Road Test -- Saab Turbo

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Quite an experience

Saab’s turbocharged production version of their familiar 99 provoked almost unprecedented eulogistic descriptions in some of the weekly journals earlier in the year, their writers reacting like cats discovering cream for the first time. My own cream was a trifle sour, alas, the Turbo presented for road test by Motor Sport at around the same time lacking some of the performance and good throttle manners which Motocar in particular were acclaiming. Creaks and rattles, a light throttle misfire and an unattractive gearchange suggested that this modest mileage example might well be a rogue escapee from Saab’s legendary engineering standards, although I recall WB experienced gremlins in another 99 a few years ago.

I decided that it might be wise to try another example before plunging into critical print, but a busy summer schedule prevented me from doing so until recently. This is by way of explanation to readers who have complained about Motor Sport  ignoring the model, such concern about a particular car being uncommon and perhaps indicative of the interest in it. I am pleased to say that the second Turbo was a much superior beast, a very potent performer, though with some shortcomings, mostly stemming from the front-wheel-drive design.

Like the Model T, the normal three-door Turbo is available only in black in Britain. In spite of its hefty price of £7,950 Saab G.B. have sold well over 600 of the 1978 model and are importing another 200 1979 models with revised seats and rear axles. Recently a special run of 108 red, five-door Turbos to 1979 specification were imported. Come March, the 99 Turbo will have been superseded by the improved, bigger and more expensive 900 model, but Saab G.B. don’t expect their 130 specially trained Turbo dealers to have trouble moving the rest of their 99 Turbo quota: “We expect them to become collectors’ pieces.” I have driven the entire 900 range in Sweden and am impressed. A description will follow, hopefully, in the next issue.

By now most of us are used to turbocharging and the basic theory that waste exhaust gases can be used to drive a compressor to give a considerable boost to performance instead of dissipating wastefully straight into the atmosphere. Increasing attacks from environmental lobbyists has in turn created new interest in the other attributes of turbocharging: reductions in exhaust emissions, and, in comparison with the larger conventional engines which would be required to give similar performance, a significant reduction in fuel consumption. I think I am right in saying that Chevrolet pioneered the use of turbochargers on a production petrol engined car in a version of their ill-fated Corvair. More recently Porsche have been instrumental in offering a turbocharged car as part of their normal range, with such success that the 930 Turbo is to be joined shortly by the 924 Turbo. The significance of the Saab Turbo is that here is the first four/five seater saloon car to be offered to the public on a serious scale by a major European manufacturer.

There was the BMW 2002 Turbo, a short-lived sports saloon built with competition homologation as a specific aim, which would have benefited from further turbocharger development. Numerous tuners have, and are, trying their hands at turbocharging too, and I remember driving my first turbocharged car, an Avenger, way back in 1971 or 1972, thrashing it through the Scottish highlands, courtesy of Bob Henderson of Minnow-Fish. What Saab have done is to make the system much more sophisticated, to make their car a docile lamb at one end but, by rather more progressive stages than hitherto thanks to a turbocharger which boosts from below 2,000 r.p.m., to convert it into an astonishingly fast car at the other extreme. Most other turbocharged systems have had “top-end” only boost characteristics.

On song, the 1,985 c.c., 90.0 x 78.0 mm,  single overhead camshaft slant-four, now with practically no relationship to its Triumph ancestor save its configuration, gives 145 b.h.p. at 5,000 r.p.m., a 22 per cent increase over the non-turbocharged, fuel injected EMS. More startling is a 45 per cent increase in maximum torque, to 174 lb-ft at 3,000 r.p.m. The Garrett Air Research turbocharger is coupled to Bosch continuous fuel injection, the high pressure pump for which is inaudible from inside the car, though its whine can be heard from outside when the car is stationary.  Saab deliberately went for a small turbocharger so that a relatively low gas flow would be required to accelerate it to its normal running speed, so enabling boost to commence at low engine speeds. Saab’s own design of “waste gate” or “blow-off” valve restricts maximum boost to 7.5 p.s.i.  Internal changes to the engine included low compression pistons (7.2:1), modified intake and exhaust valves and a “softer” camshaft. Bosch electronic ignition is fitted, radiator capacity is increased, an oil cooler  has been added and RenoIds have developed a special chain for the primary reduction drive  between engine and gearbox, a subject touched upon when WB described a visit to the British RenoIds firm earlier this year. Overall gearing is higher too, although drive continues to be taken to the front wheels through a four-speed gearbox. The underbonnet view will be a frightening sight to any do-it-yourself enthusiast, a masterpiece of neat plumbing but extremely space-consuming. A  Gould maintenance-free battery complements this advanced engineering, one of the first applications of such an electric power source in a passenger car.

Initial impressions of performance can be disappointing if the driver starts out with a  tentative right foot for, in spite of Saab’s claims for low-speed boost, the Turbo has little “go” below 2,000 r.p.m. Low speed performance around town with the needle on the facia-mounted boost gauge only occasionally flashing into the operative orange sector feels slower and less responsive than the conventional EMS. Indeed in those conditions the Turbo is behaving as a low compression  EMS. By the same token this high performer is gentle, quiet and discreet in slow moving traffic streams.

Floor the throttle and the chameleon quality takes over in the most astonishing fashion. As the boost builds up, accompanied by a shrill whistle, the car rapidly gains momentum with a smoothness and quietness that can be totally deceptive. The fact that it accelerates to 60 m.p.h. from rest in 9 sec. or 100 m.p.h. in less than 27 sec. means little: what is so staggering is the manner in which the speed rises incessantly, in top gear in particularly, like the brightening of theatre lights by a rheostat. There is no kick in the back, no thrust back of the head into those built-in headrests. Up to 70 m.p.h. in top gear the impression of acceleration is almost stately, but once above that speed the speedometer needle whirls round to the three figure mark at a pace that few saloons in the world can match. The pace flags a little over 100 m.p.h., but it doesn’t take much more tarmac to extend this black projectile to just over 120 m.p.h. The smoothness, the effortlessness, the relative quietness with which this is achieved is a modern day wonder for mass production motor cars.

Once the desired cruising speed has been reached and the throttle relaxed the boost gauge needle falls back into the white sector, signifying that the turbocharger is no longer operative and fuel consumption takes a tumble for the better (I averaged about 21 m.p.g. from the too small, 12.1 gallon tank). The higher overall gearing, achieved by altering the primary reduction drive, the noise-subduing effect of the turbocharger and Saab’s usual modest levels of wind noise make for very relaxed cruising, be it at legal or highly illegal speeds. Instant power is then available for safe overtaking.

At low and mid range speeds it pays to make full use of the gearbox, whatever the paperwork figures might suggest — the faster the engine is turning the quicker the boost pressure builds up. Opening the throttle suddenly at low revs provokes not so much the notorious turbocharged engine throttle lag, for the instant jump of the boost gauge needle indicates that the throttle action has been registered, but a laziness in the build up of revs. Action starts between 2,500 and 3,000 r.p.m. and the tachometer needle fairly flies round to its 6,000 r.p.m. maximum (there is a cut-out at 6,200 r.p.m.) in the lower gears.

For several reasons the Turbo is not at its best as a town car and I cannot say that I really enjoyed it for commuting in London, where instant response at junctions and traffic lights is essential. It is quite a sluggard from a standing start, beaten by many mundane vehicles, unless a lot of throttle is used and the clutch treated violently in order to get the turbo spinning and adequate power through to the wheels. The result is violent wheelspin, screaming rubber, irate onlookers and rapidly worn front tyres. I prefer performance with discretion. Around town too the steering is quite heavy and low geared, although reasonably pleasant in feel and weight on the open road. My everyday back-double route from London’s northern outskirts to the City showed the low speed engine characteristics in a poor light; slow, second gear turns where most conventional cars pick up quickly had the Turbo floundering a little whilst the “works” tried to catch up with the throttle. First was too low to use as an alternative, for it brought in the turbocharger too suddenly. Too heavy a throttle foot in wet conditions set the wheels spinning mildly, which raised the engine revs, in turn lifted boost pressure and brought in power and wheelspin with a vengeance. More discretion with the throttle made the Turbo more relaxing and less dramatic on this commuting journey; it also made my journey times longer than with most conventional cars. For these reasons I was glad to switch straight to a Ford Capri 3-litre S after the first Turbo and an Alfa Romeo Giulietta after the second, both of which had light and easy handling and crisp, low speed throttle response. It’s a matter of horses for courses and the Turbo happens to be much happier as a fast, out of town cruiser.

At the same time no Turbo owner will do all his motoring on motorways or fast main roads, so there will be no escaping from some of the drawbacks of putting so much power and torque through the front wheels. It is all too easy to provoke wheelspin through all three lower gears if conditions are slippery and this can be accompanied by very twitchy torque reaction and side to side snatching which needs a firm hand on the wheel to control. The throttle needs treating with respect in the wet or on the loose, therefore, especially when coming out of slippery, tight corners: if the turbocharger happens to come in at the wrong moment with lock applied the torque reaction makes it difficult to unwind the lock. The result at best can be a snaky recovery or at worst terminal understeer. The Pirelli 175/70 x I 5″ CN36s are not renowned for good wet/slippery grip characteristics. The moral is to learn how to drive the Turbo quickly in conditions of poor adhesion on twisty roads, to learn a different technique of throttle control and not to go charging at things like a bull at a gate.

That having been said, the general handling and roadholding of the Turbo is good, the car not being prone to understeer if driven neatly. It is very stable under all high speed conditions and its lack of reaction to bumps reflects its development on Swedish forest tracks. The servo-assisted 11″ front and 10.6″ rear disc brakes, nestling behind those beautifully-sculpted, easy to clean, 5-1/2J alloy wheels provide excellent stopping power, more progressive on the second test car than the first. Harder friction materials are used on the Turbo brakes than on other Saab models. There is a fair amount of roll when pushed towards the limit of CN36 adhesion, yet the ride from the coil spring wishbone front suspension and four link and Panhard rod located dead rear axle is firm and taut.

The Turbo’s solid, beautifully finished, hatchback body is a familiar sight in lesser-powered guises, so I don’t propose to say too much about it. Distinguishing factors on the Turbo, other than the wheels, are a deep, flexible front spoiler, complete with air vents, and a matching rubber tail spoiler on the hatchback lid. The rectangular, wiper-swept, halogen headlights are backed up by Bosch auxiliary lights and there are prominent rear fog lights too. Indeed, the Turbo is packed with sensible, standard equipment such as a sliding steel sun roof, stereo cassette player/radio, mud flaps behind the front wheels and both behind and in front of the rear wheels, an ice warning device (at least I believe that’s what the device is beneath the front bumper) and a heated driver’s seat, the value of which has to be experienced to be appreciated on a cold morning. This hatchback has enormous luggage capacity, even with the rear seats and parcel shelf in place; with the rear seats folded the bay is 6 ft. long, with enough space to sleep two adults at a pinch, just the job for “bagging” an early parking place at Grands Prix. The cloth headlining on both test cars showed that even the Swedes aren’t adverse to largesse with their glue. The fully-adjustable front seats are most comfortable.

This expensive Saab is not without its idiosyncrasies. The most annoying is the lack of resting place for the clutch foot, for the wide pedal spacing, designed to accommodate snow shoes, puts the pedal right up against the centre console on right hand drive cars. I have no such complaints against left hand drive cars. Rearward vision is appalling, although matters can be improved somewhat by removing the rear seat headrests. The gearchange is a trifle notchy, the gear lever knob uncomfortable; it must be put into the reverse position to enable the ignition key, between the seats, to be inserted, an alternative to a steering column lock. The driver sits in lofty splendour, well away from the sharply curved screen. The instrumentation is masked somewhat by the thick-rimmed Turbo wheel. The rev counter houses a clock in the old Jaguar style, though the Saab variety actually works. The hand brake lever between the seats operates on the front wheels, definitely not conducive to emergency avoidance handbrake turns. Sills are covered by the deep doors to keep mud off trouser legs. Rear seat accommodation is adequately comfortable but claustrophobic thanks to the high front seat backs, which do have removeable pads in the fixed headrests, however. Klippan inertia reel front seat belts worked easily, unlike those of the same make in the Lancia Gamma reported on elsewhere in this issue. The heating system was less powerful than I would have expected on a car from a cold climate or perhaps the fault was mine. Rear seat passengers have their own heater vent control as well as their own seat belts.

Thus the Saab Turbo is a thoroughly well equipped as well as thoroughly interesting car. A Saab of any description has a touch of unconventional eccentricity about it in the same way as a Citroën; one has to live with them to learn and appreciate them. In many ways the Turbo is truly exceptional, but it does have some shortcomings, some of which might be noticed less in the light of longer experience. Though it sets new standards in performance for 2-litre, or even larger, saloons and pioneers the use of turbocharging for mass production saloons, I can’t help feeling that there is some way to go in turbocharger development before the consistency of power delivery and throttle control of a conventionally aspirated engine is reached. But come it undoubtedly will, and Saab have a head start. — CR