Saab 9000i

Saab’s 9000 saloon has already been introduced to the British public in Turbo form, demonstrating what a supremely comfortable car it is. However, I had my reservations about the way that the undoubtedly extremely potent turbo-16 unit delivered its power (see MOTOR SPORT March 1986), and was thus particularly interested to be able to try the 9000i 16, the same car with the normally-aspirated version of the same engine. Naturally it is the slower car, giving away 45 bhp, but it otherwise possesses all the Turbo’s virtues plus the ability to put down most of its lesser power even in the wet. Its specification is sophisticated even without the blower system: belt-driven twin cams, four valves per cylinder, a very high compression ratio of 10:1 allied to a Bosch anti-knock system, fuel injection from the same source using a mass-flow sensor. Saab’s APC multi-octane fuel compensator, and solid-state ignition, plus the facility to accept the Saab Direct Ignition system when it becomes available. Servicing costs are reduced by using hydraulic cam followers and by a cylinder head which can be removed for service without dismantling the valvegear.

Detonation, or knocking, is defeated by retarding the ignition (the Turbo does this by reducing the boost), and the system can vary the timing on each cylinder individually by a maximum of 13′. The Bosch LH fuel injection allows for variations in temperature and altitude because it measures the mass of air passing through rather than the volume — hot or rarified air has less mass for the same volume — and it does this using an electrically-heated platinum filament. Intake air passes over the filament and tends to cool it down; the amount of energy required to maintain the temperature is proportional to the mass of the air being breathed by the engine. With these interdependent electronics, the engine only loses 5 bhp even when a catalytic converter is fitted, but in this country we need not worry about that just yet. Instead, the Saab driver can enjoy 130 very smooth bhp, together with a very flat torque curve which peaks at 3,000 rpm at 127 lb ft. The result is a respectable 0-60 mph time of 10.0 sec, and good flexibility in each gear. However, as the big five-seater car weighs around 2,900 lb, 130 horses do not go as far as they might, and this is most noticeable on a fast main road where a downchange of one or perhaps two gears may be required to pass middling-fast traffic. But we are talking of relatively small overtaking opportunities: overall the 9000i feels very spirited, with little engine or wind noise to distract from the interior comforts.

These are almost identical to those of the Turbo; only airconditioning is missing, replaced by a particularly well laid-out manual system using rotary controls, which are so much easier to adjust than sliders. Indeed, the whole car exudes this sort of forethought: the front belts have adjustable top anchorages, there are lights in each door to illuminate any puddles on exit, plus individual reading lamps behind, while the driver’s door mirror includes a slim wide-angle panel which effectively cancels out any blind spot. Let me here redress a wrong I did Saab in my report on the 9000 Turbo. I complained that it was difficult to close the enormous hatchback because of its height and the lack of a handle. A Saab engineer has since pointed out that there is a handle inside the tailgate, where it stays clean.

What is so impressive about the 9000 in either form is that while it looks and feels like a luxury car (and at around £12.000 it is contesting the Renault 25, Ford Granada, Audi 100 and Mercedes 200 market) it remains extremely practical with its large, flat bootspace open to bumper level, 60/40 folding rear seats, wide-opening doors, and detachable parcel-shelf.

Electric windows, mirrors, and locking all come as standard on the 9000i 16, as does the power-assisted steering, which, although still very light, feels more secure without the Turbo’s 175 horsepower to cope with. Road behaviour is excellent, the sure and absorbent ride being above average even for this class of executive car. Like the Turbo, but less obviously, it tucks in firmly to a corner under acceleration, and is both stable and grippy, sharing the same tyre size but on steel rims.

Setting aside the £4000 difference in price between Turbo and 9000i, there is something to be said for both: the blown car’s highspeed open road response is simply staggering, but in the rain, and particularly in town, the normally-aspirated car is probably the more useable. — G.C.