- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

Half a century ago, a small automobile and aircraft manufacturer in Sweden, Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, started exporting cars to the United States.

Its claim to fame was that its cars, which were about the size of the more familiar Volkswagen Beetle, had two-cycle, three-cylinder engines — you mixed the oil with the gasoline — and front-wheel drive. Though a few other manufacturers, including Germany’s DKW models, also had front drive, their numbers were small and they didn’t survive in the marketplace.

Saab, on the other hand, had continuing success, enhanced by an international rallying reputation with famed driver Eric Carlsson, who used the front drive to advantage while flogging Saabs around tight curves on rugged European courses.

In America, owners in wintry states found that they could drive on snowbound roads, even with standard bias-ply tires, when almost nothing else was moving. Moreover, the two-stroke engines started easily in below-zero temperatures because there was no thick oil in the crankcase. The Saabs became wildly popular in Connecticut, for example.

Over the years since, through the 93F, 96 and subsequent models, Saab has sold about 1.1 million cars in the U.S., never veering from its commitment to front-wheel drive, though it dropped the two-cycle engines.

That changes with the 2008 Saab Turbo X, which is the first all-wheel drive model ever offered by the company. It is a high-performance version of the Saab 9-3, which in its current iteration has been around for about five years. It also follows in a line of turbocharged performance models dating back 30 years.

Now owned by General Motors, Saab in recent years has been something of a stepchild without much in the way of new products to excite the customer base, despite the fact it is GM’s only premium brand in Europe.

The new Turbo X, which comes as a four-door sedan or four-door station wagon, is aimed at getting pulses pounding again among prospective buyers. Unfortunately, there won’t be that many of them — at least at the outset. Saab plans to bring in just 600 of the Turbo X models in 2008, in whatever color you want as long as it’s black, and equally divided between wagons and sedans.

The excitement starts with the turbocharged 280-horsepower, 2.8-liter V6 engine, which is mated either to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode controlled by the shift lever or paddles on the steering wheel.

The kicker is the all-wheel drive, which Saab calls cross-wheel drive and plans to offer as an option on all models eventually. It automatically transfers the torque, or rotational force, from front to back and side to side. Depending on conditions, it can send almost 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels, and can split the traction 50-50 side-to side.

Along with electronic stability and traction control, it means that the Turbo X delivers exceptional response in quick and tight maneuvers, such as on an autocross track. Of course, that same control is on tap during day-to-day driving on public roads.

The tested Turbo X had the six-speed manual, which had a slightly clunky feel but did not hang up. Clutch action was light, though engagement came near the top of the pedal travel, as if the clutch were worn.

With the stick shift, the Turbo X is plenty fast, accelerating to 60 miles an hour in 5.4 seconds, according to the manufacturer’s specifications. But there is some slight turbo lag until the engine winds well past the 2,000-rpm mark.

There’s a tactile feel to the steering and the car follows driver inputs precisely around corners. But this is basically a five-year-old chassis. The engineers lowered the suspension system, fine-tuned it and added high-performance tires on 18-inch alloy wheels.

With the modifications, aimed at sharpening the handling, the suspension system transfers road shocks through to the passenger pod and the driver’s tush, delivering an unpleasant ride on all but the smoothest surfaces.

The older design also results in an inefficient use of interior space.

Though the Turbo X looks like a relatively big compact car, and it has large, comfortable and supportive front bucket seats, the back seat is cramped and confining. Should an adult center-rear passenger venture back there, he or she would find no head or foot room.

The Turbo X starts at $42,510, with the station wagon costing $800 more. Included, in addition to the stability and traction control: anti-lock brakes, active headrests, side air bags and side-curtain airbags, automatic climate control, motorized sunroof, heated outside mirrors, leather upholstery, leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, power front seats, GM’s OnStar communications system, and an audio system with six-disc CD changer and XM satellite radio. The automatic transmission is a $1,350 option. Other options included a navigation system, which elevated the test car’s suggested sticker price to $46,100.

With so few copies of the Turbo X available this model year, Saab disciples likely will line up quickly.

They know that Saabs are an acquired taste. But for some of those who acquire it, nothing else satisfies.

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