Volvo did it. Acura still does it. Audi has been doing it for a long time. And now Saab is giving it a shot: start with a front-wheel-drive platform, add a powerful engine and an all-wheel-drive system (hopefully with a few tricks up its sleeve), and then try to pass the nose-heavy result off as a viable alternative to a balanced rear-wheel-drive BMW. To wit: the limited edition 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X, in sedan or wagon SportCombi form. Success? Not so much.
Imagine a Saab 9-3 with a coat of black metallic paint, prominent stylized dual exhaust tips and 18” alloys that recall the tri-spoke rims that distinguished the brand’s iconic 900 SPG. That’s the Turbo X. The 9-3 has never been distinctive enough to be interesting or beautiful enough to be, well, beautiful. At best, these tweaks render it mildly sinister.
The Turbo X cabin is much the same as the regular 9-3 Aero, with solid black instead of two-tone leather and faux carbon fiber trim. The interior looks and feels like that of a $30k car, at best; the Turbo X’s price is 50 percent north of that mark. Interior low points: the hard plastic door pulls crunch when you grab them and various plastic-on-plastic itches when traversing pocked pavement. Interior high point: the soft leather upholstery.
The Turbo X’s front seats may not be Sweden’s best, but they provide a decent amount of lateral support. In back, you’ll find barely enough room for adults. Cargo volume is about average; the tailgate latch was fussy on the car tested.
The mechanicals: a 280-horsepower turbocharged 2.8-liter DOHC V6 driving four wheels through a six-speed manual (paddle-shifted six-speed auto optional) and the latest Haldex all-wheel-drive system (which doesn’t wait for the front wheels to slip before engaging the rears). The Turbo X adds an electronic limited-slip rear that distributes torque left-to-right to counteract understeer in turns.
Boost lag isn’t bad. From 3,000 to 5,000 rpm, the turbo six’s smooth, effortless grunt would do a V8 proud. Rev the engine before releasing the clutch, and the car launches strongly and— thanks to the all-wheel-drive system— without wheelspin. While the Turbo X is not blindingly quick, you’re soon up to cruising speed. Even at full throttle, the DOHC mechanicals barely manage to be heard over the prominently throaty exhaust. While cruising, the soundtrack is all exhaust, whether you want it or not. After a few hours on the road, not.
The Turbo X’s shifter is awful. The throws are long, the action dreadfully imprecise. There’s easily enough room between first and second for another ratio. Unless you rev the engine nearly to the redline, the powerplant drops out of its powerband. And even if you do rev to red, the powertrain bogs as you engage second. Meanwhile, fourth, fifth, and sixth are so close together that one of them is redundant. And yet the stick is still preferable to the Aisin autobox.
The suspension absorbs bumps reasonably well. Yet the occasional jolt suggests hardcore suspension tuning… until you pitch the Turbo X hard into a turn. Then the Swedish flagship heels over and the outside front tire scrubs towards the outside curb. Despite the trick all-wheel-drive system, the Turbo X’s general inclination is toward understeer. Numb, slow steering operated via an oversized (but nicely padded) steering wheel doesn’t help.
So, any potential for some sideways hoonage? The initial prognosis was not good. Despite repeated attempts to induce oversteer, the Turbo X continued to plow. But then I found it: dip deep into the throttle during low-speed sharp turns, preferably on gravel, and the tail will step out, sometimes more than you’d like it to. At which point the stability control doesn’t seem to do much. No matter, the car remains easy to control, and a touch of opposite lock straightens up the X’s line.
While occasional throttle-induced oversteer makes for more fun than none at all, the trick all-wheel-drive system and suspension need to be retuned to shift from understeer to oversteer in a more linear fashion. In a good rear-wheel-drive car, you can progressively dial-in a precise amount of oversteer. In the Saab, you get dull understeer unless you do the sort of things you’re just not going to do in normal driving. Perhaps there’s just no substitute for an inherently balanced, rear-drive chassis.
Saab desperately needs a great car, one that provides the sort of unique driving experience that gave the brand a brief golden age in the mid-1980s. Sadly, the 9-3 Turbo X isn’t it. Saab’s engineers lacked either the nerve or the authority to push this car as far as it needed to go. As a result, the Turbo X will please neither those seeking luxury nor those seeking an engaging driving experience.
[Saab provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance and a tank of gas]