2008 Saab 9-3 Expert Review
Turbocharging has been as much a part of Saab's DNA for the last three decades as jets. Saab didn't invent turbocharging, but the Swedish brand has probably embraced it more completely than other carmaker. With 2008 marking the 30th birthday of the first production Saab 99 Turbo, the gang in Trollhattan decided to celebrate with their meanest and fastest iteration yet. As we close out the 2008 model year, our Swedish friends are now starting to deliver the direct descendant of that first turbo, the 9-3 Turbo X.
Saab Turbos have come a long way over those three decades. The original 99 Turbo extracted 143 horsepower from its 2.0L four-cylinder engine to twist the front wheels. Most Saabs today are still powered by turbo four-cylinder engines driving those same front wheels. The Turbo X, however, adds two more cylinders and two more drive wheels. It also has nearly double the power and torque of that first effort. Fellow Autoblogger Dan Roth spent the day thrashing the Turbo X at a media preview a couple of weeks ago. We've now had the chance to spend a full week with Saab's newest baby in everyday use.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
When press vehicles get shuffled off from one journalist to the next, occasionally things get bent or broken. Transmissions get destroyed, cars slide off on-ramps, and sometimes engines need repair. That means that the cars that we're scheduled to drive sometimes have to be canceled. Such was the case last week when the Audi TT we were expecting failed to arrive, leaving us trying to find a replacement for an upcoming weekend road trip. Fortunately, the GM press fleet manager called up less than 24 hours later to let me know the Turbo X had just arrived in the fleet. Barely 24 hours after that call I was signing for the keys to the sinister looking black Saab.
The Turbo X is the newest derivative of Saab's mainstream 9-3 lineup. The 9-3 is built on the same global Epsilon platform used for most of GM's mid-sized models. In addition to the 9-3, Epsilon is used for the Chevy Malibu, Saturn Aura, Opel Vectra and others. Although the next generation Epsilon II debuts this summer with the Opel Insignia, The Epsilon I used for the Turbo-X is still a fine architecture.
For 2008 the 9-3 got a major visual refresh, primarily in the front. The new face draws a lot from recent Saab concepts like the Aero X. The three port grille now looks much more aggressive and has more visual distinction than the previous edition.
Anyone familiar with Saabs of yore will feel instantly at home in the Turbo X. Like almost all Saabs, the key goes in the center console aft of the shift lever. By my fourth day with the Turbo X, I was almost consistently remembering not to reach behind the steering wheel. Unfortunately, the car that GM sent over was saddled with the six-speed automatic rather than the three-pedal shift-for-yourself gearbox. Saab does provide manual shift switches on the steering wheel, however, so you don't have to use the gear shift.
The air vents at the outboard of the dash and top of the center stack feature a little joystick in the middle that allow you guide the air where you want it to go. The temperature of the air coming out of those vents can be individually managed and automatically regulated for each of the front seats via the knobs lower down on the stack. Unlike many other current the GM products, the On-Star buttons are located just above the climate control knobs instead of on the rear view mirror. Front and center in the top of the stack is the same standard issue double-Din radio used on most other mainstream GM models like the Malibu and Aura.
At a starting price of nearly $42K you might think a head unit with a nav system should be a standard offering, but as is so often the case, that's a $2,145 extra. Regardless of its feature set, the standard radio sounds decent and is straightforward to use. As in all other applications of this unit, it also has the standard 1/8" plug on the front allowing you toplug in your iPod or other audio player (for the four of you out there using some other brand).
Aside from the odd-ball location of the key, the only other quibble we had with the interior layout was the location of the release for the steering wheel adjustment. The wheel is adjustable for both reach and rake. Unfortunately, the release is so far down the column, that after making an adjustment and trying the re-lock it, the steering wheel usually ends up moving again.
One button unique to Saabs is the Night Panel switch. Pressing the button at night switches off all the dash lighting except for the speedometer and even switches off the tachometer. Another thoughtful feature of the interior is the ribbed rubber inserts in the bottom of the storage cubbies in the center console. Cell phones and iPods placed in these compartments no longer slide around when cornering.
One element that certainly can't be faulted on the 9-3 is the seats. They were extremely comfortable over a three and a half hour drive from Ann Arbor to Yellow Springs, OH. Up to three combinations of seat and mirror positions could be stored in memory, which was handy as the test unit had an odd quirk that was likely a software bug. Every time I got out of the car and closed the door, the driver side mirror dipped down to look at the ground. Being able to just press the memory button restored it back to it's previous position. Once correctly positioned though, the Saab seats do a great job of keeping the driver correctly oriented during hard cornering allowing full mental effort to focused on positioning the car instead of the posterior.
Mechanically, the main thing that distinguishes the Turbo X from its lesser 9-3 siblings is the higher output 2.8L turbocharged V6. Compared to the Aero, the X picks up an extra 25 hp and 32 lb-ft of torque (now at 280hp and 295lb-ft). This engine is a smaller displacement variant of the 3.6L high feature V6 used in a range of GM products worldwide and, as always, it's smooth running and in this form has plenty of torque in the meat of the rpm range.
Unfortunately, if you're cruising along with the revs at around 2 grand, a quick stab at the throttle incites a momentary pause as the turbo spins up to generate some boost. Once that happens though, the Turbo X just leaps forward and takes no prisoners. The single turbo layout and lack of direct injection are probably to blame for the lag here. Getting more power typically requires a bigger turbo to generate more boost, and the resulting increase in inertia usually brings with it lag.
Hopefully next time around GM will see fit to use two smaller turbos that spin up faster and still generate the same or more combined boost. Migrating the direct injection system from the bigger 3.6L in the Cadillac CTS would also help as the engine could then run higher compression without risking knock. That would further fatten the bottom of the torque curve and improve overall responsiveness.
That responsiveness wasn't helped by the automatic transmission, at least in its default mode. The programming obviously was optimized to get the utmost out of the EPA driving cycle and wanted to keep the engine revs down. When pulling out to pass it wasn't particularly inclined to downshift and launches were less than thrilling.
Conveniently, Saab actually builds in a very simple solution to this behavior. Next to the radio is a button labeled with an 'S' and a little gear shift icon. A quick press of the button switches the transmission shift logic to Sport Mode and makes it behave the way a performance-oriented driver would row a manual box. Shifts are sharper and happen NOW. The other thing it does is downshift during decceleration inducing some engine braking. The result is that on corners the transmission is now in something closer to the optimum gear for accelerating out the other side. If someone could just figure out which bit to flip in the powertrain control so that sport mode was the default when starting the car, it would be much more in keeping with the character of the car.
Easily the most annoying aspect of the Turbo-X is the exhaust note. It's not annoying all the time, just in the range from about 2,000- 2,400 RPM. Like far too many "sporty" cars today, the exhaust has a droning sound in that range. Above and below that range the tone is fine, but in that region it has a constant low frequency sound that is just plain awful. It's not like a rumble or roar that implies power, but more like the coffee can mufflers you find on so many tuner cars.
This might not be a problem were it not for the fact that 70 MPH in 6th gear equates to about 2,100 RPM. That means that cruising at the legal speed limit on most American highways subjects occupants of the car to this sound. I did find a work around, though. Popping the shifter into manual mode and downshifting to 5th brings the speed up to 2,500 RPM and the sound magically disappears along with some extra gas.
While I didn't have the opportunity to really thrash the Turbo X on a track or push it too hard on the road, the cross-wheel-drive system demonstrated its worth every time the car accelerated. Even with all that power, the Turbo X never exhibited even the slightest hint of torque steer. Like Acura's Super Handling-All Wheel Drive and BMW's xDrive, the Haldex system vectors torque to the wheels not only with the most grip, but also to help the car go in the direction that the driver is requesting. Signals from the stability control system are fed to the drive control, which helps reduce the need for braking the wheels and also cutting engine torque.
Accelerating through corners or on-ramps, the Turbo X always felt neutral and went directly where it was pointed. For a sporting car like this, the Turbo X has a good ride for everyday commuting without pounding the occupants. During my driving, the car averaged 22 mpg, which probably would have been 1-2 mpg more if I had left the transmission in 6th on the highway. Saab claims a 16.2-gallon fuel tank, but before I filled the tank the gauge was reading empty and the cluster showed a distance to empty of 10 miles. However, the tank would only take 13.7 gallons. Since I wasn't inclined to drive the car until it died, I'm not sure if the gauge was just being really conservative or there is an error somewhere.
Overall, the Saab Turbo X is a fun car to drive and, aside from the exhaust note, is a great long distance cruiser. The only option missing from this car was the nav system, while the automatic transmission, Touring and Cold Weather packages bring the bottom line to $45,305 including destination charges. You can get the Turbo X in Jet Black Metallic, Jet Black Metallic, Jet Black Metallic, or Jet Black Metallic. Is it worth $45K? Only the buyer can decide, but for Saab-o-philes or anyone looking for a fun sport sedan, it's certainly an eminently viable option.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
click above image to view more high-res shots of the 2008 Saab 9-3
The 9-3 received a mid-cycle enhancement for 2008 that's comprised mostly of tweaks to its exterior styling. The front end now wears a grille inspired by the Aero X concept that debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in 2006. It's a handsome face for Saab, which in deference to tradition must always incorporate a three-part grille evoking the brand's heritage in aviation.
Read on as we report on our brief time spent behind the wheel of the new 9-3 at GM's Milford Proving Grounds last week.
All photos ©2007 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.
The inside of our 9-3 tester was exhibited the stark contrast of light sandy beige leather set against the black dash. The shape of the instrument panel carries over, while we encountered a simpler interface with less buttons than recent Saabs we remember.
The 9-3 is still based on GM's Epsilon platform, which it shares with other cares like the Opel Vectra and Cadillac BLS in Europe. The Saturn Aura and upcoming Chevy Malibu are based on a stretched version of the same platform. As such, we weren't expecting anything exciting when we started off on the prepared four-mile test course that GM had set up for us. And we didn't encounter anything exciting. The 2008 Saab 9-3 handles predominantly like it did before, which is to say predictably and without much fuss.
The test course provided many different types of surfaces, including simulated pot hole-riddled roads and low- to high-frequency sin waves. The 9-3 felt solid over most surfaces, exhibiting no squeaks or rattles despite its suspension being tasked to the limit.
The 9-3 is, of course, driven by its front wheels, so understeer was predictably present. We don't imagine many 9-3 owners floor the accelerator when exiting turns around town, but if they did, they'd find their intended line would widen a bit. The car's brakes, as well, were adequate for their intended duties, and the pedal feel felt good.
Our particular tester was powered by Saab's 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder, which was mated to a 5-speed "Sentronic" automatic. This engine mated to this transmission makes for an unexciting pair. The 2.0L feels too small for the 3,230 lb. car before the turbo kicks in, which makes a full-on acceleration run feel lazy at best. Even when the turbo spools up, the power delivered isn't impressive. As for the 5-speed automatic, we found the manual shifting capability to be as disappointing as every other we've tested. It's slow to shift when asked, and will often make up its own mind near redline before you have the chance. Keep this one in auto mode and forget about it.
We're sure the Aero model's 2.8L turbocharged V6 goes a long way in alleviating the lethargy felt in our 9-3 tester, but with mid-size family sedans from Honda, Toyota and others offering over 260 HP from larger 3.5L V6 engines, what's the point in buying a more expensive Saab? We imagine there are many happy Saab owners out there who can answer that question for you. Nevertheless, we found the 9-3 on hand at Milford excelled in its ability to be average at everything.
All photos ©2007 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.
Expansive blue skies set the scene for a perfect spring day in New England as an enthusiastic team from Saab greeted us journalist types and eagerly showed off the Swedish brand's newest top-level sedan, the TurboX. After a quick Powerpoint chat with Saab USA GM Steve Shannon and a stroll under a TurboX that was hoisted on a lift, we were making use of the Big Dig highway improvements on our way to several hours of blissful thrashing. Federal dollars never sounded so good as we held the turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 in first gear, happily snarling along in the upper reaches of the tachometer and turning the underground portions of the highway into a gigantic reverberator.
Photos: Zane Merva/AutoInsane
The biggest news about the Turbo X is the fitment of the Haldex 4.0 all-wheel-drive system to its existing Epsilon architecture. Saab has named it XWD, pronounced "Cross Wheel Drive," as a nod to the system's torque vectoring capabilities across the rear axle. According to engineering overlord Tommy Sundin, the challenge was putting new hardware into an old car and making the new parts play nice with all the other systems. The all-wheel-drive fitment will propagate to other GM models on the same platform, Aura and Malibu for example, but Saab gets to launch the configuration as a reward for its hard work on development. Initially available in the Turbo X and 9-3 Aero, all Saabs will eventually have XWD as an option.
Sundin and team worked hard to not only add the new hardware with an absolute minimum of bodyshell changes, but make the driving experience befitting of the fastest Saab ever. Only six small brackets were necessary to add the lightweight Haldex setup to the body structure, though an entirely new rear suspension bolts in place of the front-wheel-drive car's rear axle. The rear suspension incorporates a fat anti-roll bar, Boge Nivomat self-leveling shock absorbers, and in the TurboX, an electronic limited-slip differential that marshals thrust between the two rear wheels.
Saab's variant of General Motors' high-feature LP9 V6 carries a turbocharger and delivers a table-flat torque curve with 295 lb-ft on tap from 1,900 rpm. 2.8 responsive liters produce 280 horsepower, and Saab says the trip to 60 mph takes 5.4 seconds for a sedan with a manual transmission. On our highway run to the event location, we were impressed with the solid way the Turbo X tracks. The steering is well weighted and informative without being busy. Expansion gaps are mostly heard and not felt, as the suspension swallowed sharp transient impacts with aplomb, and we had a hard time restraining the right foot. Out on the road, the secure ride and tossable handling make the Turbo X a traffic Sabre Jet, and the turbocharged V6 is punchy with minimal lag, making a sound nearly as heavenly as what emanates from BMW's twin turbo three-liter.
Once at the demonstration track, engineer Sundin encouraged flattening the go pedal through the slalom, saying, "if you're a good driver, you'll be able to keep the pedal down until the last set of cones." Gauntlet thrown, off we went. First up was an automatic-equipped sedan. A few seconds putting the transmission in sport mode and disabling the stability control, and we were off. Sundin was right, we didn't have any trouble zipping through the slalom, though at one point overcooking the entry to a sweeper delivered a firsthand lesson in how easy the TurboX is to recover from understeer. The stability control would have saved us from nearly nosing off the course, but we were doing our hairy-chested "auto-journo" bit, so we had to regain composure the old way – waiting. Even without electronic assistance, the TurboX is eminently recoverable if you get it out of shape, an excellent trait for a vehicle that will likely be pressed into some family hauling duties. The chassis setup is lively, even willing to rotate and be steered with the throttle.
Sand had been laid down at the apex of a corner to demonstrate the XWD's low-traction prowess. While the Turbo X will slide around a little on the loose surface, the fast reacting Haldex hardware copes well with the reduced traction. All out spins had to be intentionally provoked, either by massive application of the throttle, or a yank on the parking brake lever.
A manual transmission SportKombi was next, making us forget the automatic entirely. While the auto is generally good, it's slow-witted compared to the standard, even when shifted by the thumb triggers on the steering wheel. It's a lot easier to dance the standard-transmission TurboX around the track at 9/10s, its shifter offers smooth throws and pedals facilitate heel-toe shifting. Where the manual shines, the automatic is slightly dopey – left in normal mode, the automatic has an affinity for getting into high gear; not great when you're exiting a sweeping turn and it needs to perform a time-consuming downshift. Shifting the automatic manually mitigates most of the complaints, though it still requires anticipatory button presses – you have to ask for the shift before you actually need it. The manual transmission allows fast gearchanges, letting you be in the right ratio to lay down the power exiting a turn. Out on the open road, however, either transmission proves fully satisfactory.
Only 600 of the 2,000 total Turbo X models are headed to the United States, and about half are already spoken for. That exclusivity is conveyed by the exterior of the sparkly-black sedans that get 18-inch wheels shod in Pirelli P-Zero Neros, a deeper spoiler, titanium-finished trim, and rhomboid exhaust tips. Inside, the comfortable and supportive seats are wrapped in soft leather, and there's a "heritage" boost gauge marked off in three colors as a nod to the 1978 Saab 99 Turbo that started it all. The ergonomics inside are well-considered, as playing up the "Born From Jets" theme has actually made the driver's work area easy to operate.
Saab's TurboX is a vehicle you can mention in the same breath as the BMW 3-series without any shame, and with prices in the low $40,000 range, that's the company this car will be keeping. While it may give up some absolute numbers to other vehicles, especially in the dry, there's a much smaller dropoff in performance when conditions turn nasty. The demeanor is easy to live with, while the performance envelope is elevated beyond anything else Saab makes. Tommy Sundin and his engineering team deserve kudos for the fantastic way they've tuned the Epsilon platform and seamlessly integrated the quick-witted Haldex hardware. The TurboX is an all-weather performance sedan that's able to run with the segment's big dogs, and even pull them out of the ditch on the way to the ski resort. Saab's calling it a future classic in the vein of the SPG and "Black Turbo" before it; time will tell, but we think the potential is there.
Photos: Zane Merva/AutoInsane
New Car Test Drive
New looks, more power; available all-wheel drive.
Saab is a small Swedish car company with a long history in rallying on the one hand and safety research on the other, with a small but loyal following around the world. It has been effectively turned into the American marketing arm of Germany's Opel by its owner, General Motors, using many parts, systems and chassis also used by GM's German brand.
For 2008, Saab 9-3 benefits from more powerful engines and a radical new front and rear-end redesign. The cabin is largely unchanged. Saab claims that, in addition to the new look, front, side and rear, it has made some 2157 changes to the details of the 9-3.
On freeways, we found the 9-3 rides quietly and lets you listen to the music. The front-wheel-drive Saab 9-3 Aero V6 we drove was smooth and quick. On back roads, the handling was responsive; it handled bumps well, in corners and over rises. The seats are comfortable.
All-wheel drive will be available on late-2008 Saab 9-3 models. The XWD all-wheel-drive system is made by the Swedish company Haldex, which also supplies systems to Volvo, Ford, Jaguar, Volkswagen, and Audi. It's the fourth-generation system, and it is said by Saab to be the fastest-acting, best all-around system in the world, moving engine torque from front to back and side to side as needed, and using an optional eLSD electronic limited-slip differential at the rear that can juggle up to 4 percent of the supplied torque between the left and right tire as necessary. Saab claims an Aero V6 XWD can outrun a $150,000 Porsche 911 Turbo through a slalom with this system.
The 2008 Saab 9-3 lineup includes six models, starting with the 2.0T sedan ($28,385) packing the turbo four-cylinder engine. The 2.0T is available with a choice of six-speed manual, five-speed automatic or six-speed automatic.
The 2.0T Convertible ($39,710) and 2.0T SportCombi wagon ($29,630) are similarly equipped.
The Aero models all carry turbocharged V6 engines and some additional standard equipment here and there, and are restricted to the six-speed automatic transmission only. The Aero V6 sedan ($35,365), the Aero V6 convertible ($45,665), and the Aero V6 SportCombi wagon ($36,265) are similarly equipped. All models come with a $745 destination charge built into the stated price. When you buy an Aero version of any model, a two-day trip to the Saab Aero Academy driving school at Road Atlanta is included.
Options include a moonroof package ($1200), a premium package ($1695), cold weather package ($550), and a touring package ($895). There are two levels of navigation systems, at $2145 and $2840, two levels of sound system upgrade with CD changer, $895 and $995, metallic paint ($550), a roof rack ($250), leather upholstery ($1500), automatic transmission ($1350), and five-spoke alloy wheels ($750).
When the XWD (cross-wheel-drive) versions arrive this winter, they will come only as Aero V6 models, and they will come only with a special high-output, high-boost-turbo engine package that makes 280 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque. Although prices haven't been set yet for this new top-of-the-range model, we expect it to be about $2000 more for the big engine and all-wheel-drive system. It will be available on the sedan and SportCombi versions, but not on the convertible, which uses a reinforced floor pan that won't accommodate the rear-axle assembly for the drive system.
Safety features include front, side and curtain airbags, ABS, traction control, and electronic stability control as an option. With its crash-resistant structure and features, the 9-3 has been awarded a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for three years in a row.
The bold new nose on the 2008 Saab 9-3 is a direct descendant of the nose on the Aero-X concept coupe that Saab displayed on the auto show circuit a couple of years ago, and that, coupled with the complete absence of Saab's traditional black side-molding for door protection, is the biggest clue that this is the new 9-3.
The tail lights have been redesigned for 2008 along with the hood, grille, bumper, and headlights. Also new are the doors and door handles. All models have side sill extensions for an extra measure of sportiness.
That adds up to a total of 70 percent new body panels.
The new nose works very well in the wind tunnel, yielding a drag coefficient of 0.28 for the sedan, a very good number.
Saab spent all of its budget money for the 2008 9-3 update on the body, the engine upgrades, and the XWD system, so there was little left over to redesign the interior, which is why it looks so similar to the interior in the outgoing version of the 9-3.
All models will come with black, not gray, instrument panels, and have OnStar, XM Satellite Radio, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a built-in tire-pressure monitoring system as standard equipment. A hot Bose 11-speaker sound system will be optional on late-2008 models.
A few subtle differences distinguish the cabins of the 2.0T and Aero models, with the latter getting metallic trim on the steering wheel and some additional standard equipment.
The ignition key is mounted in the center console, although it is now a fully electronic key, and there are up/down shifting buttons for the automatic transmission mounted on the three-spoke steering wheel. There are storage cubbies in the dash, console and doors, and the console can be customized to an extent when ordering.
The Saab born-from-jets design ethic is nowhere more apparent than in the design of the seats, steering wheel, and instrument panel.
The seats are extremely comfortable and supportive, with lots of adjustment range built in, the steering column is adjustable for both rake and reach, and the wraparound instrument panel is high-mounted and compact, so that only quick glances are necessary to monitor all functions.
An optional Profiler system consists of a set of steering wheel-mounted controls and a 6.5-inch-wide color display screen at the top center of the instrument panel that will read out climate control, clock/alarm, speed, wipers, anti-theft system, seat heating, park assist, telephone, voice activation, and other functions. The Profiler, and the rest of the dashboard displays, can be dimmed or turned off completely, with a Night Panel feature Saab has used for years.
We wish we could tell you more about the XWD all-wheel-drive system, but the fact is, we were only in the demonstrator vehicle for a couple of minutes, testing the car's abilities through a full-throttle slalom course where it worked beautifully.
The rest of the time, we were in a front-wheel-drive 9-3 Aero V6, with its dazzling new looks in jet black and 10 more horsepower than the previous 9-3. We could feel the extra power through the six-speed automatic transmission, a transmission we left under manual control pretty much all day long so we could use the shifter paddles on the steering wheel.
The turbocharged V6 may be small by competitive standards at only 2.8 liters, but, at just under nine pounds of boost, it is a model of efficiency, smoothly and quietly bringing the power on and keeping it on until it runs out of revs. Saab says this engine will propel the new 9-3 from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds, and it certainly feels strong and sounds good doing it. One of the 2157 changes Saab boasts is the addition of a quiet package standard on all models, so the car definitely sounds more refined than before.
The dynamics of the new 9-3 are very similar to the outgoing model, because nothing major has been changed. The body and chassis are extremely stiff. The suspension is nicely isolated and very good in handing terms, with built-in rear-steering. The steering is both light and quick, the brakes are very big for the car's size and weight, very powerful and highly resistant to fade.
Driving this car, with all of its chassis, suspension and electronic aids, is a pleasure because it responds so quickly and so well over bumps, into holes, around corners and over rises. Driving on freeways, the 9-3 just settles down quietly and lets you listen to the music.
The 2008 Saab 9-3 is the prettiest, sportiest Saab ever built. It offers a great combination of performance, comfort, and space, and real-world gas mileage that won't break the family piggybank. The 9-3 does business in a crowded part of the market, the $35,000 near-luxury segment, and it's a worthy competitor, with lots of built-in value and a long-standing reputation for active and passive safety.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Washington.
Saab 9-3 2.0T; Aero; Aero XWD.
Options As Tested
Saab 9-3 Limited sedan ($28,385).
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