Individual Swedish Speed
“Performance with responsibility” is the Saab sales slogan for the early Nineties, but any technically aware reader might wonder at the validity of such a statement when the Carlsson derivative that we test this month harvests 220 bhp for delivery to the front wheels only. Surely this sort of turbocharged power — on a par with the most powerful production Audi quattro — can only be sensibly applied through all-wheel drive?
It is odd that Scandinavians Saab (and countrymen Volvo) seem set resolutely against the general production of 4WD variants, but Saab at least have a partial adhesion answer in the form of their electronically activated Traction Control System (TCS). The TCS feature is one of many standard items that are included in the Carlsson flagship to the turbocharged 9000/CD (4-door saloon) line.
How does the Carlsson nomenclature fit into the turbocharged Saab range? In the adaptable hatchback outline it builds an an already extensive specification, one that traces back to the £22,195 2.3 turbo. This model has the production 200 bhp soothed by counter-balancer shafts and lists electronic anti-lock braking as standard, along with powered operation of steering, side glass, sunroof and mirrors. An S variant then adds £1500 to the list price and offers leather seating, aluminium wheels and cruise control. Another £2000 for 2.3 turbo SE brings a lot of executive toys (from wood veneers to computer and standard automatic transmission). A near £27,000 Carlsson delivers the no-cost option of automatic or manual transmissions; the extensive “airflow” body kit; suede leather seat insets, stiffened sports suspension, TCS traction assistance and another 20 bhp coupled to a 31b ft torque top up.
Is the Carlsson worth £4500 more than the lowest cost 2.3-litre turbo? Does it bear the name of former RAC and Monte Carlo Rally winner Erik Carlsson (an English resident for many years) honourably? These were the questions that we wanted to answer in one of the tougher test sessions of the year.
We had the blessing of snow and ice to put the Carlsson-branded 2.3-litre turbo 5-door through its paces. Yet the TCS system allowed us to enjoy the predicted dry road acceleration statistics. This in conditions where the test timing strip was awash with stream from melted snow, yet the Carlsson recorded a 0-60 mph time just 0.1 secs adrift (we averaged 7.5 seconds) of Saab’s expectations.
Top speed on a banked circuit was nearly 5 mph shy of the 145 mph claim, but the enormous pulling power was in the advertised supercar league — we recorded 50-70 mph in fifth at an average 6.1 seconds. That was 1.7 seconds faster than a standard 2.3 turbo moves from 50 to 74 mph, performance which Saab state is already faster than a Ferrari Mondial. Overtaking is not a problem in the Carlsson Saab derivative.
Nor is fuel consumption excessive, the cheaper unleaded grades being required to appease the standard catalytic convertor. 21.1 mpg running average, one that included performance tests, was right in line with the 22.6 urban figure that Saab quote for both Carlsson and standard 2.3-litre turbos.
Our test car was not a press fleet machine, but a last minute swop at our behest produced the Carlsson car of a director instead of a production 2.3 turbo. Our thanks to the Saab press office for allowing us to disrupt their schedules and continue an enjoyment of Carlsson branded models that covers two sales years and five examples.
The 2.3-litre of the traditional Saab slant four is a fine piece of development engineering. It is now a very distant descendant of the Triumph design which superseded Saab’s employment of Ford V4s and triple cylinder two strokes. In the stretch from 2.0 litres to 2.3 litres, first made in normally aspirated trim, Saab designed a strong new block to house counter-balancer shafts à la Mitsubishi or Porsche 944, plus an emission-conscious cylinder head to accommodate the inevitable twin overhead camshafts and 16 valves.
Company sources said that the 150 bhp normally-aspirated 2.3-litre had little in common with the 2.0-litres of 130 bhp. In fact the 90mm bore was shared between the generations, but the promised power bonus came in 1990 with a turbocharged variant reporting at 200, rather than 175 bhp.
Given that the resulting 200 horsepower vehicle is already capable of a reported 140 mph and 0-60 mph in 7.5 seconds, the Carlsson derivative had to work hard for a perceptible performance improvement. It is to the company’s credit that they did not simply turn the boost beyond the standard 1 bar/14.2psi maximum and fit a body kit.
The chassis engineering embraced shorter springs, replacement Fichtel and Sachs (front) and Boge (rear) gas dampers, and a thickened front anti-roll bar. Original Carlsson Saabs (which had slightly over 200 bhp from 2 litres) had softer damper settings that were the work of the man himself (and UK Saab executives) over British roads. I understand that the current layout is based entirely on the Swedish Sport package. It thus follows the “lower + stiffer” philosophy.
The standard braking system is left alone, but the five-spoke alloy wheels (three-spoke in all catalogue material) were the accessory choice of a Saab director. They carried the usual 205/50 production tyres sizes, these of Pirelli P600 origin on the test car. The aerodynamic body kit is comprehensive, well-made, and equally conscientiously fitted. The aerodynamic drag factor, however, remains unaltered at a claimed 0.34Cd. The front spoiler apron carries auxiliary lights from Halla, side sills are subtly deepened and the rear wing is mounted on two pylons rather than lying flush with the body. An underbumper section finishes the aero appearance agenda.
Technical information on the engine modifications was rare, but we understand that variable boost pressure and re mapped ignition curve are important ingredients, rather than increasing the 1 bar boost at the power peak. Said curve is remapped to allow substantial amounts of overboost at lower rpm. This is betrayed by the behaviour of the boost gauge under fifth gear strain, when it exhibits boost well into the red sector between 1100 and 2000 rpm. Thereafter APC reduces such transmission torture in distinctly visible (but not apparent to the driver) boost reduction steps. At 2500 rpm the standard boost has been restored.
Also apparently modified is the exhaust system, helping to produce a total of 220 bhp, another 200 rpm beyond the standard peak. Maximum torque is little affected, quoted at the same 2000 rpm for showroom and Carlsson, plus a nominal 3Ib ft torque bonus. Standard equipment upon the manual transmission Carlsson, the TCS device utilises some of the Teves microprocessor management, plus a separate Hella-developed programme and the wheel sensor units of the electronic ABS to virtually “fiddle brake” the driven wheels to more manageable levels of adhesion.
As you apply power and a wheel spins, TCS taps the front brakes into light and swift action, braking the wheel with least grip to restore traction, while also cutting power electronically. There are two stages to TCS intervention; below 25 mph both power and brake action are activated to restore grip to the tyre with least adhesion. Above 25 mph the action of the throttle is restrained progressively to keep handling quirks to a minimum. Beyond 125 mph the system is de-activated in theory, but in reality there are few occasions above 60 mph when you will see the TCS warning light shimmering in the instrument display.
Mercedes have had a similar system since the late Eighties, again based on electronic ABS, but the big advantage for Saab is that the ferocious handling traits of a powerful front-drive car are improved by TCS operation. A secondary benefit is that a negligible weight penalty is inflicted upon the nose-heavy Saab, which has 60 per cent of the kerb weight biased toward the front.
Offered at an option cost of £615, TCS benefits can be enjoyed on other 9000 series Saabs, so long as they sport ABS, but it is not a retro-fit item. Part of the reason for that is that it requires an electronic throttle linkage (in slang “fly by wire” controls) as well as a conventional throttle linkage.
First impressions of the bright red Saab against the woolly backdrop of snow that had blanketed Britain were of a striking and well finished 5-door saloon. The challenge was, could we master that 220 horsepower to produce any results on such slippery surfaces? The cabin initially reinforced the exterior impression of quality speed. Bridge of Weir Scottish leather in a light grey and the Carlsson-branded three-spoke leather rim steering wheel lifted the interior beyond that of its less expensive contemporaries. Saab ergonomics are also impeccable; we could do without the orange needles to the dials. You do lose, though, the 900 series traditional quirk of withdrawing an ignition key only when the machine is in reverse gear. This is dropped in favour of conventional ignition and logical (if crowded) switch disposition. The ventilation and heating are notably effective (there are two air conditioning chambers contrast options at £1295/£1815 respectively) and have the back-up to heated front seating and an anti-pollen filter. It is when you start to operate the controls that some quality question marks occur. The engine hums into life with typical ease for a current 16-valve limit, but the power steering has the occasional wheeze and the gearchange is distinctly clonky. Use the change harder, as we had to on the timing strip, and it becomes a definite deficiency; not fast or cooperative enough to qualify amongst the executive classes.
Vigorous use also highlights a lack of progression in the servo-assisted brakes. The overall feedback is poor and that means ABS is frequently activated on slippery surfaces rather earlier than anticipated. It is not a stability problem, but a more informative braking action than the current rather stark on/off feeling, would increase driving pleasure and enhance safety. The driving position, backed up by a steering column that adjusts over two inches, is as good as any we have encountered and you never feel less than in total command. Side glass areas could be boosted to overcome the slightly claustrophobic hangover from earlier Saab generations, but the hatchback is a lot easier to reverse and park than the high-tail 9000 CD series.
In road use, it was the low noise levels and astonishing acceleration in the 30-70 mph band that demanded our respect. The Saab always covers the ground a lot more rapidly than you have any right to expect. The third, fourth and fifth gear pulling power in these speed bands is as remarkable to the senses as you would anticipate from the company advertisements and our flexibility figures. Beyond 100 mph, wind noise levels are not particularly impressive by class standards. We were also disappointed by tyre roar at speed. In fact the 100 to 120 mph fuss veers toward disappointing for a company that loses no opportunity to identify itself with its aviation division.
The traction device, modified suspension and Pirelli rubber work in harmony to provide safe progress even in the worst conditions. Gone is much of the veering old front-drive habit under power. We found that second gear power could be applied generously through icy hairpins with commendable forward motion and retention of low effort steering accuracy. The only disconcerting aspect is the long intervals as power is removed and reintroduced electronically. The modified suspension allows no magic carpet cliches at town speeds, and too much vertical movement over British lanes. The faster you travel, the better the ride becomes.
To put the Carlsson in to context, tyre size, engine power and torque are similar to the old rear-drive Cosworth RS Fords, yet the front-drive package is now a lot easier to manage and progress than the Viscous Coupling-controlled Ford. It needs to be emphasised that the turbocharged Saab 16-valve cylinder quartet is a lot smoother than the Cosworth Ford alliance. The latest Saab turbo comes close to the pleasures of six cylinder motoring beneath the BMW class.
The rpm limit is conservative at 6000, with a warning band from 5500 upward. Compensation arrives in the form of a suave punch between 2500 and 5500 rpm. Then the unit is a delight; in fact, the engine sounded eager for further higher crankshaft speeds, even when seeking the 6200 rpm electronic rpm limiter. Saab needed to do something about their turbocharged manners in poor conditions and we believe TCS has helped the situation enormously. We would rather have 4WD, but TCS promotes an enormous improvement over the wet and icy road manners of previous turbocharged front-drive generations.
We have criticised dynamic and static aspects of the Saab, but none of our reservations should hide our genuine admiration for the product. There are not too many executive saloons which are capable of 140 mph but which will move a three people (including a displaced teenager), vast reserves of clothing, and high-tech belongings, whilst still providing memorable motoring. Thanks to split action rear seating, the driving pleasures that made the Saab an unbeatable combination of practicality and performance could still be enjoyed whilst it was laden like a refugees’ camel.
We initially asked if the Carlsson derivative was financially viable, and an honourable vehicle to bear the name of the Swede who is Saab to many Europeans? We think it is far from value for money in additional cost over the already extremely competent 2.3litre turbo. Yet the net result is respectably rapid, soothingly quiet and entirely fitting to bear the name of the man who put Saab on the World rallying map.
Lest Saab get too smug about such conclusions, we would add that the company needs to make a much larger quality effort to improve our perception of their basic assembly standards. Especially in regard to notchy door locks and repeated failures to latch shut, varied plastic grades and excessive wind noise levels. All need improvement to justify its inclusion in West German pricing zones. We have unofficially just seen a restyled 9000 Saab hatchback that has a dramatic “flatback” and a pronounced Citroën needle nose in the XM mould. Complete with existing side glass it looks close to production. Manufacture such a “super” 9000 to the standards outlined, possibly encasing the new GM V6, and Saab sales will continue to blossom in Britain and recover worldwide. — JW
MOTOR SPORT TEST RESULTS: Saab 9000 Carlsson Turbo
ENGINE: Water-cooled, iron block, light alloy head, counter balancer shafts: inline four cylinders and DOHC 16-valve cylinder head. Garrett AiResearch T25 turbocharger; intercooled; Max boost 1 bar/14.2 psi. Capacity: 2290cc (90 x 90mm). Saab direct ignition; electronic ignition and fuel management with Saab APC boost control; 8.5:1 Cr; Max Power: 220 bhp @ 5200 rpm. Peak torque: 246 lb ft @ 2000 rpm.
TRANSMISSION: Saab 5-speed. Front-wheel drive. Saab Traction Control System (TCS). Final drive 4 05.1
GEAR RATIOS: First: 3.31; Second: 1.76; Third: 1.17; Fourth: 0.86: Fifth 0.68, 24.4 mph per 1000 rpm
BODY: Steel monocoque 5-door hatchback. Petrol tank of 62 litres/13.6 gallons. Drag coefficient: 0.34Cd.
DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase, 105.2 inches/2672mm; front track 59.9in/1522mm; rear track 58.7 in/492mm; width 69.4 in/1764mm; length 183.7in/4667mm; height 55.9in/1420mm. Kerb weight. 3298Ib/1495kg.
FRONT SUSPENSION: MacPherson struts, Swedish Sport/Carlsson specification includes: shorter Krupp Bruminghaus coil springs and twin tube Fichtel and Sachs gas shock damping; Sport anti-roll bar. Steering Power-assisted 3.2 turns lock-to-lock, rack and pinion. 35ft 9 inch turning circle.
REAR SUSPENSION: Dead axle located by leading and trailing links, plus Panhard Rod. Sport specification. Krupp coil springs and Boge single telescopic gas dampers; production 2.3 turbo anti-roll bar
BRAKES, WHEELS, TYRES: Hydraulically power-assisted, vented 10.9 in/278mm diameter front discs; solid rears of 10.1 in/256mm; Saab 3 (3 channel) electronic anti-lock braking. Light alloy ‘Aero’ 6.5J x 16 inch wheels. Pirelli P600 205/50 ZR 16. Saab optional 5-spoke wheels for test car.
PRICE: £26,995, UK taxes paid. In-car entertainment at additional cost: test car had Blaupunkt Atlanta SQR44 system.
MANUFACTURER / IMPORTER: Saab Great Britain Ltd.. Globe Park, Marlow, Bucks. SL7 1LY.
CLAIMED PERFORMANCE: Max speed: 145 mph; 0-60 mph: 7.4s
TEST RESULTS — Test conducted at Millbrook Proving Ground using 1991 Correvit electronic measuring gear. Weather conditions: Wet, cleared snow
ACCELERATION: 0-30 mph 3.1 seconds; 0-40 mph 4.8 seconds; 0-50 mph 5.9 seconds; 0-60 mph 7.5 seconds; 0-70 mph 10.2 seconds; 0-80 mph 12.6 seconds; 0-90 mph 16.0 seconds; 0-100 mph 19.5 seconds; 0-110 mph 26.0 seconds
FLEXIBILITY: Third gear: 50-70 mph, 3.2 seconds; Fourth gear: 50-70 mph, 4.4 seconds; Fifth gear: 50-70 mph, 6.1 seconds
Standing 0.25 mile/400 metres: 16.02 seconds, 90.1 mph.
Maximum Speed: Millbrook 2.029 mile bowl: 139.9 mph. Best observed speed: 140.9 mph
Maximum Gear Speeds @ 5500 rpm — First: 30.7 mph; Second: 59.6 mph; Third: 88.2 mph; Fourth: 113.6 mph
Overall Fuel Consumption: Average: 21.1 mpg; Test track: 15.2 mpg
Government mpg figures: Urban: 22.6 mpg; @ 75 mph: 31.4 mpg; @ 56 mph: 40.4 mpg