By Kevin Miller
Before you start reading this review, you should know that I, your humble author, am a Saab fanatic. In my 34 years I’ve owned three Saabs, each black in color, two of which are still with me. I’m active in my local Saab club. I am a wealth of Saab knowledge and lore. That being said, I’ve made a real attempt to temper my excitement long enough to give an unbiased opinion of the limited-edition Turbo X I drove for a week- a black Saab unlike any other that has come before it it, either in my driveway or Saab’s history.
With 280 HP, the Turbo X is the most powerful Saab ever built; it is powered by a more-powerful tune of the 2.8 liter turbocharged V6 found in the 9-3 Aero, paired with a six-speed manual transmission. It is also the first Saab ever to come out of the company’s Trollhattan plant equipped with all-wheel drive. Saab has sold other all-wheel drive vehicles in the US: the short-lived, Subaru-based 9-2X that was built in Japan, and the Trailblazer-based 9-7X which is built in Ohio, USA. The Turbo X is really just the top trim level of the 9-3 Sport Sedan and SportCombi, but Saab dismisses the 9-3 nomenclature when referring to the Turbo X.
Although I’m really a Saab guy, my daily driver is a 2004 Volvo V70R, a wagon whose specifications (300 HP 5-cylinder turbo 2.5 liter, AWD, 6MT) match closely with the Turbo X SportCombi’s. The difference in the AWD functionality between the two cars is amazing. The Volvo uses an older generation Haldex coupling; the latest-generation Haldex unit in the Saab is light years ahead. The all wheel drive in the Turbo X is very nicely calibrated to transfer power to the rear tires of the car. Charging into a corner where FWD cars (and even my Volvo AWD) understeer wide of the intended line, the Saab’s “XWD” system (pronounced Cross-Wheel Drive) sends power to the back and let’s the front tires take care of the steering, while the “eLSD” electronic limited-slip differential transfers up to forty percent of the torque between rear drive shafts. The chassis of the Turbo X has been lowered 10 mm compared to the 9-3, and to maintain a constant ride height, self-leveling dampers are fitted at the rear. On an enthusiastic drive up to Mt. Hood’s Timberline Lodge in Oregon, it was amazing to feel no front-end plowing as I charged into the road’s tight uphill corners. Learning that a FWD-based AWD wagon can handle like this was truly enlightening.
The 2.8 liter V6 is a pretty big, thirsty engine, with a 16/24 MPG rating in this powertrain configuration. It sounds unlike any of the 4-cylinder Saabs I’ve owned, and it acts differently too, with a burbling, powerful exhaust and torque characteristics that are very different from those of a 4-cylinder turbo. The payoff for all of those differences is power, which is plentiful at all but the lowest RPMs. Reverse on the 6-speed manual transmission is to the left of first gear, which takes some getting used to. On models equipped with optional rear parking assistance, a chime sounds when you engage reverse and the words “parking assistance enabled” fill the driver information screen; this is fortunate because more than once I shifted out of reverse, and inadvertently moved the shifter right past first gear into reverse again. The shifter and clutch feel will be familiar to drivers of other manual-transmission Saabs, but drivers of other marques (like Honda or BMW) will wonder about the vague, rubbery shifter feel and the spongy clutch pedal.
The Turbo X was incredibly enjoyable to drive, and was very comfortable as well. The all-leather interior looked great and smelled great, exactly like a Saab’s leather interior should smell. The seat was always comfortable, even for a three-hour stretch on a drive from Seattle to Portland. The 9-3 based car does have it’s downfalls, however. Unlike the little Nissan Versa that we just reviewed, a tall person – or even a SHORT person can’t sit behind a tall driver. I could barely squeeze my fist between the seatback of the driver’s seat and the front edge of the back seat’s bottom cushion. My three-year old daughter barely had adequate knee room in her car seat.
A piece of silver trim around the upper dash, meant to recall the classic Saab 900, creates a terrible reflection in the windshield under many lighting conditions, about 2/3 of the way up the windshiled on from the driver’s A-pillar diagonally to the center of the driver’s sun visor. The dash was otherwise handsome and well laid out, with a retro-Saab-turbo-look boost gage, which illuminates on the dash when the car is unlocked. Dashboard materials are all black plastic, have a nice appearance and neither feel nor sound hollow or cheap. The Turbo X lacks Bluetooth handsfree phone integration, relying instead on GM’s OnStar, which is out of place on a technologically-advanced European car. The accessories catalog shows that a phone cradle can be installed for a wired connection, this is still not a Bluetooth option.
The Turbo X also shares its Bose stereo’s head unit with most current GM products. I recognized the shape from recent car rental experiences, and confirmed the identidy when I saw the exact same head unit (with different button font) in a Satun Sky roadster parked with its roof open. The stereo’s sound was great when playing CDs or listening to clear FM broadcasts, but the sound was much quieter when listening to XM stations. Switching between the XM and FM station presets was a jarring experience because of how much louder the FM stations were.
Like the rest of the 9-3 range, the Turbo X offers no keyless entry or keyless start; perhaps this is to keep with the Saab tradition of locating the ignition between the front seats. Also like the rest of the 9-3 line, the Turbo X suffers from a poorly-placed Passenger Airbag On/Off reminder lamp. Located high on the dash next to the infotainment head unit, the amber reminder lamp is brighter than any other dash lighting at night. It changes intensity at twilight, and on a sunset drive through the woods, it constantly dimmed then brightened; each time it brightened it caught my eye and took my focus off of the road. Saab’s appreciated Nightpanel system doesn’t darken that reminder lamp either, so it’s always shining brightly at night.
The Turbo X has aggressive looks, gorgeous titanium-colored twin-three-spoke 18-inch wheels, a nice black leather interior with real (or very real looking) carbon fiber trim, and the uniqueness of being a limited-edition Saab. Just 600 Turbo X models will be imported to the US, split between the Sport Sedan and SportCombi body styles. The Turbo X SportCombi I drove had a base MSRP of $43310, and additionally had the Cold Weather Package for $550 (which includes heated seats and headlamp washers), and the Touring Package for $895 (including rear parking assistance, automatic-dimming rear view mirror with compass and HomeLink remote control), for a total of $44755.
That price seems pretty steep for a 9-3 based vehicle, especially given the competition, which realistically includes the BMW 335i sedan we just reviewed, That BMW includes keyless start, navigation, Bluetooth handsfree phone integration, and universally-acclaimed driving characteristics (among other features not offered by Saab) for $44750. Of course, you’ll be seeing 335i sedans all over in a few months, but quite the opposite will be true of the limited-edition Turbo X. The Turbo X is a showcase model for Saab, and Saab’s die-hard customers are likely to buy most of the limited run of vehicles. The new XWD system will be making its way into lesser 9-3 (and upcoming 9-5) vehicles in the future, where it will help Saab compete with other European brands who offer all-wheel drive on their premium cars.
Like the limited-edition 9-3 Viggen and 900 SPG before it, the Turbo X is a proud declaration of Saab’s latest automotive technology. It is fast, safe, comfortable, and capable in any condition a driver is likely to encounter. As such, it is a fitting addition to Saab’s model lineup.
For more photos of the 2008 Saab Turbo X SportCombi, visit our image library here.
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