The Independent Raod Test: Off with the shoulder pads, on with the green leotard: Saab's latest turbo engine avoids the lag - but also the lunge, reports Roger Bell

Fourteen years on from its pioneering 99 Turbo model, Saab still favours turbocharged engines while other manufacturers are rejecting them - both Ford and Renault recently fitted normally aspirated engines to models that were previously turbocharged.

Saab is also continuing to develop turbo systems. Its potent 2.3-litre turbos, for example, are now fitted with a 'Trionic' electronic management system which has more computing power than an Apollo space capsule; the computer adjusts performance so that heavily polluted air entering the engine is actually cleaner when it emerges from the exhaust. Another product of recent development is the 'mild-boost' 2-litre turbo engine fitted to the 9000 EcoPower model.

The raison d'etre of this car is not blistering performance so much as accessible mid-range acceleration that does not penalise economy. In denying the EcoPower models a 'Turbo' badge, Saab signifies that its newcomer is less a padded-shoulder tearaway than a family express in a green leotard.

There are two versions, the four-door CD, at pounds 18,745, and the five-door CS hatchback - it still looks like a saloon - which costs another pounds 500. (Despite recent price increases, Saab claims that its cars are 10 per cent cheaper in real terms than they were four years ago.) Both are powered by a lightly pressurised 1985cc, 16-valve engine generating 150 horsepower. This is the same output as the non-turbo, 2.3-litre version of the 9000, whose torque (the 'oomph' behind mid-range acceleration) is also much the same.

If there seems on the face of it little to choose between these adjacent models, there is an important difference: unlike the Ecopowers, no 2.3-litre falls below the pounds 19,250 tax threshold for company-car users. Saab says that the EcoPower is peppier than the 2.3. It certainly feels quite lively, responding to the throttle instantly, without the 'lag' or hesitancy that some turbocharged engines show before they take off.

Even when lugging in fourth or fifth, the flexible engine delivers plenty of power for overtaking, if not exactly thrilling acceleration. Lacking the typical turbo's worst and best excesses - lag on the one hand, lunge on the other - the EcoPower behaves more like a normal engine of larger capacity than a small boosted one.

Saab makes much of the EcoPower's modest consumption of unleaded petrol, but its claims are not substantiated by the official figures: the 2.3 non-turbo, for instance, gives more miles per gallon at 56mph and 75mph.

The CS version tested here has had major surgery to make it stronger, prettier, quieter and offers better handling. It is a big, imposing five-seater with acres of room in the back and a colossal boot. Spaciousness is one of the strongest suits of a range that spans a pounds 17,500- pounds 31,000 price band.

Despite its turbocharger, the EcoPower is a lowly model, without the lush, walnut-encrusted cabin of up-range versions. Its dashboard is still an object lesson in applied ergonomics, however, and the big front seats are as comfortable as they come. Included in the tax-beating price are anti-lock brakes, power-assisted steering, central locking and electric

windows.

Driven with spirit, the safe, solid 9000 EcoPower is free from serious shortcomings and is notable more for composure than agility. It does what is demanded of it in a relaxing, competent way, inducing a strong sense of security and well-being.

It is not a charismatic car, but it does have the individuality of a true Saab - of which it may be the last. Although the marque's new owners, General Motors, has promised to retain its traditional strengths, a programme of rationalisation is inevitable.

Comparisons

ALFA ROMEO 164 2.0 Lusso, pounds 18,463. Elegant, well-endowed saloon. Gruff, four-cylinder engine lacks refinement and mid- range punch of sweeter Saab turbo. Pleasant to drive, let down by dashboard detailing. Lovely V6 alternative faster, smoother, thirstier, pricier.

BMW 520i, pounds 18,940. The quality yardstick at this level. Six-cylinder engine smoother and sweeter than the Saab's four, but mid-range acceleration duller. Rear-wheel-drive BMW is less roomy than Saab, but beautifully made and nice to drive.

CITROEN XM 2.0Si, pounds 17,404. No turbocharger here to boost mediocre performance of big, roomy five-door hatchback notable for its self-levelling, anti- lean suspension. Comfortable, accomplished car of character. SEi better equipped, V6 faster, smoother, quieter.

FORD GRANADA 2.0 GHIA, pounds 19,010. Very spacious car, recently facelifted. Latest twin- cam 16-valve engine has improved performance and refinement. Comfortable and well equipped.

VOLVO 850 2.0 GLT, pounds 18,695. Looks like a typical square-cut Volvo but doesn't feel like one. Vocal five-cylinder engine very smooth (go for 2.5 if you want pep as well). Friendly, fluid handling, smooth and comfortable ride. More appealing than it looks.

Specifications

SAAB 9000CS EcoPower pounds 19,245. Engine: 2-litre, four- cylinder, 16-valve turbo twin-cam, 150bhp at 5500rpm. Transmission: five- speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: 0- 60mph in 10 seconds, top speed 127mph.

Fuel consumption: 25-31mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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