome that problem. Saab has a gismo called a Trionic 8 which electronically activates the turbo earlier at low revs. It is pretty smart.

Effectively, it opens the throttle more than the driver is actually asking for so the turbo gets wound up more rapidly in order to deliver more boost and overcome that typical dead spot in response.

It works pretty well, too. So the Aero fairly flies out of a standing start and pretty soon has the speedo hovering in loss-of-licence territory.

It is not so much the power as the very impressive torque of 300Nm (which kicks in at between 2500rpm and 4000rpm) that delivers this fast track to the horizon. And you have to marvel that it is all happening from just a 2.0-litre engine.

But it sure gets busy. Give it some stick and each one of those half-litre pistons buzzes away frantically delivering on the fan forced induction. There's a heap of work going on on the other side of the firewall.

So you must have nothing but admiration for engineers who have wrung this lemon so well and so efficiently. You just wonder why they just don't get a bigger piece of fruit and not squeeze it so hard.

Talking of busy, the new six-speed manual close ratio gearbox coupled to a turbo engine is not the best of liaisons.

As they say, there are a lot of neutrals in a six-speed box and a lot of choice.

In this case there is also a lack of precision, a kind of remote connection between the lever and where gears are selected. Just a vague and lumpy area compounded by lots of places to go to that you didn't want to be.

The idea of the close ration box and its six gears is that it gives you the ability to select exactly the right ratio to tailor it to the speed of the engine.

The theory is that if you choose exactly the right gear, you maintain the sort of revs that hold the engine in the right area for the turbo to be on active duty. That works pretty well as long as you are not really having a go and when you do not have to be searching quickly for the next best gear to be in.

But if you want to be doing a lot of accelerating and braking on tight winding roads, where you are going up and down the box very frequently, then it all becomes a thankless chore.

In the end you just get too much choice and not enough precision to get where you want to go before the engine has moved on and you are back in there making more choices and botching the selection when you have decided.

That's the trouble with turbos and manual gearboxes you just have to work really hard because they kick in so well that you are on constant call with lots of work to do.

With six speeds you just have six times the demand. There is also such little difference in rations that you have to wonder at the point of it all, apart from brownie points on a brochure.

Far better is the very neat five-speed Sentronic auto. Now this is one very sweet sequential gearbox that is a much better tool for handling the demands of turbo gear selection.

Using either the gear level itself for orderly downward or upward changes, or the two paddles in the steering wheel spokes, the Sentronic transforms the whole driving proposition of the Aero. There are five speeds on tap. Five is plenty.

This is when you can really get things moving cutting in the next ratio instantly as the turbo-boosted revs leap from gear to gear. The same changing down into corners and dips. Down. Down. Down. Through the corner. Up. Up. Up.

Now this is motoring. This is fun. The Sentronic is $2500 more than the six-speeder.

Be advised, pay the extra.

In terms of road manners there is very little to say because the Aero sits well, stays on track and feels more than capable. There are all sorts of electronic devices playing nursemaid in case you do the wrong thing. They are supposed to kick in and save you from yourself.

These include Saab's ReAxs which is standard across the 9-3 range but a device more likely to be called on in the Aero than its more boost-deprived, lower-priced brethren.

ReAxs is designed to overcome inherent lack of steering sharpness that you can get in a front wheel drive car - especially when driven with some verve.

It is a rear-wheel steering apparatus that turns the back wheels slightly to help it turn into the corner more precisely at the front. That means there is less tendency for the car to run wide or understeer.

ReAxs also helps the car respond more quickly to changes of direction made by the driver.

Inside the layout has that Saab stamp the family resemblance that is unmistakable. Aside from the most remarkable cupholder ever witnessed, the instruments are very neat, clear and logical and the controls easy to follow after a short look in the handbook.

The sports seats provide support and comfort and the interior trim deserves praise for quality of materials and finish.

Now, if it only had a V6 ...

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