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Owner experiences and review: Saab 9-3 TDi

Saab 9-3 TdiCan a diesel Saab ever be sporty?

Thanks to Mark Anderson TTE for writing this article.
(All pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them)

Diesel, Sporty, Sexy, Saab. Not four words likely to be in the same sentence. Unless, 'not' prefixes three of the 'S' words. I must confess that I'm reviewing my own car here, but I will try to be as objective as possible. 

Now in the past I've owned or driven many pretty sporty/sexy cars, and must say I never thought I would end-up driving a Turbo Diesel as my main car. As a confirmed Petrol Head, I like my cars sporty, focused, driver centric and driven by Petrol.

I've owned VW Corrado VR6s, Golf GTi. both big-bumper 16vs and lardy mk 3s, Peugeot 205 1.9 GTi, Prodrive goodie loaded Impreza Turbos and even at one time a pristine 3.2 Porsche 911 coupe sport, but unfortunately the sheer mileage (kilometerage?) that I drive each year doesn't allow me the luxury of a performance sports car anymore, and wife acceptance factor being what it is, I can't bag an Elise as a second car. So, I chose, perhaps a rather unusual and interesting route.

I'm not adverse to modifying cars, as long as the car looks nearly standard from the outside, I had my Porsche's chassis modified by Koni to give better rear breakaway protection, my Golf GTi's had braking, chassis, exhaust and engine upgrades and my Subaru's previous owner obviously had a fetish with Prodrive stuff, having their exhaust, brakes, intercooler and waterspray modifications done.

Saabs were not a new thing in my DNA either. I was introduced to Saabs back in 1992, when I friend of mine bought a black 900 T16S Aero, with Abbott modifications. I got to drive it in 1996, and could not believe how quick it was - at the time I was a confirmed VW nut, but seeds were sown. I remember many a motorshow in Glasgow's SEC sitting in 9000s, 900s and 9-5s thinking how different they were, and how comfortable they were.

So when car shopping in 2000/2001, I stopped by the Saab showroom, where the salesman talked me into driving a MY2001 Saab 9-3 TiD SE coupe in gunmetal grey. I had it for the day, and was impressed by it's motorway acceleration and it's relative quiet at Motorway speeds, the seats where hugely better than the Rover MG/F I had at the time, the car felt secure and looked like it would handle motorways pretty well, I was less impressed with it's noise when cold and the vibration that could be felt through the steering wheel.

So I placed an order for a MY2001 Saab 9-3 TiD S Coupe in Silver, the S specification had many items fitted as standard -  SARH Seats, Air co, cruise control, SID2, ABS, 4 airbags, Remote-controlled power locks, power windows, pre-wiring for a hands free telephone,  steering wheel audio controls and electric antenna - if a Saab Audio unit is purchased. On top of that I ordered the following factory options: Silver Metallic Paint, Saab Audio System 2, Category Classified immobiliser, Front Fog lights and upgraded my choice of wheels from the S standard 15'' wheels to a set of 16'' 3 spoke aero wheels.

When It arrived, I was pretty happy with it for about two weeks. It suits Dutch roads perfectly where the majority of trips take place on smooth well maintained motorways, however when I took it home on vacation to Scotland, things really started to show up. The car rolled and pitched in corners, with the front loosing grip early and pushing wide in corners, the steering felt remote, and when applying power, torque steer was pronounced with the wheels spinning the torque away out of bends.

Saab 9-3 TdiThe car never really felt breathless, but it could have done with more punch on A roads, where throttle response was not as immediate as I would have liked. 

The 2001 model TiD has huge engine differences over the previous years TiD engines. 125Hp over 115hp, and 280NM (some sources say 290nm) Torque over 260NM, but that doesn't tell half the story over the engine improvements. New for 2001's TiD engine included better oil cooling, new improved pistons, reinforcement of the engine to cope with Torque, new fuel electronics, incorporating the new Bosch PSG-16 Diesel integrated fuel pump/ECU, totally new electronically controlled EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) system and the icing on the cake, model year 2001 Saab TiDs are fitted with a Garret 15 VNT (Variable Nozzle Turbine) turbo. Unlike conventional Turbo designs, this turbo has no wastegate, but is instead controlled by a set of guide rails on the exhaust side of the turbo. The turbo pressure control system controls the turbo so that on low gas flow, the turbo speed increases and hence the boost pressure. This means that a higher engine torque even at low engine speed. At higher gas flow, the turbo unit speed is reduced to avoid over-revving of the turbo, but still gives the desired boost pressure.

The Saab 9-3, whilst having over a thousand improvements over the NG900, many in chassis department, was still way off par in the driver's car category.. and it felt it. So what was I going to do? Never visit Scotland again, or never indulge in my other past time - track days again and leave the car standard.. or see if it all can be improved.

Saab 9-3 TdiA visit to Abbott Motorsport ( http://www.abbottracing.com ) was booked, where many improvements were made (See TECH, PROJECTS section of Turbo Team Europe's website - http://www.turboteameurope.com ) including, the Abbott Racing Motorsport 125 Diesel ECU/Fuel-pump Upgrade, the Viggin Rescue kit (which included the up-rated steering rack clamp, bushings and bracing), Koni 'yellow' sport adjustable dampers and Eibach pro springs and a Saab Sports 'OEM Remus' exhaust back box. I've since fitted 17'' Saab wheels, with Michelin Pilot 225/45zr17 tyres and a J&R performance air filter element.

The improvement to this car can't be understated. It lifts the car into another league, in a word the Saab is now driver focused. Fast throttle response, huge grip, with a firm, but not unpleasantly so, ride

Saab 9-3 TdiFigures alone, do nothing to describe the driving enjoyment that the 9-3 is now capable of producing. In the dry, just throw it into a bend and watch as the front sniffs out the camber of the road, the dampers instantly settling the car into the groove, no squirm, no bounce, no fuss.

Some figures I took in my car, regarding the improvements made in the engine department:

 

Abbott ECU upgrade switched - OUT

Abbott ECU upgrade switched - IN

80kph to 112kph in 4th

50mph to 70mph in 4th

6.5 Seconds

5.9 Seconds

80kph to 112kph in 5th

50mph to 70mph in 5th

9.5 Seconds

7.4 Seconds

48kph to 80kph in 4th

30mph to 50mph in 4th

5.8 Seconds

5.6 Seconds

Effortless overtaking punch is available with the engine upgrade switched on (it's switchable). A few months ago I was on the Pass of Brandar outside Tyndrum in Argyle, Scotland with the car, I made ready to overtake an articulated lorry on a road which can only be described as the devil's own tail. The road kinked and turned, blind, with undulations, standing water on the outside, armco on the inside protecting a ravine from 1300Kilos of Saab. I sat back, trailed off the throttle, took a deep breath, and pulled out to see....clear, buried the throttle, on the other side of the road now, the camber against me, I tore past the juggernaut, noticing for the first time the campervan holding the truck up, decision time.

Saab 9-3 TdiI could see that the road was still clear, no it was time to really test chassis grip and overtaking power, I pressed on, as the road curved around the mountain, undulations that would have caused the 'old' 9-3 to bounce, caused this upgraded one to flex it's shoulders and ride the road, with ease, past the camper van and back on to the safety of my own side of the road. Impressive stuff. I could feel the road, I would have known where the grip was even if my eyes were closed. On real roads, in real conditions, with real hazards this is one quick car.

I find myself overtaking three or four cars, when I had intended to only overtake one. Steering vibration, now is cured, largely thanks to the Abbott up-rated Steering Rack Clamp, which now communicates nice feed back through the Leather Sports Saab steering wheel, which is lovely to hold and use, similarly with the Leather gear knob and gaiter. The seats, always an excellent Saab feature are again excellent for posture and long distances for those in the front, I pity anyone who has to travel in the rear however, think being stuffed into a cat box, and you're probably half way there in imagining the general discomfort rear seat passengers feel in a Coupe 9-3.

Other driver controls and amenities keep the side up, with the steering wheel audio controls and Saab Audio System 2 giving clarity, ease of use and adequate audio performance.

I've had a chance to test the Airco on this car in Italy's excellent summer last year, where it performed like nothing short of a Smeg fridge as outside temperatures nudged past 38c, funny that a car built for the worst winter the frozen Nordic can throw at a car would also be the only haven from the heat I could find.

Brakes are the generic Saab OEM ATE calipers front and rear, with solid discs at the rear and ventilated discs at the front and are confident and secure, with ABS being largely unobtrusive in normal braking operations.

Given the way I generally drive, I find economy on the good side, considering the performance, but not the best for a Turbo Diesel. I get an average of 7.3litres to 100kms, not bad for a car that tops out at 210KM/H and can do 0-100kms in 8.4 secs and weighs around 1300kilograms.

As said I like the odd bit of track-day fun, something I've participated in previous to Saab ownership, in my old Porsche, Golfs, Impreza and MG/F - how would the Diesel Saab tackle the fearsome Nurburgring?

Saab 9-3 TdiLet's get one thing straight.. given the choice between a 9-3 Petrol Turbo with the Abbott bits on and my 9-3 I'd take the petrol. Why?.. because the combination of an Abbott chassis and car that can rev past 4300 rpm would be welcome on the track. 

Yes, the 9-3 is quick on real roads, but on the track it runs out of puff. Torque is good at 340NM but 160HP is just not enough. 

The Nurburgring will test any car, and with these chassis modifications, with the Abbott chip switched out (i.e. only 280NM torque and 125HP) could easily catch and pass, my friend's (Maarten van Dorst and Jeroen Hesterman) Hirsch chipped (but chassis standard) NG900 (240hp) and 1.8i Mazda MX-5.(140HP) (See reports and videos of Nurburgring Adventures at http://www.turboteameurope.com under ENJOYMENT, DRIVING, TRACKDAYS.), which is an excellent advert for Abbott's chassis engineering, given the power gap.

As expected, and seen on public roads, turn-in was proved to be excellent, balance was good, feedback and grip in the dry was also excellent. Braking also proved to be a surprise at the 'ring. This is a track that has over 60 bends and lasts for 22Kilometers, a place where a mistake is very, very costly. Good brakes are needed here.

A German friend of mine, lapped the 'ring with me, at the end he said, 'So Abbott up-rated the brakes too?". "Emm, no they are standard Saab and standard pads.". "Impressive", he said. Enough said.

I've received many comments by Turbo Diesel novices after being introduced to this car. These are the highlights..

"Fast.. for a diesel." - Abbott Motorsport Goodwood Trackday 2002 - Anonymous.

"amazingly fast tuned 9-3 diesel" and " but even with 300hp available, I needed a long straight to do it. I have developed a substantial respect for diesel power!."- Abbott Motorsport Goodwood Trackday 2002 - Bill Jones, owner of 300hp Maptun tuned Saab 9000 Aero.

"A very fast and balanced car" - Abbott Motorsport Goodwood Trackday 2002 - Ian Foxley. Owner of highly tuned 99 Turbo.

"That's a diesel?.. you're joking?" - Abbott Motorsport Goodwood Trackday 2002 - Anonymous.

"Impressive" - Abbott Motorsport Goodwood Trackday 2002 - Stephen Cattell - Red 9000 Carlsson.

Saab 9-3 TdiThe result is a very balanced car, which is excellent on both Motorway and Fast A and B road. Funnily enough - a driver's car. And recommended to anyone looking for performance combined with good economy.

Downsides? : The Michelin pilot tyres are terrible in the wet : - I lost the tail in the Wet at the Abbott Motorsport trackday in the rain. And whilst this was partly due to having a trailing throttle through St Marys, and no weight in the tail, having little fuel left - wet weather grip has never been a strong point of the Michelin Pilots.

Saab 9-3 TdiThe other huge downside is the increase smoke that now escapes the exhaust as a result of the Abbott upgrade, which in the wet has a tendency to cover the rear of the car in soot, something which never happens when the upgrade is switched off. I'm in the process of rectifying that issue with investigation into having a performance exhaust made which has twin exit pipes that are downturned to face the road, therefore keeping the rear soot free.

PROS: Relatively Fast, Accelerative, Comfortable and Balanced.

CONS: Diesel Clatter at idle, Soot from Exhaust with Abbott upgrade and Tyre choice crucial.

Thanks to Mark Anderson for writing this review.

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