I've always had a sneaky admiration for Saab's. In the past they have ploughed on, regardless of fashion with their own idea of what a car should be. Ever since the first 99 Turbo, their staple car has been a turbo charged 4 cylinder, medium-large, front wheel drive hatchback Whilst they have never exactly had cutting edge, jaw dropping, show-car styling, they have always had a handsome square jawed appeal. The chassis has been slowly and consistently developed to handle ever more power, and the engine tweaked in stages to produce higher and higher outputs. Saab have developed an image of their cars being strong, safe, stylish and speedy in what ever order your personal preference is. They have also been moving evermore up market. Of course the more up market you go, the smaller the market volume gets.
So in some ways, it was a good idea of Saab to use the 9000 series to widen the range with conventional saloons complementing the hatchbacks and a V6 motor arriving for those of us who just can't manage with the Turbo 4.
Unfortunately, this moves Saab into direct
competition with Volvo as boy is this one ugly car. The powerful good
looks of the 900 are swept away to be replaced by an angular mess - the aggressive
shark-nosed look of the 900 spoilt by a large overhanging tail. Even
the alloys which can often redeem a car don't help here as they are big ugly
things too. Ah well, at least Saab still play the speed card. Well at least
until the T5 Volvo got in on the act and spoiled the party
Perhaps the long dark winters of the polar extremities of Europe means that styling is really only a minor aspect of car development in Sweden. The flip side is that a car developed to get through a Swedish winter promises to be a more than adequate tool for splashing about through a wet British one. Sportsters and cabriolets may be attractive when the sun's shining but on cold dark winter nights whether or not driving a car is an attractive proposition comes down to somewhat more prosaic matters - like how quick the heater warms up and how good the wipers and lights are. As it was, I was fondling these keys in the dark with a biting wind blowing up my trouser legs so the less than curvaceous bodywork was the last thing on my mind.
Saab adverts of the past have emphasised that Saab also make jet fighters and that's the first impression you get when you sit in the thing. It may be a man thing but I love dials and switches, the more the better. I detest the interiors of 2CV's and Beetles not for the trim and lack of amenities but for their complete absence of dials, buttons, switches and widgets. This Saab is the opposite end of the scale - rafts of them liberally spread around the dash.
This is the kind of dash which would add ten minutes to every journey as I would spend that long adjusting this, that and the other before I even engaged gear. Teen fantasies aside, it's all ergonomically put together within easy non-stretching reach, but I would need to study the manual for a couple of hours just to know what they all do.
But then you can't expect to fly a jet without a little training. Better to spend a couple of hours in front of the T.V with the manual than fumbling about whilst navigating busy wet roundabouts.
When you do finally have command of the operating system, your reward is windows and mirrors that clear instantly, fabulous sound-system and a nicely warmed derriere before your have even escaped the car park.
First impressions are mixed. The car shoots off with power that seems strong even in the low ranges before the turbo starts to spin. But at lowish speeds, down bad roads the ride seems jiggly and unsettled. The clutch seems to have an awkward angle and its floppy at the top of its travel. The steering wheel is also way too low, brushing my knees as it turns. At the first lights,
I drop the seat with the electronic adjuster. The helm is now just about perfect and the clutch action angle much improved, though the vague floppiness at the top is still there, but it may just be a little sloppiness in the pedal as from the point it starts to lift it's firm and precise. It takes a while for my subconscious to adjust to the pedals as the accelerator and clutch have a much longer travel than my normal ride. This isn't a complaint, in fact I prefer it this way. It just takes a while for your brain to engage.
Negotiating my way out of the traffic toward more open roads, I pull in behind an RS1600 Escort. The driver is obviously more used to that car than I am to this one, with the two minutes I've had in it so far and dire warnings of wheel spinning torque steer are still ringing in my ears, The Escort is ducking and diving in and out of traffic, but as we approach the penultimate roundabout before escape onto clear roads, it dives back in front of me, obviously going in the direction I intend to take (at least proving if some of us had a little more patience we would probably all get there a little quicker an less stressed). At least in this Saab, you're fairly anonymous and people don't cut you up because your car looks fast. The looks are so innocuous that other drivers let you in to gaps easily, not like driving a BMW or the like when every one wants to chop you up and nobody will let you in.
Exiting the roundabout, the Escort swerves right then hard left in a flurry of wheelspin and disappears up the dual carriageway. I glide gently through the bends and then press down the accelerator and the distant Escort reels in like a yo yo, the RS isn't slow but this thing rocks. Rolling starts aren't spoiled by the front wheels' inability to grip and with the turbo spinning this car really flies.
|And it flies in style too, you're aware the car is building momentum very quickly, but it's calm and efficient when doing it. You can just sit there, calm and composed whilst the elastic motor gobbles up the road.|
That other Super Swede, the T5 Volvo may have more horses than this, but the Saab puts it down much better. Sure. the turbo gives a great kick. That's exactly why you would want a turbo car, but it doesn't go off like a howitzer. It may be torturing the tyre's underneath, but at least it's not pounding them to death in a wasteful spin. Why anyone would want a V6 version of this Saab or what it can do better, dynamically, I as yet fail to comprehend. It's probably just a V6 with way too much power for the chassis sounds better in marketing terms than a straight 4 with a little too much power for the chassis.
With the speed up, the ride improves combining with the sure-footed chassis to give a composed, stable feel to the whole car. On Motorways, this car just eats up the miles with arrow-straight stability and rock-solid composure.
When pressing on through bends, the effects of all that power running through the front wheels starts to rear its head; the front picks up, the torque is fed back through the steering, tugging at the wheel and in tighter corners, the tyres squeal. Engineers are beginning to question how much power FWD can reasonably handle and 200ish BHP seems to be the number they are suggesting. Once, not many cars could have claimed this type of BHP, but it's getting ever more common.
Where the likes of Saab and Volvo go next is anyone's guess but four-wheel drive seems most likely, considering the Swedes' corporate safety stances. Traction control is becoming more common on cars now, but the fact remains front-wheel drivers will never be able to lay down as much controlled power as rear or four-wheel drivers. Its a matter of physics and maybe the end is in sight for big power front-wheel drive. Either way though, for now, for those of us who aren't lightning reactioned racing drivers, wheel-spinning understeering front-wheel drive is still probably safer than tail-sliding rear-wheel drive.
We've already mentioned the long accelerator travel which is a good thing allowing to finely control the turbo's boost, and the long travel, firm-feeling clutch which allows controlled uptake of drive from a standstill which, combined with the relatively strong bottom-end grunt allows for easy, fast launches which often is not a strong point on turbo or front-wheel drive cars, and especially front-driving turbos. Not so fine though is the gear-shift which is suspiciously Vauxhall-like in feeling and somewhat bulky across the gate, maybe it's to encourage you to use the engine's flexibility rather than ragging the engine through the gears.
Also bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Vectra is the stalk switch-gear, which may work just fine but is really ugly and really, the only down market part of the interior.
Everything apart from the Vectra switch gear is well disguised enough for me not to notice it. Definitely not Vectra though is the rest of the interior. Saab make much of being environmentally friendly and make some wild claims about how their CAT equipped cars actually give out cleaner air than they take in, whilst running through filthy places like London, but giving it a green leather interior is going a bit far. Actually it's quite nice - not as dour as a black interior and probably easier to look after than a crème one. Ergonomically, it's a terrific design - all the clocks before your eyes and for once I can rest both elbows on the arm rests and hold the steering wheel at the same time. The glossy wood finish is a bit on the dark side but looks quite classy unlike some others I could mention.
Everything is electrically powered and moves sweetly and precisely allowing infinite adjustment. The seat even tilt as well giving you total control over its position. Pity then that it lacks a little side bolstering and allows me at least to slide about when cornering hard - must be my petit backside (YOU WISH - 'ED'). My one real gripe is that they could have spread the leather a little more liberally and displayed less of the admittedly quality looking plastics. I didn't bother playing with the in-car computer but instead took strange comfort in the fact it steadfastly reported 29.9mpg average. If only I could believe it, then it would be a remarkable figure, considering the available performance, and my propensity for trying it out. Probably better to ignore it, and not bother with the current consumption either which can only lead to driving like a vicar in slippers when you realise the cost of all this power.
The cabin, like the rest of the car has a very solid and strong feel to it. It really does lead you to imagine that this car would last and look good for years to come. Saabs do have a reputation for being long lasting and those who have them tend to stay with them, which is about as good a recommendation as you can get.
This is a big roomy car. It's solid, safe, practical and yet entertaining enough for most of us when the sun shines and in the depths of winter Swedish cars really are the place to be. For driving experience alone it's a classy ride, with just enough inherent ermmm Swedishness to make it stand out from the Euro Clones.
For most car buyers, the technology of the chassis is probably of little concern, so front-wheel drive won't put them off. They are more interested in paper statistics, equipment and image. Well the stats are fine, there is plenty of equipment and the image is good, but until Saab gets it to look a whole lot better, they will never manage to take on the likes of BMW in this market sector.
For me, I'd quite happily settle for a 2.3 Turbo Aero Saab, but make mine a 900 please.
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