One hundred and twenty miles north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter, it's very cold. A thick layer of snow covers everything in sight, and you notice that the locals prefer to drive vehicles that put the power down through all four wheels. You'd think, then, that Sweden-based Saab would have been at the forefront of the all-wheel-drive movement, but that's not the case. It has been nearly three decades since the launch of Audi's Coupe Quattro, and Saab just now is introducing its first homegrown AWD system.
The Saab 900 was one of the must-have cars of the 1980s. But by the time the '90s rolled around, Audi had launched its Quattro all-wheel-drive system in the United States, BMW had unveiled the 325iX, and Mercedes-Benz had introduced the 300E 4matic - all while Saab maintained that its front-wheel-drive models offered all the traction anyone needed. For a while, buyers bought the argument. But as American prestige-car buyers became more and more enamored of - and got - huge horsepower, Saab still insisted that its front-wheel-drive strategy was sufficient. It wasn't. Managing director Jan-Åke Jonsson admits, "We should have done this many years ago. Maybe we were a bit too stubborn, feeling front-wheel drive was good enough."
Saab's new all-wheel-drive system, coined cross-wheel drive (XWD), might be late to the party, but it's anything but behind the times. It was developed with Haldex, the same company that supplies all-wheel-drive components for the Volkswagen R32 and the Land Rover LR2. During cruising, the system's multiplate wet clutch sends a small amount of power to the rear wheels for stability. Should the vehicle's data sensors determine it appropriate, the clutch, which is located in front of the rear differential, can lock to fully engage rear traction.
The most impressive feature of XWD, though, is the available active rear limited-slip differential (eLSD in Saab-speak). Similar to - although simpler than - Acura's super handling all-wheel-drive system (SH-AWD), eLSD is able to proactively juggle torque between the rear wheels for improved stability and handling. The Saab setup differs from SH-AWD in that it uses a single wet clutch pack for rear-wheel torque distribution instead of a pair of clutches on each side of the rear differential.
We traveled to a frozen lake in the Arctic to play rally driver with Saab's new setup. We spent most of our time in a 9-3 Aero SportCombi equipped with all-wheel drive but no eLSD. Traction and handling were both impressive, and XWD operated smoothly and quickly.
Near the end of our test-driving day, Saab handed us the keys to a 9-3 Turbo X for a very brief eLSD test on the ice. Immediately, we felt the rear diff at work. Turn-in was far more eager, and the chassis and handling balance felt more neutral. The Turbo X was also more stable during quick transitions compared with the 9-3 without eLSD. Most important, the Saab system felt more cohesive and linear than does Acura's more complex SH-AWD.
The limited-edition Turbo X is the first all-wheel-drive 9-3 model available. You'd better like black, because that's your only color choice for the exterior, which boasts more aggressive front and rear fascias than the stock 9-3 and new eighteen-inch wheels. The Turbo X also gets a retuned suspension with lowered ride height and larger front brake rotors.
Inside the Turbo X, you'll find carbon-fiber trim as well as sportier seats, a thicker steering wheel, and a turbo boost gauge. While peak power is the same as in the forthcoming XWD-equipped Aero model, the Turbo X delivers full power in all gears instead of limiting the torque in first and second gear. For the 2008 model year only, Saab USA is importing a total of 600 Turbo X models in both sedan and wagon guise. Since BMW denies Americans its 335i wagon, it's nice to see Saab offer a near-300-hp grocery-getter.
The eLSD is standard on the 2008 Turbo X and will be optional on all-wheel-drive 9-3 Aero models that will arrive later in the model year. Saab plans to trickle XWD into all 9-3 models except the convertible (the structural enhancements fitted to the softtop Saab don't leave room for the all-wheel-drive components). Also, the forthcoming 9-4X crossover and the next-generation 9-5 will offer XWD. It's ironic that a company that waited for so long to offer all-wheel drive will now have an impressive and sophisticated system available on most of its future products. Now, if only Saab can sharpen the 9-3's steering, overall suspension damping, and manual-shifter feel, the company might be able to ride the XWD wave and put Saab back into the hearts of enthusiasts.
Holiday on Ice
Sleeping on reindeer skins in a hotel made entirely of ice, enjoying moose stew cooked over an open fire in a tent, and driving XWD-equipped Saabs on a vast frozen lake--welcome to the Saab Ice Experience in Lapland. For $3500 (for two people), you, too, can enjoy this adventure as part of Saab's European Delivery program. After the flight to Kiruna, you travel by dogsled to the famous Ice Hotel (www.icehotel.com). On arrival, you can relax in a sauna that offers views of the spectacular northern lights (if the conditions are right). After a night in frozen accommodations, it's off to play rally star with a collection of Saabs. Along with the slip-sliding fun, activities such as snowmobiling and a helicopter ride to Kebnekaise Mountain, Sweden's highest peak, are offered. Saab is aware that one night in the cold is enough, so the rest of your stay is spent in a nice, heated hotel. Saab plans to offer the Ice Experience again for winter 2008-09.