When our fearless leader so elegantly blew the clutch on the only Saab 9-3 Turbo X in the country after the performance sedan spent a long tour of Europe and a hard day under the boot of Jan Magnussen, we thought getting an honest review of the car would be nigh impossible. We also thought Wert would never live down that new nickname — Chief Transmission Destroyer. But he has, and after the boss-man agreed to stay off the track until he got a few more heel-toe lessons, the fine folks at Saab invited us to sample the Turbo X again earlier this week at Saab's home-away-from-home — Boston. Having just returned from Beantown and some time reflecting on the drive, we have to admit, our world has been gently rocked.
As we mentioned last month, Saab is using the limited-edition Turbo X as a way of introducing the Haldex-sourced XWD system — as well as more turbos and a more distinct styling — to the entire lineup. With a 286 HP turbocharged V6, 294 lb-ft of torque available at 2,150 RPM and that high-tech all wheel drive system mated to either a six-speed manual or a paddle-shifting six-speed auto, this Saab doesn't look much like the 900's of yore — and it doesn't perform like one either.
So what's it like behind the wheel of this terror from Trollhättan? On the short closed course and the available public street routes, the Turbo X is practically heroic. Pegging the throttle not only rewards with a glorious engine note somewhere between "angry four-banger" and "loping V8," but when the well-executed torque curve pins you to the seat as you hit a long straight, the car feels like a performance car is supposed to feel — like you're a test pilot hurtling upward into an ever-darker pool of blue sky.
The first time I used the throttle to steer the car through a fast sweeping corner, I found myself wondering if we had been dropped off into a parallel universe. In past Saabs, the only thing the throttle was good for was acquainting you with the curb. Second and third for the notchy manual transmission are like some kind of magical happy fun-time selectors. At the limit of grip, the car communicates beautifully, so easy to balance you'll find yourself plotting your next four-wheel drifting opportunity.
Throughout the tests I left the traction control in full nanny mode to simulate true Saabiness. To my surprise I was happy to find the Turbo X's nanny was the lazy kind, only checking in every once in a while to make sure you're not about to stuff it into a post, but generally letting you run true to course. I pushed both the sedan and the SportCombi hard, and never once found the traction control a burden. Speaking of the two models, here's a funny little secret — if you don't look in your rear view mirror, you'll never be able to tell the two apart on the track.
But that's the manual transmission. What about the Black Knight's snazzy six-speed manumatic? Good, but not great. If you find yourself unable to coordinate clutch, shift knob and wheel simultaneously (sorry boss!), it's a good alternative. Dropped onto the track in full auto, shifting lags and doesn't quite deliver what the engine and XWD system are capable of. Switch it into manumatic via the "+/-" gate and it's a whole new animal. While the shift points remain a little muddy, the system will generally obey your commands and allow you to abuse the rev range with abandon. If you bounce between second and third, performance is pretty respectable. If you let it hang in a gear, it actually feels like a manual transmission — stabbing the throttle will give the same instant-on power feel.
On the street and in traffic, the cars have a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality to them. They're perfectly happy to plod along in Boston's cramped streets and the light — almost too light (Hey, maybe we're starting to see why Wert's normal high-intensity foot-mashing was so dangerous!) — clutch won't tire even the weakest of left leg. However, drop either transmission down a cog or two and that gorgeous exhaust note fills the cabin, encouraging and calling out to you to engage in random acts of silliness.
At the end of the day, the 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X isn't some kind of Saabvior, it's more of a missionary man for the brand. With only 600 slated for US shores and half already spoken for, the Turbo X won't be setting any sales records, but it will be raising eyebrows. Saab is having a very "Cadillac in 1999" moment, checking out the market and thinking "Hey, we could really shake things up here." The Turbo X manages to maintain a lot of what's great about a Saab, while eschewing those stodgy stereotypes and pushing the limit on the brand's past. It manages to surprise and delight just by existing. We just wonder how all the patch-elbowed tweed jacket-wearing college professors feel about that.