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Driving Experience: Saab 9-3

Saab offers its premium 9-3 compact sedan to the market

Jun 23, 2003 SHARE

The numbers from the first three months are in, and despite much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments among the faithful, it appears Saab made the right choice when it dropped the hatch and entered the ultra-competitive premium compact sedan market. Sales of the new four-door (blasphemy!) 2003 9-3 base model, the 175-bhp Linear, are up over 93% compared to sales from the same three-month period last year (and against all five three- and five-door models) of the 2002 9-3. The #1 reason for purchase according to the polls? Exterior styling. At least the key is still in the traditional place between the seats.

Sure, sales tend to fall off near the end of any car model's life. Why else build new ones, and there is always some pent-up demand for the newest of anything, but with the introduction in the U.S. of the 210-bhp Arc and Vector models, things can only get better for the Trollhattan manufacturer.

"Horsepower, horsepower, horsepower. That's the challenge for us in America," said Saab's Kevin Smith. "But it's torque that moves mass." And though even the Arc and Vectors give up a few ponies in this class, their 221 lb-ft of torque (up 26 lb-ft from the Linear) match the best in class, and thanks to the TD04 turbocharger peaks nearly 1000 rpm earlier than the others. In the real world, the questions are when, how much and how long do you get to use it, according to Smith, and it appears that Saab has some very good answers.

In early February, driving from the Denver airport to Vail (in a Linear), I caught myself cruising well over the posted 75-mph limit several times despite driving over 10,000-ft mountain passes. The new cars are quiet, stable and quite comfortable on the four-lanes, even on snow tires. The press material contained a wealth of detail concerning the aerodynamic efforts of Saab's engineers. Interesting tidbits included the monoside body pressing with their inset doors and seals and the spoiler-like profile of the bottom of the door mirror casings (extended 5mm to reduce wind noise at speed), designed to help keep the side windows clean. And even though the new model rides on a track almost three inches wider, the engineers were able to reduce the overall Cd by 10% to just 0.28, and rrear lift forces were reduced 30% (0.11 Clr). The carefully shaped forward lower link in the rear suspension is the first time Saab has aerodynamically shaped a suspension part,which gives you some idea of the effort involved.

The ride up bumpy and narrow Colorado 131 to the Steamboat Springs Driving Center in a performance-themed Vector was enlightening as well. The turbo- charged four performed well despite the 8,000- to 10,000-ft altitude, and it was only well past the century mark that the suspension began to feel slightly overworked. I noticed no torque steer and none of the previous Viggen's axle-hop or boy-racer ride. Almost 60% of the 332 pieces of the laser-welded bodyshell are high- or ultra-high strength steel, and the torsional rigidity of 5,000 lb per degree of deflection, more than double that of last year's model, spelled the end of many a squeak, vibration and rattle. I expect our Vector would have been even more entertaining on its normal 17-in. performance rubber, but discretion--it was, after all, February in the Rockies--demanded 16-in. snow rubbber. Mercifully, the little two-lane was clear for our trip.

At the Steamboat Springs Driving Center (800-WHY-SKID) our group received some quick instruction and headed out with all the 9-3's vast array of electronic driver aids disabled. With no ABS, TCS, EBD or ESP (that's anti-lock braking system, traction control system, electronic brake distribution and electronic stability program) available, navigating the slippery surface around the skidpad or through the accident avoidance exercise, around a portion of the road course and through an uphill slalom, demanded a light touch on the controls.

The more we played, the more the ice was polished and the more difficult driving became. Compared to the last 9-3, I found the new car extremely stable, which also made it harder to purposely rotate. The wider track--2.8 in. in front and 2.5 in. in the rear--and 2.7-in. longer wheelbase probably had a great deal to do with this. Not to say the rear wouldn't come around--we certainly had fun making that happen--but at the speeds we could attain, getting a "swing" going to help through the slalom was easier said than done.

The ice track was even more entertaining with the electronic aids turned on. Accelerate down and around the skidpad, lift off suddenly, don't correct for the sudden oversteer and try to feel just what the ESP was doing to try and save the poor fool behind the wheel. Having only one brake applied takes some getting used to. The traction control was equally impressive. Saab's new Trionic-8 engine management system does up to 2 million calculations a second and controls torque by monitoring the ionization rates in each individual cylinder. Out in the real world, you could plant your right foot and the car would carefully walk up the icy road despite the full-throttle input.

There were a few odd things going on, though. Some allowance for slip has to be left in any program, and with the TCS and ESP engaged, I found the swing I had been missing through the slalom. On the other hand, carrying some speed into the slalom required accelerating down a hill and drifting through a right-hander onto the slalom straight. The fastest way through was an in-slow/out-fast/late-apex line that took you straight across the polished ice and utilized the extra traction from the snow off-line. As you accelerated through the late apex, a little drift would develop, but it seemed the electronics didn't know what to think. There would be a momentary bobble just after the apex while the electronics tried to sort things out. Still, I was quicker with the aids than without.

Back in Vail (there had to be a reason to be here), it was also entertaining to watch part of Saab's marketing plan in action. For years, automakers have teamed up with sports and sporting events to help promote their products. But Saab's market research has shown most Saab owners are more interested in participating than spectating, and they like downhill skiing best of all. Last year Saab teamed up with ski manufacturer Salomon to present the Crossmax series in Europe, and this year the show came to North America with 10 (of 40 worldwide) events held across the U.S. and Canada. Vail was the first stop. Open to pros and amateurs alike, Crossmax is rallycross on skiis. Competitors start six at a time down a tricky course with jumps and banked turns. Sort of a mini giant slalom meets dirt-track luge. I didn't sign up.

Saab and Salomon, along with Sony and Excedrin, have also teamed up to present the Oasis at selected Crossmax events. Two hundred pairs of skis and 80 snowboards are available for test rides in the Salomon tent. The newest Saabs are on display, with special promotions encouraging a test-drive back home as part of the thank-you for stopping by. Music and parties round out the weekend-long celebration. Look for an adventure race series once the weather warms up.

My 100-mile drive back to the Denver airport, I found the picture-perfect weather of the day before had been replaced with snow, and I-70 was nowhere to be seen under the white stuff. Guided by guardrails and snowbanks illuminated by self-leveling bi-xenon (both high and low beams) headlights, the new Vector never put a foot wrong in the foul and treacherous conditions. Despite my rule never to drive faster than I want to crash, the new 9-3 was confidence inspiring in the snow, and I found myself passing several SUVs (mainly as a defensive precaution, I didn't want to get caught up in any problems they seemed ready to have).

I'm still not sold on the double arc of the dashboard, with its high position display at the center of the dash. On the other hand, when the road finally cleared and I searched for a radio station, it was nice not to have to look completely away from the road to see what station I had picked with the wheel-mounted buttons. The extra bolstering of the Vector's heated front seats made the ride very comfortable.

It will be interesting to watch sales of the new 9-3. Saab is reaching a slightly younger group of buyers with this car, and its focus "on an involving fun to drive experience" seems to have come up with a winner. It remains to be seen if Saab can keep its reputation for individuality intact and its exceptionally loyal followers happy while gaining market share. Meanwhile, I fit the target demographic (except for the $ part), and if my wife is any indicator, Saab has nothing to worry about. Beth wants my six-speed Vector in black. I was hoping for the metallic silver Anthracite Gray.

SIDEBAR

Going Quickly Around An Ice Track
Of course, after our exercises on the skidpad, we eventually graduated to one of the Center's full one-mile, 10-turn tracks (and its covering of 100,000+ frozen gallons of water). In slippery conditions, the traditional racing line won't work. Try a late apex line instead and use the in-slow, out-fast technique. Get your braking done in a straight line, turn in only when you can see through the corner, and accelerate as you unwind the wheel. On the ice track the corners quickly become polished, and a late apex line allows you to cross the slickest spots in a relatively straight line.

Be aware of the surface. Snow is slick, but ice is slicker. The fast way through a corner on an ice track often involves searching out slight advantages in grip and making the most of the opportunity. Off-line often has more grip. You can also use weight transfer to your advantage. "Weight transfer is often a more effective way to steer the car than the steering wheel," said Pikes Peak veteran Tanner Foust." "The steering wheel just initiates the turn." Accelerate into the turn, turn in and lift off. Use the rotation (oversteer) to point the car in the right direction, countersteer and add a little throttle to stop the oversteer. Left-foot braking carries this idea further. "You can also pit oversteer against understeer," said Foust. "The point of the pendulum turn is to induce oversteer, which happens to get the car pointed earlier so you can accelerate earlier and eliminates the understeer."

"You have to be really patient at times," said ProRally regular Mark Cox. "A lot of us get into the habit of being very quick when we're driving on pavement and well within the grip limit. There comes a time on ice and snow where it takes a little bit of time for the weight transfer and the rotation of the car to develop. You , as a driver, have to be confident enough to know you have given the car the proper inputs and that it will happen. Sometimes it takes a couple of seconds and you're sitting there doing nothing. Nothing is very hard to do!"

Smoothness and anticipation are the keys to quickness. The fastest cars at the icy Sno*Drift ProRally were also the least dramatic. Powering through lurid slides and bouncing off snowbanks was definitely not the fastest way through the frozen woods. The fastest drivers invariably kept their eyes up and were constantly looking at the road's shape, the terrain and for changing conditions. "Looking ahead allows you to anticipate and not just react to the situation," said Foust. Good advice for road or rally.

SIDEBAR

Some Winter Driving Tips
I've just returned from a winter ride-and-drive of the new 210-bhp Saab 9-3 Vector. Part of the fun included a stop at the Steamboat Springs Driving Center. Run by the Rally Art Organization, the ice tracks there host corporate events like ours, tire tests and the Bridgestone Winter Driving School sponsored by Toyota.

·Use snow tires. They work, and as Instuctor Mark Cox points out, there's "the responsibility of not sliding around on public roads and crossing into the other person's lane. Your connection to the ground is all you have. The better the connection, the better your control of the vehicle."

·Make sure your maintenance is up to date. It is no fun changing your battery in a Sears parking lot on a snowy Sunday morning. It never hurts to have jumper cables, a tow-rope, a shovel, flares and a blanket in the trunk.

·Don't trust snowy shoulders. Plows can quickly fill a deep ditch with snow, leaving a deceptively level surface.

·Test the road surface often in slippery conditions. Our instructors recommend looking in your mirror to make sure no one is close behind and applying the brakes. Stay sharp lest you're surprised. My rule: Never drive faster than you want to crash.

"When you are driving on something slippery," said instructor Tanner Foust, "smoothness is the key. You are always driving much closer to the grip limit [than you would be on dry pavement], so it is important not to upset the grip with abrupt input to the controls. Separate the controls and use 100% of your grip to do one thing at a time."

Added Cox, "Be smooth in ways people usually don't think about. Lots of people are smooth when they turn the wheel or hit the brakes, but they don't consider that smoothly releasing the brake or accelerator or turning the wheel back to center is just as important."

Oversteer
What happens when you abruptly lift off the throttle in the middle of an icy corner? Weight transfers to the front, the front tires gain grip while the rears lose grip, and around you go. A classic case of lift throttle oversteer. "Luckily, our natural instinct is to steer in the direction we want to go," says Foust. "Hopefully, we're also looking where we want to go. Hands always follow eyes." To catch the car, look where you want to go, steer into the skid and add a little throttle. That takes the weight off the front tires and puts it on the back tires that are sliding. Suddenly the rears find more grip and things straighten right out.

Separate Controls
Going through an accident avoidance exercise on ice reinforces the need to separate the brakes and steering. Again, we want to use 100% of the available grip to do one thing. "With no ABS," pointed out Foust, "it is our responsibility to balance the grip between braking and steering. We'll have to release the brakes to steer. Only when the car is back in a straight line can we brake to a stop."

With no ABS, quickly pumping the brakes was the most effective way to slow the car. Waiting too long to release the brakes resulted in the death of a few cones. A few more died as some in our group didn't fully release the brake and spun as they tried to turn, pointedly showing how little margin of error there is on ice! Realize you may not be able to stop in every situation. Brake in a straight line, release the brake and steer around the obstacle.

If you have an ABS-equipped car, use the "stomp and steer" technique. Take advantage of the technology. Don't pump the brake pedal; plant your foot on the brake pedal and keep it there as you steer around the obstacle.

"It can also be very difficult to separate acceleration and steering," said Foust. Trying to accelerate through a treacherous, nasty, icy, uphill slalom course brought home the point. On ice and snow, ask the tires to do only one thing at a time.

Understeer, The Enemy
What happens when go into a corner too hot and crank in the steering? Understeer. We keep turning the wheel until we get to lock, but nothing happens and we slide straight off the road. "The treacherous understeer," said Foust, "probably causes 80% of the accidents on the road. We relate steering compliance to the steering wheel. When you lose grip with the front tires, you lose steering compliance. We react with two bad instincts to understeer--crank the wheel and hit the brakes. You need to stay off the brakes [you're already trying to use more grip than is available] and find some kind of optimum steering angle. That means turning the wheel back towards straight [until the grip comes back]." This is an extremely difficult lesson to learn and without experience is totally counter-intuitive.

Of course the thing you need most is practice in these situations. Feeling the car slide out from under you is a scary thing. Ages ago my Dad took to a snowy parking lot late at night. I was getting pretty good at donuts by the time the cops showed up. They suggested a public lot wasn't perhaps the best place for this kind of behavior but experiencing those sensations on a controlled environment will mean you won't panic when it happens on the street. If you can't find a safe place to practice, call 1-800-WHY-SKID or log onto www.winterdrive.com for more info on the Winter Driving School.

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