June 23, 2008

Photo Gallery: 2008 Saab Turbo X

Specifications: 2008 Saab Turbo X

The Guide: 2008 Saab Turbo X

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Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario – Saab’s venture into automaking came out of necessity as World War II came to an end and the demand for the military aircraft it produced all but ceased. The decision to diversify by using its engineering and manufacturing strengths to begin making cars likely saved it from ruin.

Given that aircraft manufacturing heritage, Saab’s choice of the Niagara Regional Airport as the venue for the introduction of latest Saab, the 2008 Turbo X, seemed fairly appropriate.

The Turbo X is a limited edition version of the company’s 9-3 model – in sedan or SportCombi wagon form – intended to commemorate thirty years of turbocharged Saabs; a lineage that dates back to the 1978 Saab 99 Turbo.

That first Turbo pressurized a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine with humble Triumph origins. It produced a respectable 135 hp, 20 more than in the naturally aspirated 99, with a commensurate increase in torque.

Equipping a relatively mainstream, everyday passenger car with a turbocharger was an unusual move for the time, though many modern cars – particularly those from Europe – use turbos today.

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Today’s Saab 9-3 models, whether four- or six-cylinder, are all turbocharged. Aero models use a 255-hp, 2.8-litre DOHC V6 that’s a derivative of parent company General Motors’ thoroughly modern “High Feature” V6 engine family, the 3.6-litre non-turbo version of which graces a variety of GM cars and crossovers.

In Turbo X guise it produces a robust 280 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque.

This considerable power output could prove problematic with Saab’s traditional front-wheel drive layout. The Turbo X, then, also introduces the company’s first in-house use of all-wheel drive, which it dubs “XWD”.

Why “X”? Actually, it’s pronounced “cross”, and it denotes this Haldex-made system’s ability to electronically apportion power from side to side on the rear axle. The rear axle’s “eLSD” limited-slip function is actuated by an electronic clutch pack, as is the overall rear torque transfer; both mechanisms are contained within the rear drive module.

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Unlike earlier Haldex systems, which rely on at least some amount of slip to activate (an impressive one-seventh of a wheel rotation on the newest versions), this latest design is proactive, applying the rear torque transfer device during hard acceleration or (to a lesser extent) at low speeds – before wheelspin occurs.

A minimum of 5%, and up to 100% of available torque is sent to the rear axle depending on traction and a variety of factors. XWD also works with the stability control system during cornering acceleration to distribute up to 40% of the rear axle’s torque to the more heavily loaded outside tire by applying the eLSD.

Although a number of automakers currently use Haldex systems (VW/Audi and Volvo, among others), Saab is the first automaker to receive this fourth-generation design – it seems that there’s a family connection between that Swedish company’s founder and Saab’s engineering department that gave them the inside line.

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As noted earlier, this is effectively Saab’s first real all-wheel drive system. Save your letters; the short-lived Subaru Impreza-based 9-2X and 9-7X Chevy Trailblazer-in-drag don’t really count – and I suspect that its availability will have a larger impact on the company’s fortunes than Saab or parent company General Motors expect.

An all-wheel drive option is fast becoming the in-thing in the luxury compact segment that the 9-3 calls home, even for manufacturers not traditionally known for it; look at BMW’s 3-series, Volvo’s S40/S60, Mercedes’ C Class, or even the Lexus IS and Infiniti G. Calgary, with its large affluent population and real Canadian-style winters, would be a perfect example of where you’d want to offer that feature.

Unlike the all-wheel drive systems in many segment competitors, which come solely with automatic trannies, XWD can be paired with either a six speed automatic or a six speed manual. Even in the wagon.

Further, XWD availability is not limited to the Turbo X; it can also be fitted to the Aero versions of both the 9-3 sedan and SportCombi for an additional $2,340. Checking that option box also upgrades the Aero’s 2.8-litre turbo V6 to the same 280 hp as the Turbo X.

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To maintain the Turbo X’s top-tier position within the 9-3 line-up, Saab has removed the first and second gear torque-limiting function from its computer, in the process making it approximately four tenths of a second quicker to 100 km/h than XWD Aeros; Saab predicts a 5.7 second 0-100 km/h run in a manual-shift Turbo X sedan, with the SportCombi just two tenths behind.

Automatic Turbo Xs are notably slower at 7.2 and 7.4 seconds respectively. Frankly, it’s such a nice manual gearbox to drive, it’d be a shame for anyone other than hard-core stop’n go commuters to get the slushbox anyway.

Accommodating the rear-drive system required an extensive redesign of the rear suspension, which gains 83% greater lateral and 60% greater camber stiffness. Nivomat self-levelling rear dampers are standard on XWD models. The total weight penalty is a relatively paltry 87 kg.

As the 9-3 is based on GM’s global Epsilon architecture, it makes sense that XWD or at least AWD will eventually spread to other Epsilon cars – the upcoming Opel Insignia (our eventual Saturn Aura replacement) will offer some form of AWD, for example.

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Driving impressions were limited to a tight autocross-style pylon course set up on the highly abrasive, super-grippy surface of one of Niagara Regional’s runways, with no front-drive models on hand for comparison – but my initial impressions are one of excellent balance and very transparent XWD operation.

Turbo X’s are fitted with 235/45R18 summer tires (on neat-looking six-spoke wheels that recall Saab’s past three-spoke designs), so there was plenty of grip available. The Turbo X’s “ultra performance suspension” gives it a ride height that’s 10 mm lower than XWD-equipped Aero models, putting it roughly at the same height as conventional front-driven 9-3’s, while the front rotors grow to 345 mm in diameter.

Noticeable boost lag – the time between the throttle opening and actual boost production by the turbo – made it difficult to exploit the XWD system’s ability to power the rear of the car around, even on a wet section of the course.

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Ironically, the lone automatic test car proved better during this tight, low-speed exercise, as you could two-foot it to pre-spool the turbo as you entered the turn, giving the XWD some torque to work with, thereby nicely tightening the line around the curve.

All versions felt stable and secure in the higher-speed lane change manoeuvres.

I’d expect that in the real world, XWD’s benefits would become much more obvious. I’ll have to reserve my final judgement of both XWD and the 9-3 until I’ve had the opportunity for a more thorough evaluation.

Available only in Jet Black – how apropos – Turbo X’s can be differentiated from lesser 9-3’s by matte-titanium exterior trim (vs. chrome), unique front and rear fascias, the titanium finished 18 inch wheels, and a pair of rhomboid-shaped exhaust tips – part of a Turbo X-specific, sport-tuned exhaust system.

A matching rhomboid-shaped carbon-fibre keychain comes with each new Turbo X as a keepsake, and it allows me to use “rhomboid” twice in two paragraphs.

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Like the exterior, the interior comes in just one colour – black, of course – and the instrument cluster features a turbo boost gauge that’s styled to look just like the one in the 900 Turbo (which replaced the 99 Turbo in 1979).

As part of the Turbo X’s standard premium leather interior package, everything that looks like leather is, including the door inserts and seatback pockets; no leatherette or simulated surfaces here.

A thin ring of aluminum-coloured trim surrounds the entire upper instrument panel, which works with a few other similarly hued accents to brighten up the coal-bin palette somewhat (black carbon-fibre pieces adorn the glovebox and doors), although it also reflects on the windshield in a very un-Scandinavian manner. Fortunately, polarized sunglasses erase it completely.

I’d opine that the “simple” addition of an all-wheel drive system greatly adds to Saab’s credibility and desirability in this marketplace. Look at how virtually all of the key players are either rear or all-wheel driven; it clearly matters to this buyer group.

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Priced at $54,995 for the Turbo X sedan and $56,305 for the Turbo X SportCombi, this model initially seems a bit expensive when compared to its peers; somewhat less so once you factor in the X’s standard features, which include Nav and adaptive HID headlights.

It’s also worth considering that just 100 of the 2000 units being produced are slated for Canada, so there’s exclusivity and (potentially) collectability too. Plus membership in an ownership group that appreciates Saab’s inherent quirkiness, rhomboids included.

Specifications

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Manufacturer’s web site

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