First Drive: Saab Turbo X

Saab Turbo X – Click above for high-res image gallery

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

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