Friday, May 30, 2008

TurboX Preview

This post is long overdue, but then again, so is the TurboX. We've been hearing about this car for some time. For the uniniated, this iteration of the 9-3 features our first Swedish built AWD (dubbed XWD--Cross Wheel Drive) system, an increase in engine power, and is a limited edition vehicle designed to pay homage to the Black Turbos of the 1980's.

I did get a bit of an insiders peek at the car before it was released, and had a chance to put the TurboX through its paces prior to its introduction. An aquaintance in GM marketing called me earlier this spring to inquire about a venue to run a ride/drive presentation for New England media, and knowing my involvement with Skid School thought I might be able to help. In fact, Skid School leased their site in North Andover to GM for that purpose, and I was an invited guest.

The site was festooned with Saab tents, a small collection of GM Heritage Collection Saabs, and a technical presentation tent. After an introduction to the car by US and Swedish Saab officials, the journalists were given the opportunity to drive the heritage cars on a small closed course, and flog the TurboX on an autocross, complete with a hairpin turn doused with sand. Being just a guest, mostly I observed. My first thoughts in watching the journalists at the wheel was that I hoped that their writing was better than their driving. Recently retired Royal Ford was in attendance, and to his credit he can drive, though he did punch a cone (which is OK--if you don't tip a cone, you're not finding the edge, and you're just not trying hard enough).

Finally it was my turn. I saddled up with fellow Skid School instructor Sean along for the ride. We were in a Combi TurboX 6-speed. The course started with a full throttle 3 cone slalom, followed by hard throttle sweeping left hand turn, down a straight, hard on the brakes, into at 135 degree left (covered with sand), quick jog to the right, full throttle straight, hard brake into the final left turn and then into the "pit". My consternation came in two places. First, in the sandy turn I wanted to induce some oversteer with the throttle, but could not. TurboX understeered severely, as though it were a front driver. Then in the straights, it did leave me slightly wanting for more torque. I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed the car. Any Saab driver will be right at home and will be able to drive this car very hard with little surprise; that is, unless, like me, they expected a significantly different attitude than that of front drive Saabs. My comrade also shared the observation of the understeer in the sand, and he also felt the car could have been sprung a bit firmer. I'd agree. TurboX is not for everyone, and it ought to be very edgy, including a really stiff suspension, like the early 9000 Aero. We did manage a ride with a Swedish engineer at the helm, wanting to see if he drove any differently with any better result in the sandy corner. He, in fact, could induce some really nice oversteer which was perfect in that corner, but he did it with trail braking (in other words, keep driving this car just like a front wheel drive car), not just a poke of the throttle. Note to self.The best part of TurboX that day? The sound! This is the best sounding Saab at full throttle, period. The idle isn't as sexy as the Classic 900, but this isn't a car you idle.

I was happy to also help out the crew with the Heritage cars. First, I was offered a chance to drive several to fill them with gas. I was fortunate to be there, since upon arrival two of the cars couldn't release their gas fill doors, and I was able to put my experience to work. Later in the day, the 1978 99 turbo failed to start, and I was summonsed and located a corroded terminal on the ignition lock relay and all was well again. The most entertaining part of the Heritage car fun was driving the 1997 Pike's Peak racer (roll cage, racing seat, fire extinguisher system, and lots of power) on the road. In every gear, without even trying, I induced wheel spin and gobs of torque steer. Love it!

This week, I had a chance to attend the ride and drive presentation for dealer personnel. After the technical presentation, we were afforded the chance to drive the TurboX and Aero XWD (only significant differences are the electronic limited slip differential and larger wheels/tires in the TurboX) on two closed courses against some competition: the FWD 9-3 Aero, the BMW 335xi and the Audi A4 3.2 Quattro. One course was set up with rubber mats covered in soapy water to demonstrate the differences in the AWD systems. I was impressed at how different each car felt. The XWD performance was substantially better with almost no wheel slip at all. The Audi was good, the BMW rather lacking with lots of wheel spin, clutching and grabbing, and the FWD Aero put its ESC to good use and was surprisingly easy to maneuver despite its handicap. On the dry course (this was very tight and small, not wide open like the North Andover experience), the tight suspension and heavy steering of the BMW felt great, the Audi felt vague and uninspired, the TurboX and Aero XWD were sure-footed though heavy feeling, and the FWD Aero felt easiest of all the cars to push hard. This is undoubtedly because of all my years driving FWD cars, and though riddled with some torque steer and understeer, this is the car I had the most fun with and dollar for dollar was the winner in my book.

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