Saab’s first production car, the 92, started coming off the assembly line in 1950. It was a 2-cylinder, 2-stroke 764cc engine developing 25 bhp. It was instantly distinguishable from its contemporaries because of its aerodynamic body and it lasted in production for 16 years. In 1967, a Ford V4 of German extraction was installed into the 96, the 92’s successor, and became Saab’s first 4-stroke model. It was followed up by a Triumph-designed engine which was found in early 99s introduced in 1969. It is from this model that Saab’s 9000 range of cars, of which the CDs are the booted versions, can trace a direct lineage for there is still a hint of the 99’s lines to the discerning eye.
Other factors have not changed either. From the start, Saab has persevered with front-wheel-drive — there has not been a rear-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive model from this Swedish manufacturer — and once it embraced the four-stroke engine, it has remained faithful to that configuration ever since. As the years have gone by, so Saab’s aspirations have increased so that during the Eighties BMWs and Mercedes-Benzs were considered fair game for the Swedish manufacturer. When one takes into consideration that 85% of all Saabs sold in Britain are company cars, it does become apparent that the market segment into
which the importer has decided to pitch his latest model, the CDi and CDS of 2.3 litres, is that of the senior executive, small businessman/proprietor who wants something a little bit more exclusive than the more common marques from Germany, or indeed from anywhere else. If 1989 figures are any guide, when Saab had a record year in Britain, then the formula seems to be correct.
It is probably only specialist magazines that place an inordinate importance on the engine configuration. Ask the average executive car owner whether he has a four pot of six pot under the bonnet, and he probably won’t know, or even care. As long as the name is right, it is comfortable, rapid and reliable, then the rest is irrelevant. However since this is a specialist magazine, we will peer underneath the bonnet.
As befits a car from one of the ‘green’ Scandinavian countries, the car can only run on unleaded petrol. The first most noticeable thing about the engine is the fact that it is fitted with a three-way catalyst convertor. You don’t even have to open the bonnet to find this out for it is proudly displayed on a label in green beneath the rear offside lamp cluster. Whip round to the other end of the car and you will be confronted by an engine which tells you it is Saab’s 16-valve 2.3 litre. The company is the first to tell you that it
cannot afford to develop and manufacture a 6-cylinder engine (a fact which may change now that it has fallen under General Motors’ umbrella). To keep up with its 6-cylinder German rivals it has increased the cubic capacity of its four-valve engine so that it is now 2290cc. Until its recent arrival, all Saab models were 1985cc.
While the stroke of the new engine remains the same at 90mm, the new cast iron block has a bore of 90mm (compared to the 78mm of the 2-litre unit). Although the double overhead cam head casting, which together with the exhaust manifolding, is the only common component of the two engines, it has been extensively revised on the larger engine to allow better breathing and improved fuel mixing. The Direct Ignition as found on Saab’s turbocharged engines is employed on the 2.3 whereby each of the four spark plugs is fed by its own ignition coil which obviates the need for high-tension leads and contact breakers and helps increase reliability.
Although better performance has not been the main criteria, there has naturally been an increased power output in Saab’s larger engine. 150 bhp at 5500 rpm is hardly shattering, but it does represent more than a 10% increase on the normally aspirated 2-litre. More significant, though, is the increase in peak torque which sees the 2.3 deliver 141 lb ft at 2000 rpm and 156 lb ft at 5500 rpm. It is this factor which is the strength of this particular unit, for in that wide rev range it is totally devoid of any sluggishness and is both flexible and smooth, but being quite highly geared, in the name of economy, it still likes the gearbox to be used. But that, however, is a pity, for this is yet another good car which is let down by a poor gearchange. Transmission is so often the Achilles Heel it is a wonder that manufacturers still produce units that are not up to par with the rest of the car. This is a lesson, though, that the Japanese in particular have learnt. The car on test in the Saab was the five-speed unit, but if colleagues are to be believed, the four-speed automatic is not that much better. That the engine is not 6-cylinder is evident especially when pushed hard through the rev range, but as a four, it is
indeed very smooth. Much of the credit for this can be taken by Mitsubishi whose twin balancer shaft technology is used by Saab, as do Lancia, Porsche and Volvo, to smooth out the unit although Saab claims that the system has been greatly refined by its own engineers. The twin balancer shafts are mounted on either side of the engine block and are chain-driven in the opposite direction of the crankshaft at twice its speed. As mentioned, performance has not been the principal aim of Saab’s engineers and enthusiasts may well be disappointed. to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds does not tell all the story for that does not get across the ‘feel’ of the engine which remains ordi
nary, especially when compared to the Turbo 16. It is, however, more refined and not nearly as coarse at higher revs although break through beyond the 5000 rpm barrier and it does become noisier. A turbocharged version, however, might well be a better prospect, and something we can expect to see within the next 12 months although the fuel consumption figure of 22.9 mpg we recorded over a week’s varied travelling would probably suffer. With a fuel tank capable of holding 14.9 gallons, the car has a useful 341-mile range.
The top speed of 125 mph is good enough and at speed the car feels solid and safe. Along country roads the handling is up to the usual high Saab standards and is predictable, aided by front-wheeldrive, the absence of body roll and responsive, precise power-steering. Torque steering is virtually absent, the Michelin MXV2s ready to bite on all surfaces. As an executive saloon, though, the ride was too harsh and was especially noticeable at lower speeds. Teves antilock brakes are standard on the 2.3 models and they work extremely well. For the executive, though, it is the interior which is perhaps the most important aspect and Saab has come up trumps. Everything about it is first class. The seats, which are height adjustable and heated, are extremely comfortable and supportive. Headroom is generous, even with the inclusion of an optional sunshine roof, which is fitted as standard on the CDS, and legroom for both front and rear passengers is ample. Unlike many other saloons there is even space enough for five people without causing undue stress. The driving position has been well thought-out for visibility is good and all the controls come easily to hand. The dials are large and easily read and the steering column is
telescopic. The seat belts have in-built tensioners and are height adjustable while another safety feature is the inclusion of the central high-level brake light. The heater is powerful but unless the optional air conditioning (£995) or the Automatic Climate Control (£1695) are specified, it is not possible to have cool air ventilation and heat being pumped out at the same time. Overall the quality of the interior is excellent enhanced by the British made walnut veneer facia (which is also on the air vents and around the gear lever on the CDS). Should one want to order the leather faced seats which comes as standard on the CDS, then another £945 will have to be forked out. While there is ample storage space inside the car, the boot is very large while the low sill eases the loading of heavy articles. Although the back seats do not fold, there is a ‘ski’ hatch from the boot for long, thin loads.
Although the addition of optional alloy wheels help, the styling of the car can at best be called bland and faceless and at worst indistinctive, but it should not be berated for that reason alone. The new engine is a credit to Saab for being so smooth and refined. Although it does not quite have the silken polish of a 6-cylinder, few will be able to tell the difference. Its main strength, though, is the high level of refinement it offers. It may not set the Thames on fire as some of its northern European rivals can do, but it is nevertheless as efficient and meritorious and at £16,745 is a good deal cheaper than many 2-litre cars. WPK