The Independent Road Test: Turbo pioneer thrives on pressure: Saab was the first company in Europe to mass-produce turbocharged cars, and remains committed to them. Roger Bell drives its latest 900 SE Coupe

Saabs and turbochargers go together like Torvill and Dean. Both make for a fluent partnership. In 1977, Sweden's second car-maker was Europe's first to go into volume production with an engine force-fed by an exhaust-driven air pump to boost performance.

Today, almost half the cars Saab makes have turbochargers - the key to the engine of the future, according to company boffins who champion the device's cause vociferously. And Saab's latest turbocharged models, which inject some welcome pizzazz into the hitherto lacklustre 900 range, display little of the all-or-nothing characteristics that flawed the original 'blown' 99.

The 900 Turbo's power delivery is not only potent and effortless but also smoother and quieter than that of the alternative V6 engine (which Saab, now part of General Motors, shares with Vauxhall and Opel). It is rare for a four-cylinder engine to outrank a six-cylinder.

Although an inhibitor cuts power in first and second gears - a safety ploy that helps to curb wheelspin - there's real kick-in-the-back vigour in third. Balance shafts, which minimise harshness and vibration, account for the engine's remarkable refinement; high gearing is the secret of its loping motorway stride. Off-boost fuel efficiency and low emissions are other strong suits. (Saab fits its low-pressure turbos with a device that heats the fuel mixture to reduce cold-start pollution).

Managed by a 32-bit computer more powerful than the one that helped take men to the Moon, the turbo engine is available in the existing five-door car and a more attractive new three-door hatchback Saab calls a coupe. It is nothing of the sort, despite the 'fastback' tail and neat side windows. Slide-and- tip front seats make access to the back easier, and there is as much room in the back as in the five-door. Saab has introduced useful side- pocket stowage in the back to supplement the huge boot.

Embracing two body styles and four engines, the 900 series is now quite broadly spread. Prices range from under pounds 15,000 for the coming base 2.0 to about pounds 22,000 for the flagship Turbo SE, which is fitted with handling-biased suspension that makes the ride too harsh and clonky. The softer springs and damping of the cheaper Turbo S (on which 'sports' suspension is optional) are probably a better compromise.

GM's influence is more evident in Saab's streamlined operation - since 1990, the workforce has been cut from 15,000 to below 8,000 - than in the evolutionary 900 Turbo, which retains its predecessor's character and idiosyncrasies, despite Opel-derived underpinnings. Saab devotees will feel at home with the slab-dashed cockpit, upright driving position, between-the-seats ignition key (infuriating until you are used to it) and joystick facia vents. Such details count to those seeking individuality in a car that faces formidable competition, not least from BMW and its Rover subsidiary.

If not quite as crisp and agile as some rivals - the best true coupes (for example, the VW Corrado VR6) are in another league dynamically - the Turbo SE is quite entertaining to drive. Justification for the hard suspension is found in clean, even-keeled cornering and a strong grip. Although safety is a byword at Saab, which reckons to protect its dummies even better than Volvo, the passenger's airbag costs extra. Anti-lock brakes, pre-tensioned seatbelts and an integrated safety cage are standard in a car that feels solid and looks well made.

COMPARISONS

Audi 80 2.6 SE, pounds 20,041

Safe, well-built, four-door saloon with strong, smooth, V6 engine. Capable but characterless and lacks Saab 900's individuality.

BMW 325i Coupe, pounds 22,650

No more a real coupe than the three-door 900 but terrific performance and fine handling. Saab's four-cylinder turbomotor so good it compares well with BMW's definitive 24-valve straight-six. Costly extras can make nonsense of price.

Rover 623 GSi, pounds 22,950

Great looks, a classy cabin and lots of equipment. Well made and pleasant to drive, but lacks the pace and charisma of cheaper Saab 900 Turbo, and its engine is not as smooth and quiet.

Vauxhall Calibra V6, pounds 20,230

A real coupe, albeit an unusually roomy one that passes muster as a family car. Strong performance from smooth, strident engine (also available in the Saab 900). Sloppy handling: GM's German stronghold could learn a thing or two about suspension design from its Swedish affiliate.

VW Golf VR6 three-door, pounds 18,190

Quicker, more nimble than Saab 900 Turbo - and pounds 2,500-plus cheaper. In style and detail, less of an individualist. Smooth, punchy V6 engine is a gem. But reports of reliability problems in the specialist press have undermined its quality image.

Specifications

Saab 900 Turbo SE Coupe, pounds 21,895

Engine: 1,985cc, four cylinders, twin camshafts, 16 valves, two balancer shafts, 185bhp at 5,500rpm. Transmission: five- speed manual gearbox (no auto option), front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 8 seconds, top speed 143mph, fuel consumption 25-35mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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