2008 Saab Turbo X First Drive

2008 Saab 9-3 Sedan

(2.8L V6 Turbo AWD 6-speed Manual)
  • 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X Picture

    2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X Picture

    If you like the Turbo X, act quickly, because only 600 of them are headed to the U.S. | September 15, 2009

14 Photos

Black Is the New Black

Most special-edition cars are the automotive equivalent of cuff links — all style and precious little substance. These versions usually come near the end of a model's lifecycle and pander to brand-loyal buyers on the unspoken promise that the model's collector value is assured.

Fortunately the 2008 Saab Turbo X is more than a quick badge-and-sticker job. Good thing, because we had to fly all the way to Sweden, sleep in a hotel made of ice and drive all day on a frozen lake to find out.

Although the Saab 9-3 has never taken the motoring world by storm, the 2008 Saab Turbo X features some worthwhile hardware upgrades, and also commemorates Saab's 30 years of history with turbocharging.

Black Tie Affair
Spotters will be able to pick out the 2008 Saab Turbo X from lesser 9-3s by its bespoke front and rear fascias, which also serve to give this version of the Saab 9-3 a sleeker aerodynamic shape. The ride height drops by 0.4 inch relative to the 9-3, and the suspension has been given a mild firming up.

Striking three-spoke 18-inch wheels (remember the wheels from the Saab 900 SPG of the 1980s?) plus bigger brakes are also visual clues to the fact that the Turbo X is no ordinary Saab. You can have the Turbo X in sedan or wagon (SportCombi) form in any color you want, as long as it's Jet Black. Get it? Saabs are born from jets. Yeah. It looks at once tough and understated, like James Bond in a tuxedo.

Inside, black leather and faux carbon-fiber panels further distinguish the Turbo X in a way that's tasteful rather than tacky. Saab execs tell us that in Europe, the start-up message in the Turbo X's instrument cluster reads "Ready for Take-off," a phrase that sent American lawyers into a tailspin. Instead, we get "All Systems Go." Because, you see, in a jet....

Getting X'd Up
The Turbo X marks the debut of Saab's XWD ("Cross Wheel Drive," as the Swedes say it), a fourth-generation Haldex-built all-wheel-drive system that will also be available on garden-variety Saab 9-3s. Unlike previous Haldex systems, the center clutch-pack coupling (which is technically not a differential) no longer relies on wheelspin in order to transfer torque to the rear axle.

Instead, an electrically driven hydraulic pump can preemptively vary the pressure reaching the coupling in order to route torque to the rear, even if all four wheels are stationary. Theoretically, the system can apply 100 percent of the engine's torque to the rear wheels, but this situation is only possible if the front wheels are on wet ice and the rears are on pavement.

The Turbo X adds an electronically controlled rear differential (ELSD), which can actively transfer up to 40 percent of the torque reaching the rear axle between the rear wheels. This unit is standard on the Turbo X and will be optional on the 9-3.

With the newfound ability to transfer torque front and rear independently of wheel-speed variations and also across the rear axle, understeer (and oversteer) situations can be managed more effectively.

Putting It on Ice
We had a chance to translate this engineerspeak into driving in far-off Jukkasjärvi, a town in Sweden where we stayed overnight in the famous IceHotel, a hotel literally made from ice, and then drove to a frozen lake to test-drive the Turbo X.

Once you switch off the ESP stability control, the Turbo X will hold a four-wheel drift until the fuel tank runs dry. Per Eklund, a Saab works rally driver from 1970-'79, was there to show us how it should be done, and we did a pretty good imitation. With ESP on, the leash is loose enough to allow for just a bit of sideways foolishness, provided that the steering inputs are smooth and deliberate.

Smoothness really pays off in this car. Trying to intentionally upset the chassis with a quick flick of the wheel at turn-in, like drivers of front-wheel-drive Saab rally cars like Eklund once did in order to induce big slip angles, is too much for the ESP. Once the system sees a rapid change in steering angle, it thinks you're trying to avoid crashing and intervenes by cutting the throttle and applying brakes to kill the slide.

That said, most drivers would be faster on the ice or hard-packed snow in a Turbo X with the ESP left on than switched off — although being slow by powersliding is more fun. Alas, our driving time in the Turbo X was limited to a single lap of the ice circuit, but the extended driving we had in an XWD-equipped 9-3 suggested the Turbo X's electronic rear differential noticeably enhanced the car's playfulness.

Driving on snow-covered ice is a good test of an all-wheel-drive system's capability to respond to quick changes in wheel speed, and we came away impressed by the XWD system's overall cooperative nature.

P

avement is a much different problem statement than ice, however. With so much grip available, the car is far less tolerant of variations in front and rear wheel speeds. We'll have to wait and see if the neutral handling we observed in the Turbo X on the slick stuff translates to dry pavement.

Bringing the Heat
Power from the 2008 Saab Turbo X's 2.8-liter V6 is ample, with its full 280 horsepower arriving at a relatively low 5,500 rpm. A twin-scroll turbocharger fortifies midrange torque to a maximum of 295 pound-feet, which is on tap from 2,150-4,500 rpm. Squeezing the throttle reveals an engine with a character that's at once stout and relaxed, like it's never really working hard.

Saab says the 3,820-pound Turbo X sedan will hit 100 km/h (62 mph) in 5.7 seconds, with the wagon just a couple ticks slower due to its slightly higher curb weight. This is roughly a half-second quicker than the base 9-3 is with the same powertrain, since there's no limit to torque output in 1st gear, unlike the regular 9-3.

EPA fuel economy estimates have not yet been finalized, but early guesses by Saab's engineers figure 17 mpg city /29 mpg highway when the car is equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. Opt for the six-speed automatic and mileage slips slightly to 16 mpg city/28 mpg highway, a figure that drops by 1 mpg on the highway for the wagon.

Only 2,000 Turbo Xs will be built worldwide, with just 600 of them reaching our shores. The sedan will separate its owners from $42,510 and the wagon commands an extra $800.

The 2008 Saab Turbo X's long-term investment potential is a crapshoot, but it's encouraging to know that this special edition's specialness is a bit more than skin-deep.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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Edmunds Insurance Estimator

The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2008 Saab 9-3 in VA is:

$121 per month*
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