2000+ words. Please forgive me.
Last weekend I finally – finally - got some seat time in the Turbo X. Yes, it’s taken this long. Personally, that’s a pretty frustrating thing. I don’t want to blow my own horn here, but I’m quite sure I’ve helped Saab in their efforts sell a few of these cars in the last 12 months. To have to wait this long to get behind the wheel of a full production spec Turbo X is somewhat less than ideal, but that’s life as a blogger in a remote location for ya.
The occasion was our Saab Car Club event and as a special treat, our local dealer arranged to bring in Saab Australia’s only Turbo X press car, which is a SportCombi Turbo X with an automatic transmission.
I’ll get to the bad stuff later, because I’ve got to say right up front that despite the things that bugged me about this test vehicle, I still consider the Turbo X to be a magnificent piece of machinery and if I were so fortunate to be able to afford one, I’d get it in a heartbeat.
This car has more presence than I’d remembered. It’s been a long time since I saw one in person. In fact, it was way back in January at the Detroit Motor Show that I last ran my eyes over one of these. The SportCombi is my favourite 9-3 variant and in Turbo X form it looks absolutely menacing.
The faux-titanium trims on the outside look much more subtle (read: better) than the standard model and the jet black metallic paint has to be seen up close on a sunny day to be appreciated. There were a lot of comments about the lack of rubbing strips down the side of the vehicle and whilst I can see the practical use for them, I’m personally quite pleased that they’re missing. I like the cleaner look.
Inside, I think that if anything, the carbon fiber accents are too subtle. It’s hard to see the grain in the material and there just isn’t enough of it, especially forward of the driver’s eyes. Maybe it’s me yearning for something to cover up the dashboard (which I’ll get to shortly), but my theory is if you’re going to go loud – then go LOUD.
The black leather seats are awesome both in looks and feel, but the best thing about the interior is the steering wheel. I’m no fan of the batwing wheel on the Aero, as you may know, so to have a chunky leather wheel in all-black suited my tastes perfectly.
Given the number of complaints I’ve read about the Turbo X’s exhaust note, the vast majority of which come from fillet-filled journalists looking for a bone to pick, I was expecting some sort of thunderous sound, as if a swarm of killer wasps were trapped with me inside the car.
To all of those journalists and complaining owners – pull your collective lips up over the top of your collective heads and swallow!
Both in motion and at rest, I found there was no intrusive noise whatsoever in the Turbo X. None. Zero. Zilch. In fact, at rest, I had to deliberately give the car a good kicking just to hear that sweet rasping noise from the twin rhomboid pipes.
All you complainers need to come spend a day at the wheel of either my Alfa or my Saab 900; now those are some cars that produce some noise. The Turbo X? It’s engineered so there’s noise when you need it. The exhaust note in the Turbo X is such a non-issue that I’d advise anyone who doesn’t like it to sell the car to someone who’ll appreciate it. Then call your mother – she’s duty-bound to care.
Maybe the reason I found nothing disturbing or irritating about the sounds coming from the Turbo X is because I had to concentrate so much by the time I got to drive it
All attendees at our club event were given the opportunity to drive the Turbo X. The keenest punters got the keys first and endured a horrible morning ride amongst the Sunday drivers in their camper vans, who were climbing through the twisties at around 70 km/h.
I waited for the return leg and took the keys for the first highway section of the trip so that I could test out the raw acceleration of the car. A gent from our club who I like to refer to as The Hammer, with a 2006 9-3 Aero (the perfect combination of V6 turbo and button dashboard), decided to stick on my wing for most of this leg. The Turbo X had the power advantage, but you could barely tell and John managed to stay on my tail until I hit speeds that he felt a little concerned about on public roads. I figured it was worth the risk and as far as I could tell, the road was clear.
We stopped for another driver change and selfishly, I hung on to the Turbo X’s keys. This was the road I’d been waiting for all along – a 15km stretch of twisty B-road between the main highway and a little village called Colebrook.
I turned in and immediately, Craig Y in his Maptun-tuned Saab 9-5 Aero (a 2005 wagon) was on my tail. Craig and I are old sparring partners of sorts and each knew what the other had in mind. It was Turbo X test time. The unspoken challenge was for me to drive the Turbo X just within my limits and for Craig to stay in my mirrors. The sport button was on and we were away, clear of the other following cars within moments.
What ensued was around 10 minutes or so of automotive bliss. I had Matt the fudgepacker in the car with me (and yes, we know what that means in your part of the world) trying to work the video camera – hand held. I haven’t seen the video yet but I have a feeling you’ll need a barf-bag to watch it.
The speeds aren’t important. What was important is that the car performed. The Turbo X felt so planted through the whole drive; it even had me feeling like a competent driver!
Seriously, this thing can handle any B-road with the greatest of ease. It’ll give you buckets of fun, leave you panting whilst it smokes a cigarette and asks you when you’re going to bring your A-game. To put it simply – this car is far, far more capable than 99% of the people who will buy it.
Which leads me to the reason for the title of this piece, and a few things that bug me……
I’ll say it again: this car is far, far more capable than 99% of the people who will buy it. The problem: many of them won’t know it, won’t think it, and won’t appreciate the Turbo X for the true technological wonder that it is.
I’ve owned three 99 Turbos in my time. Actually, I’ve only owned two, but I bought one of them, sold it and then bought it back, so I’ve had three ownership experiences.
The 99 Turbo was a car that was at least as revolutionary as the Turbo X should be. It was one of the first mass-produced turbocharged cars and I have no doubt whatsoever that the people who bought it knew – just knew - that it was something very special. Watch this old video if you don’t believe me – part 1 and part 2. Legend has it that that journo actually went out and bought one after doing the story.
The Turbo X should have had the same effect and for a select few who know the full extent of what they’ve got, it will. The main problem lies between the seats of some Turbo X’s and is the main reason why a number of them remain unsold – the automatic transmission.
The Turbo X should have been like the Saab 99 Turbo and the Viggen that came before it – a manual gearbox proposition only.
This is supposed to be the monster car that debuts the best darn all-wheel-drive system on the planet. Make it a monster!! The Turbo X with an automatic transmission is well and truly capable of scaring the pants off you, but only if you know there’s a sports mode button on the dash and you proceed to stick it with a red hot poker. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly well mannered road car. That sort of balance is nice for Aero owners, but the decision to be a Turbo X owner should be a somewhat more deliberate step in the insane direction, like the 99T and the Viggen.
I overheard several people who drove the Turbo X over the weekend talk about how it was ‘nice’ but none of them said it was inspiring. I know it’s capable of being inspiring. The problem is that with an automatic transmission, the default setting of the car is ‘nice’. Why Saab Australia chose a vehicle with the automatic as their press vehicle is way beyond my comprehension. Every writeup in the country is going to be based on a car with a character far removed from the XWD designer’s intention (and I know this because I’ve been a passenger in a Turbo X with him at 170km/h – on dirt!).
I guess an automatic has to be an option these days, however, which leads me to the lesson learned from Craig Y’s Maptun-tuned Saab 9-5 Aero, which is also an automatic. I was fortunate enough to reacquaint myself with this car on the weekend as well – what a trip!
The beauty of this car – and other remapped cars I’ve been fortunate enough to drive over the years – is the aggressive posture they adopt when called to do so.
Craig’s car is perfectly capable of being a docile town cruiser when required. In fact, his wife has put many more kilometers on the car than Craig has, just doing around-town stuff. Press the sport button, however, and some of Maptun’s finest work is brought to life and the results are truly exhilarating. The car responds like a tightly coiled spring.
In contrast, pressing the sport button on the Turbo X is something a little less stunning. The car does go from mild to something-approaching-wild, but you’ve still got to wait a good second or so for kickdown to occur and the results to feed back to the driver. In the Maptun 9-5 it’s more of a case of going from mild to mayhem! It’s as if the car kicks down milliseconds before you press the pedal and the response it gives is just fantastic. You’re in total control, but the adrenalin pumps and you feel like you’re really……….driving.
The Turbo X should be absolutely barking mad when asked, and I believe in manual form it probably is. With the automatic, a trip to the good men at Hirsch in Switzerland is almost mandatory.
A final lesson from the 9-5 Aero – the interior.
This is an interior that’s well finished. It makes you feel like you’re driving a pleasuredome on wheels, even amidst the mayhem.
The Turbo X’s interior, casting aside my previous concerns about the carbon fibre being too subtle, is just a little too spartan when it comes to the dashboard area. This is not a problem confined to the Turbo X.
This isn’t a photo of the Turbo X, but the look is basically similar. This is the TiD I drove on the last leg of the trip.
It might just be me, but I find the black plastic on the Saab 9-3 dash to be not only hard to the touch, but also hard on the eye. What really irritates me is the filler bits they’ve used in various places. Just to the right of the radio, above those four buttons (nightpanel, etc) are two space-fillers that are just incredibly awkward to look at. The Turbo X has them as well.
Again, a trip to Hirsch is warranted for the carbon lather dash so that these abominations can be overcome.
I started on a positive note and I want to finish on a positive note.
Despite my concerns about the car’s identity, its setup in automatic mode and its interior finish, the Turbo X is one heck of a car. I can only imagine how much more fun it is to drive when you have to row your own boat when changing gears (and manual owners assure me that it IS fun).
This is quite possibly the best Saab car ever built, which is quite a statement. It’s a shame that some waste so much energy wondering about it. It’s a shame Saab and GM gave them something to wonder about in the first place, actually.
I’d like to think that every Turbo X owner has a switch somewhere in the back of their brain that allows them to go into ‘bonkers’ mode. The good news is that the Turbo X is very much a car that you can do that in. Even the automatic version if you try hard enough.