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Turn the ignition key of the Saab 9000 Turbo 16 one click and, instantly, there’s a familiar sound. From somewhere behind the flat black dashboard comes a subdued series of clicks and hums as the air-conditioning sleepwalks into action. Then there’s a whirring. That’s it. It’s uncanny: it’s exactly like the low-key errrrrrr of a Boeing 737 lowering its main undercarriage, the replication of the moment when a planeload of executives start to close their briefcases and minutely plan how to trim seconds from a sprint which goes ‘grab coat-shove along aisle-down steps-immigration-car park-office cup of coffee please, Mandy’.
Saab would like you to believe that its plane-making and car-building operations are as one. You know the theory: from the same cool Swedish collective intellect which gave you the Draken and the Viggen fighters —with tongue-twisting names like those its easy to see why Saab distinguish their car models by type-numbers alone — come world-beating hyper-tech cars. Cars rippling with cute aerodynamics, advanced structural thinking and power plants.
So why was it when I asked the hardened crew that is the Motor road test team about this tuned Saab 9000 Turbo 16 that their answers were all so, well, iffy? One small voice, hiding behind a calculator that was confirming the boot volume of a Hyundai Pony, suddenly grew strong. “The Saab?” he growled. “The tuned one? In that car you get wheelspin in the first three gears.” The inference was that, perhaps, in the standard car wheelspin was only available in gears one and two. The inference was, above all else, not positive.
I can confirm that this Saab 9000 Turbo 16 will spin its wheels quite merrily in the first three gears in the dry, and in ratios one to four if you should he so bold in the wet. I can also confirm that a BMW 325i goes a touch tail-happy after an April shower. The comparison is apt: a Saab 9000 Turbo 16 is as well-developed a front-wheel drive executive saloon as the BMW 325i is a finely honed rear driver. To directly compare the dynamics of one with the other is pointless. Both are equally good — and each is very different.
So what if a heavy foot can light up the Saab’s front tyres? As mutant car behavior such scurrying ranks pretty low among nasties like power-off oversteer, woolly turn-in and excessive rear-end brake bias. Especially when everything else about the driving characteristics of the Saab 9000 Turbo 16 is, at the very worst, pleasant without being bland.
I had never driven a turbocharged Saab before this tricked-up machine arrived. I had it mentally penciled in alongside a roster of preconceptions: front-wheel drive cars don’t work with more than 150bhp, turbocharging and front-wheel drive should remain mutually exclusive, even the notion that Saabs are a sensible-shoe sort of car, packed with a cloying Swedish do-goodness, a horrible hanging-on-to-mummy’s-apron-strings safety-conscious attitude for those who think that tooling down to the corner shop is about as dangerous as trying to take tea with a bunch of Afghan rebels.
This particular Saab 9000
Turbo 16 was easy to dislike from a first glance, for someone with a laughable
sense for aesthetics had slobbered a body kit all over it. Body kits serve one
purpose — to make you forget that the Yugo 45 was designed by a myopic
But the body kit kills all that subtlety stone dead. It’s Margaret Thatcher wearing Jean-Paul Gaultier, or Kenny Daigleish discussing metaphysics: it simply doesn’t happen. The boy-racer front spoiler is a touch lewd, and the add-on wheel arch lips, thanks to the skeins of black rubber piping which stop them from caressing chunky Swedish steel too tightly, break up the shape of the car. And what Saab call a ‘decor panel’ —which in reality is a bloody huge red reflector nestling between the tail-lamps — is something a 17-year-old would think twice about tacking on to his Talbot Sunbeam.
The irony of the body kit is, of course, that you don’t need it. Those crosshatched l6in diameter Rial wheels and the 205/50 16 Pirelli P7s will fit under the standard wheel arches to add a touch of menace to the unadorned shape. This car also had what Saab term a ‘roadholding-kit’. A suspension rethink along conventional lines: the same old handling cliché of stiffer springs and —what seem to be Bilstein — shocks, plus a front anti-roll bar.
A tuning package, which includes a sports exhaust, pushes the maximum power up from 175bhp to 192bhp thanks to a dash more boost offered through a reprogram of the sophisticated Saab Automatic Performance Control-cum-engine management system. The result is that this Saab begins to sidle into Ford Sierra RS Cosworth territory: the engine, suspension and body modifications, plus the new wheel and tyre combination, integral spoiler driving lights — yes, they used to be called spotlamps — the red reflector, a good Saab-branded Momo leather-rim steering wheel, rear wash-wipe and the rather grandly-titled Driver/Co-driver computer adds £3169.88 excluding VAT and a minimum £1000 fitting costs to the basic£ 20,695 price of a 9000 Turbo 16. So this Saab will set you back around £26,000 which, aptly enough, is the sort of money being charged for an Alpina-ised BMW 325i.
Inside, all is calm and beautifully straightforward. There’s nothing wrong with the velour trim on the seats and half driver to up his self-importance, nor the when-in-doubt-slap-on-some-varnished-wood muddle of a Mercedes. The Saab is underplayed to the point of maximum efficiency — and when you have fiddled with the height-adjustable seat, and the pull-out steering column, you would have to be built like a Sumo wrestler not to be extremely comfortable indeed. This is all very good no-nonsense stuff.
In town all the controls are light and progressive. Indeed, the clutch is so silky that I went through a period of stalling the Saab car simply because I didn’t expect a Honda Civic clutch action in what I expected to be a heavyweight car. Visibility is excellent, the driving position is commanding, the car feels right; the only niggle is that to hook second gear on the conventional H-gate five-speed box requires you to push the lever back and away from you. That would be a more natural action in a left-hand drive 9000: what it means is that for your first few miles you tend to slip from first to fourth.
Not that the engine complains too much. And what a fine engine this two-litre 16-valve turbo unit is. For a start, it is deliciously smooth-running. Not six-cylinder silky, but certainly less thumpy than a certain rival five-cylinder. It revs, too, with a willing edge that hardens as you dig into the boost that arrives at around 2500rpm. If I say that the turbo seems to work in three phases, you will instantly jump to the conclusion that it is a lag-ridden old lump. It’s not. What happens is that on light throttle urban work the car is reasonably quick without the boost gauge needle leaving the bottom stop. Then, for dual-carriageway stuff, the needle hits the mid-sector of the dial and starts to pump some serious horsepower through to the front wheels. And, if you have a clear road and bad intentions, when you really start to stick the boost-needle into the red the 9000 gets muscular and transforms itself into a very fast A-to-B road runner.
I took the 9000T16 over the
The reason that the 9000 goes so neatly sideways is that Saab have honed the handling of their cars to magnificent levels. To kick out the demerits first, the suspension package does the normal low-profile-tyre trick of making low-speed bump-thump seem more intrusive than usual, and under stupidly extreme cornering the tyres can rub the bodywork with a petrifying chirp. But those fat P700s are the cornerstone around which the Saab is created. I covered 25,000 miles on a set of l5in diameter P700s wedged under a GTi engineering-preened Volkswagen Golf GTi and, while the rest of the world believe that P700s are intended solely for supercars, the unidirectional low-pros perform minor miracles on less inspirational front-drivers. They have stonking grip, they are progressive, they are quiet and, miracle upon miracle, they also possess fine high-speed ride characteristics.
Add those virtues to a Saab where roll has been slashed and the wheels remain tightly buttoned down without the basic high-caloric handling balance being corrupted. This Saab is not a Golf GTi. It is a touch more stately than that, but it is wonderfully precise in its behavior. You turn-in, there’s a touch of understeer which you can temper by pushing down on or lifting off the throttle and, either way, the car will respond with a gentle grace. The rear end, too, is never skittish or light or frisky: it’s simply planted on the asphalt without ever seeming stolid. Both ends of the car work together, and work well: even torque-steer has been subdued to acceptable levels. At just over three turns lock-to-lock the steering is crisp and accurate. Moreover the 9000 is free of the dreaded pitch which afflicts so many big front-drivers, where you turn in hard and all you feel as if the rear end is going to start issuing its own opinions on how things should be done — with a pedal feel that bears not the slightest hint of ABS thumpity-thump. It’s easy to enjoy driving this car if you can accept that a 192bhp front-wheel drive turbocar is sensible, rather than merely eccentric for the sake of it. I began by expecting simply to tolerate the car and ended up reluctant to return it. Doing long distance off-motorway driving in the 9000 Turbo 16 is fun without being brash.
There are a few quirks thrown into the mix. Stab the throttle at low revs in a high gear and the engine shunt will have you thinking of Austin Maxis: but you have to provoke it. Saab’s APC system is said to protect the engine from knocking and allow it to run on a diet of any fuel, from leadfree or two-star right up to four-star, I shoved in a tankful of two-star just to see what happened and, while I’m prepared to admit I might have imagined it, the 9000T16 didn’t seem to respond as crisply through the gears. Looking into this, I discovered that Saab reckons that the engine loses about 1.5 per cent in power for every octane number you go down —dropping from 98 RON to 91 RON would cost this tuned 9000 around 17bhp or almost 9 per cent of its peak power, a loss I reckoned I could feel. I got the 9000 to pink once — in a high gear at low speed, moving uphill. It pinked for perhaps one second and then the APC got to grips with the jingling and dropped the boost and played with the ignition. Exit pinking.
Add to all the dynamic goodness a boot large enough to house a meat-safe and it being the only totally rattle-free car I’ve driven for the past two years and the 9000T16 stacks up as an outwardly unlikely contender for a fine executive car award. I still don’t understand quite why it’s so rewarding to drive — off the top of my head I would say that it’s because it was developed by engineers who still cherish the memory of Erik Carlsson rather than some 800 gigabyte mainframe in Nagoya — because all the goodness in it is difficult to quantify.
It is not startlingly quick in a Sierra Cosworth way, nor boldly gripping like a Lancia Delta HF Integrale. It is in no way an ultra-nervous fighter aircraft on four wheels waiting to fling the inattentive on a one-way trip. No, this car is, quite simply, well-rounded and gloriously capable. And that evocative whirring noise when you turn the key does sound like a Boeing 737 on final approach into Heathrow.
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