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Saab 9000 Turbo 16 - Motor Magazine Review 1 [2]

Saab 9000 Turbo 16 valveIn 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 Severn Bridge and into the rugged hills of South Wales. That’s where the Saab car-and-plane television advertisement was shot. I don’t care much for the tone of the advertisement— aside from the Boeing 737 noises featured 9000 Turbo slightly sideways through a gravel-strewn left-hander: it’s as fine a piece of driving as you will ever see on television, and a lot more skilful than those talents displayed trudging a Peugeot 405 through a burning field of stubble or a Montego around a parking lot. (What the hell kind of symbolism is that, anyway?)

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.

Saab 9000 Turbo 16 valveAdd 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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