Saab 9000 Turbo 16
Since the Saab aircraft factories turned to building cars after the Second World War, there have arguably been only three generations of Saabs: The early cars up to the 96, had a certain hunchbacked appeal; what the French would call a jolie-laide quality. Their successor, the 99, was on the other hand a rather attractive car, whose looks went wrong when it was stretched into the 900 range which did not stop it forging a position amongst the more luxurious and comfortable saloons.
Now Saab’s designers are back on course with a handsome fiveseater “cornbi-sedan”, which neatly uses a strong C-pillar treatment to disguise a large hatch, giving extra versatility to a car which will comfortably seat three adults in the back seats. The rather high waistline allows the bonnet to fall smoothly to the nose, even though the engine is mounted cross-wise slightly ahead of the front wheels, and an even slimmer version of the Saab grille is featured in the low and wide frontal aspect.
Although Fiat, Lancia, and Saab spokesmen must be tired of pointing out that almost no components are interchangeable the family resemblance amongst the Croma, Thema and 9000 (all the products of a part-shared project together with a forthcoming Alfa Romeo) is strong: the thick-framed side windows, concealed roof guttering and the smooth, rather square door profiles being the most obvious features. Within its long (105in) wheelbase, the Saab provides abundant leg-and head-room and the asymmetrically-split rear seat can be folded down to make a flat space of a full 5 ft 8 in long. Tools fit neatly into a compartment in the right-hand panel, and the space-saver spare lies flat under the floor. The hatch itself, though supported on two gas struts, is extremely heavy to lift, and while it is an advantage that it opens clear of the head, short people are going to find it difficult to reach up to close it. A minor annoyance was that the removable rear parcel shelf does not close with the hatch and has to be folded down first.
Driving comfort is first-rate: the firm seats include lumbar adjustment and a particularly welcome variable thigh support, while the belt anchorages move with the seat and have push-button height adjustment. The thick wheel adjusts for reach but not tilt, and through it the large central speedometer. smaller tachometer, and subsidiary fuel, temperature and boost gauges are clearly seen. Below these is a normally invisible forest of symbols, which only register when requiring attention — for instance, I knew immediately when a tail light failed during the test. There is also a trip computer option (£250), but the only feature of this I might have been interested in (distance to empty tank, varied so much as to be of no practical help: the device logically, but uselessly, computes on instantaneous consumption, so that while climbing a hill it reads 92 miles. but on descending seconds later it claims 190.
The test car had both air-conditioning and Automatic Climate Control (£550 and £845 respectively) to feed its many outlets, the fascia grilles are controlled through a particularly clever joystick principle. ACC holds the temperature constant under all conditions once it has been set. switching the a/c in and out, altering fan speeds and turning on the heated rear window and mirrors when necessary, but like in so many continental cars, there is no provision for unheated or cooler air to keep the driver alert while his feet are warm. It seems that this is a Peculiarly British desire which foreign manufacturers find difficult to understand, but I certainly find this a valuable comfort and safety aid on a long night motorway haul.
Travelling sensations are of a very refined order in the Saab 9000: a rather gentle ride is coupled with good noise suppression, interrupted only by the thump of the wide (205) tyres on cats-eyes and the like. McPherson struts locate the front wheels, while the rear runs on the traditional Saab dead axle with two fore and two aft links plus a Panhard rod. Mounting the coil springs on the leading links keeps these low-down, allowing long suspension travel without too much intrusion into the boot-space, and the chassis copes well with holes and bumps.
Perhaps reflecting the ”executive’ market envisaged for the 9000, the power-assisted rack and pinion steering is very light — much too light in fact for such a powerful front-wheel-drive car masking a lot of road feel. On a soaking test track bend I saw the front of the car skate bodily sideways over standing water without feeling anything through the wheel, and this is a shame since the grip and balance of the chassis are of a very high order indeed. Turn into a bend on a trailing throttle, and the car will naturally understeer, accelerate and, like any front-wheel-drive car, it will immediately tighten its line. But where the Saab feels different is that it suddenly becomes virtually neutral — it almost feels as if it is about to oversteer, so that one backs off the lock steadily as the speed builds up. Once used to it, this is a very confidence-inspiring characteristic which can produce very high cornering forces; the problem is that the effect of backing off again is amplified by the large torque reversal fed through the tyres as the engine suddenly comes off boost. In other words, lots of understeer in mid-bend.
This characteristic, common to all hard-driven twd cars, is exacerbated by the severe step in the Saab’s power curve as the turbo chimes in, which it does at some 3.000 rpm. Off boost in the lower gears the car feels quite embarrassingly slow, for instance sprinting
into a gap on a roundabout — then suddenly with a belt in the back the tach needle is into the red and another gear is required. If the road is wet, on the other hand, the wheels will be spinning furiously with little forward motion or steering. The obvious response is to use less throttle — which brings us back to the surprising sluggishness off the turbo, considering the cr of 9:1, relatively high for a supercharged engine.
Even in the dry, the sudden surge of power causes a pronounced torque-steer effect in second or third gear which combines with the over-responsive steering to cancel the advantages of the otherwise excellent straight-line stability that the car exhibits even in cross-winds.
Apart from these torque characteristics, the 16-valve unit feels very smooth and quite quiet despite having chain, rather than belt-driven cams, and at higher speeds the acceleration is phenomenal. A breath of throttle whisks the Saab well into the disqualification zone with a 50-70 mph figure (in third) of 3.7 sec. and 70-90 (in fourth) taking 7.5 sec, both of which comfortably beat the Cosworth Mercedes 190 2.3-16 in the same gears. At the end of the Bruntingthorpe test straight 134 mph came up with a little in hand which would almost definitely confirm Saab’s claimed 137 mph. but the pouring rain precluded checking the makers 0-60 mph figure of 7.9 sec.
On the motorway, the Saab is a superb rapid cruiser which is merely dawdling at Britain’s speed limit, requiring a lot of concentration to keep the speed down. The alternative is to engage the cruise control, operated by a left-hand stalk and which works very smoothly. However, I cannot accept that the driver using one of these devices is reacting to varying circumstances which he ought to be aware of ahead or behind. A rigidly fixed speed precludes the constant small adjustments in speed relative to other traffic which a driver should be prepared for, pacing his over-taking so as to slot smoothly behind a faster vehicle or backing off just a little well in advance so as to avoid the last minute “will I, wont I” brake or overtake decision.
Visibility is good, the broad C-posts being sufficiently far back not to be obstructive, and of course the Saab, in accordance with Sweden’s laws, has daytime running lights. Having driven in Sweden, there seem to be pros and cons for this principle — the lights certainly pick out a vehicle in the distance, or in the corner of the eye, but in heavy traffic it is less easy to follow the paths of individual cars in one’s mirror. The inclined power unit makes a tidy package which fills the engine bay to overflowing, with a large intercooler between the radiator and the front-mounted turbocharger. Bosch fuel injection is linked to Saab’s Automatic Performance Control system which enables the engine to burn petrol as low as 91 octane, and a sophisticated idle-speed control copes with varying loads and temperature. In addition, the airconditioner is automatically switched off during hard acceleration.
Leather seats were a feature of the test car, and details such as the individual door entry lights and reading lamps confer extra luxury. Electric windows and mirrors are included, and overall refinement is high. A rather notchy gearchange can slow down the rush of acceleration, but all controls fall easily to hand. As a family express, or sports saloon, the Turbo 16 is a supremely capable car marred by its over-light steering and the fierce transition onto turbo-boost, it is perhaps one of that small number of cars which might shine with a (currently unavailable) automatic gearbox. — G.C.