words: Mike Callahan

With its pumped up turbo V-6, darkened body trim, and modern twist on the classic three-spoke wheel, the Saab Turbo X pays homage to the rarest performance Saabs of old, cars like the 1985 900 SPG and 2000 9-3 Viggen. However, unlike its quirky forbears, this newest Trollhättener uses all four wheels to get its force-fed power to the road. Also, Saab is offering the Turbo X not as a three-door, but as either a four-door sedan or a five-door "SportCombi" wagon, the latter making up only a third of the 600 total units to be offered here.

You will definitely know a Turbo X when you pass one; its appearance is unmistakably sinister by comparison to the workaday 9-3 on which it's based. Exterior changes include a more aggressive front bumper with integrated driving lights, deep side skirts, and a unique rear bumper with a pair of angled chrome exhaust pipes. With its blacked-out headlamps, titanium-colored accents, and black metallic paint (the only color available), the Turbo X looks downright mean.

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Inside, you'll find familiar Saab surroundings dressed in titanium trim and carbon-fiber accents. A pair of black-leather sport seats complements the leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel with integrated radio and trip-computer controls. Saab's old-school, ungraduated turbo-boost gauge even makes a comeback in the instrumentation.

Under the hood lurks an uprated version of GM's ubiquitous 2.8-liter V-6, turbocharged and intercooled to produce 280 hp and 295 lb-ft, with peak torque coming on from a low 2150 rpm. The V-6 uses aluminum construction, variable intake-valve timing, and a single twin-scroll turbocharger. A six-speed manual or six-speed automatic are both available, giving enthusiasts a choice of pedal counts. Putting the power down is Saab's first all-wheel-drive system. Called XWD, it was developed in cooperation with Haldex, whose systems are found beneath Volvos, Volkswagens, Audis, and Fords, to name but a few. Unlike previous Haldex systems in other cars, which engage the rear wheels only after slippage is detected, the Turbo X's system determines how rapidly the accelerator has been depressed from a standstill and locks the rear clutch pack before any slippage occurs at the front wheels. A rear limited-slip differential can bias up to 40 percent of available torque to the left or right rear wheel depending on which side has grip.

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We tested a standard 9-3 and a Turbo X sedan back-to-back at Road Atlanta and around a wet skidpad, and found that the Turbo X is a huge improvement over the 9-3 according to any metric you care to use. The stiffer springs and shocks not only give a 10-mm lower ride height, they also provide far better transitional response, less roll, and better overall control. The uprated brakes, with 13.5-inch front and 11.5-inch rear vented discs, never faded, even from triple-digit speeds on this notoriously difficult track. Those wicked-looking 18-inch anthracite wheels are wrapped in 235/45R18 Pirelli P-Zero Nero tires that exhibit well-controlled breakaway characteristics, making it easy to push past their adhesion limits and bring the car back again without any major pucker moments. As expected, the Turbo X ultimately understeers, but is fairly neutral in its general handling traits and easy to correct mid-line through a turn.

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Complaints? The steering is a bit vague, over-assisted, and lacking in feedback for such a performance-minded machine. We also felt like our particular Turbo X just wasn't giving us the full 280 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Driven on both the track and the street, our butt dyno consistently felt as if we were driving a car with between 225 and 250 hp. Heat soak on the track undoubtedly took some edge off the performance. However, our wagon test car only managed a best 0-60 time of 6.8 seconds. The XWD system and automatic transmission don't help the already-heavy wagon, so we expect the lighter sedan to produce modestly better times. Still, a standard Audi A4 with a 200-hp turbo four and AWD rips off similar runs despite its motivational deficit.

Out on the wet skid pad the new XWD system put power down effectively and smoothly. We never detected any transition of power happening, and the car just pulled and pushed itself around the wet surface with confidence. Despite our best attempts to induce some power oversteer on the wet course, the Turbo X refused to play along. Abrupt lift-off in the middle of a turn also did nothing — the car stayed firmly planted. All of this, of course, is perfectly safe and ideal for the general consumer, but a little more fun would be welcomed by the driving enthusiasts who will likely plunk down for a Turbo X.

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The Saab Turbo X sedan starts at $42,510, and the wagon comes in just $800 higher, putting it in the price range of some stiff competition, including the BMW 335xi, the Audi A4/A5, Cadillac CTS4, and Infiniti's G sedan and coupe. Despite its shortcomings, the Turbo X is the best performance product to arrive from Tollhättan in a long, long time, and gleeful Saab-heads have likely already claimed the measly 600 units Saab has planned for this year. After all the costs of certifying two transmissions choices, an all-new version of the turbo V-6, and all-wheel drive for this market, we're scratching our heads as to why Saab isn't selling the Turbo X as a regular halo model. After years of glorified Subarus and Trailblazers, this is exactly the kind of product Saab needs.