Road test miscellany, May 1982

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Saab 900 Turbo

THE Saab 99 Turbo was at the forefront of the current fashion in turbocharging. Introduced in the UK four years ago, it received praise from all who drove it. Subsequently, the small turbocharged Saab has given way to the larger bodied 900 Turbo series, available in three-door hatchback, four-door saloon and five-door hatchback configurations. A trip to Finland earlier in the year, to try the three-door version in truly arctic conditions, led to the offer of one of the recently introduced automatic 900 Turbo saloons for test.

Saab’s 900 series cars are large and comfortable, comparable in size, performance and pricing with the Rover, BMW 5, Granada and Tagora ranges. In four-door form, the interior accommodation for four large adults is excellent, there being plenty of leg and head room in the rear. The Turbo variants are Immriously upholstered in velour, well soundproofed and have a high level of equipment, such items as central locking, sunroof, high quality stereo radio / cassette player, headlamp wash / wipe, electric mirror adjustment (both sides), tinted glass, electric front windows and heated front seats being included as standard items.

The iron block, 1,985 c.c., four-cylinder engine is common across the whole Saab range, from its 100 b.h.p. guise in the 99 series to the 145 b.h.p. form in the Turbo cars. In this application, the alloy head engine runs with a compression ratio of 7.2 to I and the Garrett AiResearch turbocharger unit is set to gives maximum boost of 71/2 psi. Bosch continuous (CI) fuel injection is used in conjunction with Bosch electronic ignition. A plug-in diagnostic facility is included.

The engine bay is a masterpiece of careful planning even down to the lift, slide-forward and tilt bonnet. The engine itself is the “wrong” way round, with number one cylinder at the back, together with the belt-driven accessories such as the alternator, water pump and hydraulic pump for the power steering, while the fluid flywheel is at the front and the automatic transmission lies parallel to the crankshaft of the inclined engine, in its own housing. The final drive unit is mounted at the rear of the engine, in the integral alloy casting, and the front wheels are driven via driveshafts and constant velocity joints.

The turbocharger itself nestles at the front of the engine, on the off side, under the inclined head. A cast iron manifold feeds the exhaust gases forward into the turbine, whence they are expelled by a large diameter exhaust pipe to the back of the car. Air passes through the air cleaner on the near side to the impeller on the off side and then back again through an alloy duct to the cast alloy inlet manifold, with its surprisingly long branches, on the near side. The sparking plugs and ignition leads are on the off side above the exhaust manifold and are protected by a hut shield. The distributor is mounted on the front end of the camshaft, directly above the turbocharger unit, and is again protected by a heat shield. The cooling system has a separate expansion tank, mounted at the rear near side of the engine bay, and is equipped with a thermostatically controlled electric fan. A perspex covered fuse box (also housing the diagnostic plug-in point) is mounted under the bonnet just forward of the passenger door.

Front suspension is by coil springs with hydraulic shock-absorbers, the hubs being located with wishbones and turning on ball joints. The dead rear axle is located with four longitudinal links and a Panhard rod and the rear suspension is by coil springs and gas-filled dampers. Disc brakes, servo-assisted, are fitted all round, those at the front being 11.02″ diameter and, at the rear, 10.61″. The handbrake, cable operated, operates on the front wheels and the Saginaw rack and pinion steering is power assisted. The wheels are cast alloy and specially designed to suit 180)65HR 390 Michelin TRX tyres. A space saver spare is used.

The 900 Turbo, which was delivered just in time for a weekend in Yorkshire prior to a business commitment in Northumberland, was a gleaming black example upholstered in deep burgundy and with a pale grey headlining; the whole effect was very imposing. The first thing that strangers to the 900 series Sub notice is the lack of sills, which, coupled with the wide opening doors make it very easy for the infirm to get in and out of the car. The driver’s seat is adjustable for height, as well as for position and rake, and the seating position is distinctly old fashioned, being decidedly upright; very comfortable it is too. The dash is busy, but functional and neatly laid out, and the front of the car has plenty of room since front-wheel drive obviates the necessity foes transmission tunnel; a sense of spaciousness is enhanced by the bowed windscreen being set well forward.

The gear selector is centrally mounted atop a low hump in the floor, and there is a small moulded mess at its root which is suitable for the odd coin, but not much more since the ignition lock (which also renders the gear selector immovable in “P”) is located aft of the selector, under the handbrake lever. There are map pockets in the doors and a useful sized, lockable cubby in front of the passenger. There is also a recess on top of the wide dash, presumably intended for such items as sun glasses, but we found that items placed therein caused aggravating reflections in the screen in sunny weather.

There is no “hooded binnacle” to upset the clean line of the dash; instead, the instrum, nts are recessed into the slightly curving fascia. Arranged in three main dials (tachometer, incorporating a clock, on the left; large speedometer in the centre; fuel contents, uncalibrated boost and coolant temperature gauges on the right), the instruments themselves are clear and can be read at a glance. A row of warning lights is placed in a strip acl oss the top of the recess, although the low fuel level light is in the r.h. dial, next to the fuel gauge, for added emphasis.

To the left of the recess is a new panel containing the Philips stereo radio / cassette player above the three rotating knobs which control the very effective heating system. Below these are switches for the electric front windows, heated rear screen and the joystick for adjusting the near side mirror. The off side mirror is controlled by a similar stick to the right of the instrument recess, above which is the rotating switch for the headlamps, and press switches for hazard warning lights and rear fog lamps. The wipers (two speed and intermittent) are col trolled by the r.h. stalk, which is pulled back for very effective screen washing; if the headlamps are on, actuating the screen washers also actuates the headlamp wash / wipe. The l.h. stalk operates indicators, dip and flash.

Leaving the Windsor area at 11.15 a.m. on a Saturday morning to drive north through Wycombe, Aylesbury and Buckingham to on the M1 north of Northampton is not the motoring enthusiast’s ideal journey. The roads are fine, g.d boring a mixed selection of duakarriagewa quality A road and the odd section of secontigdtal road, but Saturday morning seems to br. the whole population out unto the roads and into the at the Trowel! Service area, tucking into 5: e. villages through which they pass. It is a r ev, ene t caohp s jswer e of the Saab’s comfort and refinement that there was never a moment of tension or fru, (which, remembering similar journeys in the trat’n I would have expected) and yet Buckinghw up in just on the hour and by ten past one v the best motorway food we have had, so] drama, no fuss, no effort and yet miles covered in lees than two hours v reasonable respect for the speed limits.

The refinement comes from the smooth engine which is silky and quiet throughout its range up to its red line limit at 6,000 r.p.m., the automatic transmission which provides near imperceptible changes and the body shape which causes wind noise, even with the sunroof open. The comfort stems from the firm seating and the supple suspension which rides over irregularities in the road surface extremely well and smooths out even large bumps, although potholes, the result of the very hard winter, sent a shudder through the whole car. The suspension is biased towards passenger comfort rather than ultimate handling, and there is noticeable roll on corners, although this only becomes uncomfortable when trying hard.

Despite power assistance, the steering requires 3.6 turns from lock to lock. On main roads this is fine, but touring round the narrow roads of the Yorkshire moors, higher geared steering would have been appreciated to reduce the amount of arm twirling required; the degree of power assistance makes the steering rather too light for this tester’s taste and a higher steering ratio might improve the feel.

The acceleration available in the middle range is quite remarkable for an automatic 2-litre and makes light of overtaking on country roads, but initial take off can be embarrassingly slow, especially alit is uphill; pulling out of a T-junction on to a steep main road hill after a blind bend was quite an adventure, the car creeping out on to the road with pathetic acceleration until the turbo boost was showing nearly maximum, when it leapt away. This delay in power, the so-called “turbo lag”, has been all but eliminated in many more recent turbo applications, where the lengths of the air ducts have been reduced to a minimum, and is especially awkward in an automatic car when it is impossible to build up engine revs. significantly before starting. On the gat, we were able to reach 60 m.p.h. in just on ten seconds. The car is geared at 20.4 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m.; top speed is quoted as 114 m.p.h. and the 900 Turbo is perfectly happy cruising close to this figure, although at normal motorway speeds there is the feeling that a higher final drive ratio would be beneficial; but, of course, this would exacerbate the poor initial step-off.

Fuel consumption over our 1,200-mile spell with the 900 Turbo worked out at 20.9 m.p.g., a creditable figure considering the variety of our driving and the fact that our return journey from Northumberland to Windsor was exceptionally fast . . . The fuel tank is quoted as having a capacity of 13.9 gallons, but we found it necessary to fill up as soon as the fuel level warning light started to show, after ten gallons or so had been used, since at high cruising speeds the engine gave an occasional hiccup as if being starved of fuel. Thus the effective range was only some 200 miles, although theoretically it should be nearer 300 — even this is rather poor for a car as comfortable and fast as the Saab which could quite reasonably be driven for 400 miles without stopping, if there was sufficient fuel capacity.

In automatic saloon form, the 900 Turbo is not intended for the sporting driver, who would choose the manual, five-speed version, probably in three-door hatchback guise, but for the man who wishes to travel in comfort and to be relaxed in all road and traffic conditions. In this role, the car is ideal, its only drawback being its slow step-off, making the joining of fast moving traffic streams rather more difficult than it should be. At £12,435 it is good value and compares well with the opposition. —P.H.J.W.

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