Saab 9-3 Turbo X

The Swedish marque springs to life again with this limited- edition, metallic-black model that harks back to its pre-GM ancestors
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A Saab – a proper Saab, conceived and produced with proper Saab values – is a car for people at ease with themselves, non-corporate non-conformists who like the idea of things done differently but well. Premium-branded German cars can give off too much self-obsession, whereas a Saab is discreet and detached from the forces of Darwinism.

Or so it once seemed, in the days when Saab 99 and 900 Turbos, most often seen in menacing black, made turbocharging more famous, more glamorous and more sophisticated than ever before. But then General Motors, the current owner, did its best to cut out Saab's soul. The 9-7X SUV (based on a large Chevrolet and sold only in the US), and the 9-2X (based on an old-model Subaru Impreza and also sold only in the US) turned out to be the points beyond which Saab could not be forced, and highlighted the inward-looking, US-fixated thinking that threatened to destroy Sweden's second-oldest car brand.

Now sense has returned and Saab has a properly functional design centre in Sweden again instead of a corner of GM Europe's German studio with pieces of Swedish furniture to make things all right. Saab is also GM's world centre of cleverness for turbocharging, along with advanced four-wheel drive systems and biofuels. There's even a committee of "Saab guides" steeped in the brand. Morale among those at the company's Trollhattan home has gone from downbeat to upbeat as the launch of three Saabs draws near: the 9-4X compact SUV, the new 9-5 saloon and a smallish hatchback to take on the likes of the Audi A3, BMW 1-series and Volvo C30.

That's the scene set. Now to the centrepiece of this test: the new Saab 9-3 Turbo X. If it's as good as I hope, this will be a launchpad for Saab's bright new future – a future with a nod to its past, for the Turbo X is available only in black (a metallic black now) and it it even has a turbo boost gauge identical to those of its pre-GM ancestors.

It's a limited-edition car, just 500 of which are UK-bound, but the technology within it will also appear in the top versions of the 9-3 Aero, the next most sporting manifestation of a Saab. It's turbocharged, obviously, but unlike those old Saabs it has two of the exhaust-driven compressors, one for each bank of its 2.8-litre V6 engine.

That being so, the 280bhp output isn't especially impressive. The Turbo X might sit on hefty 18in or, 19in wheels, have a pair of vocal tailpipes of rhomboid cross-section, and bear deep valances below the bumpers to aid aerodynamics but it's no chaser of V8-engined BMW M3s. Then again, at £32,495 it wouldn't be. Saab isn't into chasing the Germans with their monstrous power outputs; its approach is more circumspect, more considered.

Part of this approach, which does pay some homage to Audi's Quattro four-wheel drive idea, is the "cross-wheel drive" system. The drive here, though, is achieved differently from Audi's original arrangement, because power to the rear wheels is modulated by a Haldex multiplate clutch. Other cars use a similar system but Saab's interpretation of it is cleverer.

Generally, the rear wheels transmit no power until the front wheels start to lose grip. Here, though, the system pre-empts what is about to happen to the car by interpreting data from sensors, and readies itself accordingly. For example, when at rest it sets the system to send most of the power to the rear wheels so they can do most of the work when the Saab accelerates away. Then, as the Saab gains speed, the balance of power heads gradually to the front wheels, making the car more stable.

Specific to the Turbo X, though, is an electric limited-slip rear differential or eLSD. This not only sends more power to the rear wheel, with more grip when needed, but uses this ability to influence the Saab's cornering behaviour. If the eLSD senses the car should be turning more tightly than it is, the outside rear wheel gets more power than the inside one, which tightens the turn.

This is clever stuff, and should enable the Turbo X to scoot round corners very quickly with total safety. The lowered ride height, tautened suspension and bigger brakes should help make the most of this ability. So, does it work?

The engine sounds deep, smooth and potent, and it responds firmly to the accelerator without the bombastic pause-and-blast of early Saab Turbos. Also missing is the anarchic tug on the steering wheel that such Saabs could suffer if the power overwhelmed the front wheels' ability to transmit it to the road, even though no Saab before this one has moved so fast (0-62mph in 5.7 seconds). The gear change feels smooth and easy, the driving position is excellent, the ambience is as Saabish as you could wish for.

So I'm burbling along a fast, straight road, and I steer from side to side to feel what happens. The eLSD nips each wobble of the tail in the bud, pushing the Saab straight. You really can feel it working. Now some bends: the nose points into the corner, the tail obediently follows. If I try to turn more tightly, the Saab obliges. If I decelerate while doing so, the Saab turns no more tightly than before because its tail is tied down by technology and isn't allowed to drift out. That's good, isn't it?

Not entirely. It's actually better if the tail moves out a little to help tighten the cornering line. It also makes a car more interactive, more alive, more fun.

That's the Turbo X's problem: it's objectively capable but subjectively a bit dull. The picture could well be different on the snow and ice on which the Turbo X was partly developed, but on dry roads it needs to cut loose a little if a driver is to love it.

When you start the Saab, a display on the dashboard tells you you're "Ready For Take-off". That may be true, but this supposedly sportiest-ever Saab is still more executive jet than aerobatic biplane.

Specifications

Model: Saab 9-3 Turbo X

Price: from £32,495 (estate £33,495), on sale now

Engine: 2,792cc, V6 cylinders, 24 valves, twin-turbo, 280bhp at 5,500rpm, 295lb ft at 2,150-4,500rpm

Transmission: six-speed manual, four-wheel drive

Performance: 155mph, 0-62 in 5.7sec, 26.4mpg official average, CO2 254g/km

The rivals

Alfa 159 3.2 JTS Q4 Lusso: £28,450

Four-wheel drive like the Saab. A little less power but a lot of driver-pleasing character in this good-value Alfa. It's too heavy but imminent revised model is lighter.

BMW 335i M Sport: £34,200

Potent twin-turbo straight-six engine is the heart of this entertaining, high-quality BMW. Great to drive with terrific handling and impressive smoothness. Recommended.

Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport: £35,577

Big V6 engine is a little less powerful than Saab's unit, but it's still plenty for a compact saloon, and Sport spec brings crisp steering and much driver satisfaction.

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