Road Tests / Car Reviews: Saab 9-3 BioPower Convertible 2008 Review

Saab 93 biopower fq 2

It’s a dark and brooding sky that I wake to on my first morning with the Saab 9-3 BioPower Convertible. It rained heavily throughout the night and water is still cascading down the streets like an urban river.

As I warm up with a coffee and look outside to where beads of water sit on the cloth roof of the Saab, I wonder if I should just stay inside for the day, rather than go touring around the countryside in a convertible.

Upon weighing the options, the prospect of taking a turbocharged coupe out for a blast finally wins out, and I find myself in the comfortable leather seat turning the centre console-located ignition.

The engine comes to life (not all that quickly) and I ponder the eternal question that convertible owners the world over must struggle with everyday. Top up or down?

Despite the outside temperature being represented on the green-lit display as a single digit and the presence of clouds and scattered showers, I decide to down the cloth roof, crank the heater to maximum, and cruise off down the road.

Even though I look like a complete goose driving with the top down in freezing winter weather, I am enjoying myself. At city speeds the seat warmer and heater do their jobs well, but out on the open I question whether it really is a good idea having the top open.

I pull over and put it back up while on the highway and enjoy the warmth. Easing off the highway onto on country roads, I open the top and enjoy the turbo whistle and the odd rain sprinkling.

The 9-3 BioPower is not the quickest car in the world, but thanks to 147kw of power and 300Nm of torque produced by the 2.0 litre turbocharged engine (when running on E85), it gets along quicker than the hushed driving atmosphere inside the car would have you believe.

The BioPower aspect is something that I’m very interested in, both as someone concerned about the future of fossil-fueled cars and as a home-brewer.

I love making beer and spirits at home and after some investigating, I discovered it is possible to distill, at home, ethanol decent enough to use as a blend like E85 in a car that is ‘flexi-fuel’ capable. Who wouldn’t mind sharing a bottle of vodka with their car?

Aside from being a cheaper way to fuel a car (it’s probably illegal anyway), Saab’s ‘Flexi-Fuel’ ethanol technology is a possibility for the future.

New Zealand doesn’t have E85 retailers yet but the U.K has quite a few petrol stations where E85 is available and it may be just a matter of time before we see them here.

It would make sense that Saab NZ wouldn’t release an E85 capable car if there wasn’t going to be E85 fuel available.

Fuel consumption in the Saab was a combined 12.1 l/100km on our test route which included a mix of highway/city and country driving.

On some tight and twisty roads the Saab’s damping feels good with a minimum of body-roll and very little scuttle-shake. Even on bumpy corners it feels composed.

Old-school torque-steer of the variety pioneered by Saab isn’t evident, even when deliberately provoked the 9-3 stays neutral. Like any front wheel-drive car understeer is a possibility, but in the Saab it is not a prevalent unless man-handled.

The steering wheel-mounted gear change buttons are a little clumsy to use when shifting manually but change quite quickly compared to other semi-automatics on the market and make for a more sporting drive.

The dash architecture does let the car down a little as the dials and the green-lit displays on the dash and radio look very dated. The displays are also very glare sensitive becoming impossible to read when the sun shines directly on them. The main controls for the trip computer, stereo and heater are all very easy to use and understand.

The interior really is a nice place to be and has a quality feel which at this price it really should do.

The cloth roof doesn’t do a brilliant job of keeping things quiet at motorway speeds when the rain is coming down but everywhere else it is fine and opens and closes quite quickly, although I did get caught out by a rain shower once.

Hustling the Saab along at seven-tenths is a pleasant experience as it is comfortable and reasonably quick, kind of like a turbocharged lounge chair.

At lower speeds it is a little difficult to judge proximity to other cars and the kerb when parking. The Saab ‘parking assist’ works well but only in reverse, leaving you unsure of how close the sloping nose is to the car in front.

The 9-3 is a good-looking car at the front but the clear lens rear lights don’t suit the mature image of the rest of the car.

Overall the Saab is a handsome, comfortable, reasonably quick car which would please most people looking for a decently luxurious convertible. The Saab is in an interesting position being much cheaper than convertibles from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, but more luxurious than the Holden Astra TwinTop, the Peugeot 307CC and the Renault Megane Coupe/Cabriolet.

Price: from $74,900

What we like

  • Comfortable interior and pleasant ride
  • Front end treatment

What we don’t like

  • Glare-affected displays
  • Dated dash display

SAAB 9-3 2.0t BioPower

  • E85/Petrol engine Four-cylinder in-line, aluminium cylinder head and block.
  • Turbocharger, intercooled. DOHC, 16-valve. Balancer shafts.
  • Ignition/Fuel injection  Saab Trionic 8 engine management. Direct ignition. Multi-point fuel injection.
  • Displacement: 1,998cc
  • Bore/Stroke (mm) 86 / 86
  • 0-100 km/h M6 8.2; A5 9.3
  • Fuel consumption (l/100 km) City/H.way/Comb. M6 11.8/6.6/8.5; A5 13.1/7.7/9.7
  • CO2 emissions combined (g/km)  M6 203; A5 232
  • Luggage compartment    Max trailer load   : 1600 kg
  • Seating Capacity:   4
  • Drive train   : Front wheel drive
    • Manual, 5-speed  Transverse drive unit, full synchromesh, manual gearbox
    • Manual, 6-speed:  Transverse drive unit, full synchromesh, manual gearbox
    • Sentronic five-speed automatic: Electronically controlled automatic transmission with manual shift possibility. Direct mechanical lock-up in third, fourth and fifth gears.
    • Sentronic six-speed automatic 6 speed automatic transmission with Saab Sentronic manual selection, steering wheel buttons standard

Words Ben Dillon, photographs Darren Cottingham

News: Audi launches TTS in New Zealand


Audi has taken the wraps off a new sports car model. The top model of the TT line, the TTS, is available in both Coupe and Roadster body versions. Its two-litre TFSI engine develops an awesome 200 kW (272 hp) that catapults the Coupe with S tronic dual-clutch transmission from 0 to 100 km/h in just 5.2 seconds and on up to a governed top speed of 250 km/h.

Quattro permanent all-wheel drive translates its sheer power efficiently onto the road, and the Audi magnetic ride shock absorber system guarantees precise handling. The high-tech S tronic transmission can take charge of power transmission as well, shifting faster than even a highly skilled driver.

The TFSI engine in the TTS takes the two petrol direct injection and turbo-charging technologies from Audi and blends them to form a perfect partnership for a sports car. It is not only the 200 kW of output that makes the TFSI so scintillating, there’s its hefty pulling power too — the maximum torque of 350 Nm is constantly on tap from 2,500 up to 5,000 rpm. tronic, which operates with six speeds and two clutches, changes gear at high load and engine speed in a fraction of a second. This, coupled with its dynamic starting performance, knocks two-tenths of a second off the sprint to 100 km/h for both the Coupe and Roadster. Virtually loss-free transfer of power to the road is the task of the standard-specification quattro permanent all-wheel drive, which enables the TTS to accelerate sooner and more reliably than its challengers.

At the heart of this system is a hydraulic multi-plate clutch, which now works faster than ever thanks to a new pressure reservoir. The TTS rolls off the production line equipped with yet another high-tech module — the Audi magnetic ride adaptive damping system. Circulating inside its damper pistons is a special fluid containing minute magnetic particles. When electrical voltage is applied, the fluid’s flow properties change, altering the damping characteristics as well. The driver can choose between two mapped characteristics — Normal and Sport. Normal mode is designed for a well-balanced, comfortable ride, whereas in the Sport plane the TTS harnesses all of the potential of its sport suspension — which lowers the body by 10 millimetres — to deliver uncompromisingly crisp handling.

The TTS is launching in New Zealand in June and will be priced at $109,500 for the S tronic Coupe, and $114,500 for the S Tronic Roadster.

News: Aspid puts a new spin on the Seven concept


The Aspid is a new sports car from automotive engineering consultancy IFR Automotive, making its world debut at the British International Motor Show. Very much a driver’s car, it offers exceptional performance, agility and style. It is also small, lightweight and ultra compact.

IFR’s luxury two-seater is the result of an uncompromised five-year development programme by a top team of professional automotive engineers who have set out to create a vehicle with distinctive looks, outstanding road holding, the most predictable handling possible, and exceptional levels of performance both on and off the track.

The extensive engineering has resulted in a highly developed sports car with well resolved vehicle dynamics. Notably, the Aspid delivers its track performance without compromising the ease and reliability with which it can be driven about town and in the countryside. Another desirable quality is that it makes the most efficient use of its available space and is extremely well packaged.

As a technology showcase for demonstrating the company’s design and engineering capabilities, the Aspid’s packed with advanced technical features and patented innovations. The strong immensely stiff chassis, for example, underpins the car’s superb dynamic performance and tenacious road holding, while the car’s compactness and low mass ensures excellent fuel economy and correspondingly low CO2 emissions.

The car’s design began with no restrictions whatsoever on the positioning of key chassis and suspension components; a three-dimensional geometric void — literally an empty space — was the start point for constructing the car. This unusual approach successfully delivered the optimum linear relationship between all chassis and suspension variables. The driving characteristics are further underpinned by an optimum weight distribution between front and rear axles and a similar optimum polar moment of inertia; all helping to provide the driver with the finest possible driving experience.

The new sports car has an impressive design and engineering pedigree. Formerly with Prodrive, Rodriquez subsequently joined the Mitsubishi World Rally Championship team as race engineer for Alister McRae and François Delecour. Rodriquez founded IFR Automotive in 2003 and began work immediately on the new sports car project, while handling confidential car and commercial vehicle assignments from industry clients.

Rodriquez has recruited a team of highly experienced automotive engineers, many with a similar top level motorsport background. Chief dynamics engineer Breno Oliveira, for example, also worked at Prodrive. The development of the car has also benefited from the input of Sergi Arranz, an experienced motor industry test driver who was previously head of dynamics testing at SEAT.

The Aspid is the only car in the world to meet both FIA safety requirements and European homologation standards. This means it already has the strength within its main body structure to avoid the need for an additional roll cage; it really can be driven from the road directly onto the race track without the need for any special preparation. And after a hard race the car is robust, durable and safe enough to be driven again on public roads.

Aspid prototypes feature a 2-litre engine; either naturally aspirated to deliver 270bhp or supercharged to 400bhp. The engines are highly modified by IFR, such that the engine block can be sourced from a number of possible suppliers. Power is delivered to the rear wheels through a manual 6-speed gearbox and limited-slip differential.

The lightweight aluminum and carbon structure of the car, which has a mass of just 700kg and the resulting 570bhp-per-tonne (1.75kg/bhp) power-to-weight ratio gives awe-inspiring acceleration on the track, with the car reaching 100km/h in 2.8 seconds.

With a long list of options, no two Aspids will be exactly alike. And with each one tailored to the precise needs of each individual customer the anticipated base price of £75,000 (NZD$198,000) and upwards for this ultra-exclusive super-quick luxury sports car, which is full of quality bespoke parts, can only serve as an approximate guide. Expect fully loaded models to cost twice as much.

So what’s behind the name? Aspid is the Spanish name for the small and very quick snake that killed Cleopatra. It is thought to have been a member of the cobra or viper family and is native to southern Europe. And as we all know vipers and cobras tend to move very quickly.

The Aspid and its main technical innovations will be displayed at the British International Motor Show in London docklands in the north hall (stand N8A) of the ExCel exhibition centre. The show runs from Wednesday 23 July to Sunday 3 August 2008.

News: Ferrari California shows off open top (+video)


Ferrari has released a video of the forthcoming California to showcase the talents of the folding roof.

The flashy California convertible is the first Ferrari to have a V8 between the front wheels and has some purists up in arms about Ferrari ‘selling-out’. I though the first clue would have been the plethora of Ferrari merchandise like the T-shirts, socks and aftershave.

News: Smart swallows thirteen contortionists to celebrate 10 years of production


How many people can you fit into a diminutive Smart fortwo?

The amazing answer is 13 following a car cram staged to help celebrate smart’s 10th anniversary. Owners and visitors to the annual smart Destination Brooklands event held at Mercedes-Benz World, in the UK were invited to take up the Smart-packing challenge.

With the drivers and passengers of 1,200 smarts attending the event there was no shortage of potential participants but the winners proved to be the aptly-named ‘Smart car-tortionists’, a group of body-bending specialists chosen for their gymnastic feats. They included Iona Luvsandorj, semi-finalist in this year’s Britain’s Got Talent TV series.

With remarkable flexibility, a total of 13 contortionists managed to climb aboard the micro smart which measures just 2.7 metres long by 1.6 metres wide, proving that the fortwo is small on the outside and big on the inside.

Blogs: In-flight liposuction could power aircraft

A fairly surreal conversation emerged last night at my flat when I suggested that perhaps overweight people could get liposuction on long-haul flights, and the resulting fat could be used as ‘bio-fuel’ to power certain systems on the aircraft, thus reducing fuel consumption. ‘Virgin Surgeons’ one of us said. As unrealistic as this sounds (you only have to know a bit about medicine to figure out why it wouldn’t work, and a bit about psychology to know why people wouldn’t accept it), it does highlight the fact that humans walk around either storing or generating a lot of energy that is never put to good use.

Back in the days of Vikings, the crew would row the galleons to assist the wind power. So, can the same principal be applied to other forms of transport? There have already been scooters which you can pedal to assist their engine, for example. Could this be done en masse in public transport? How about in gyms? Why hasn’t some enterprising gym owner hooked his treadmills and exercise bikes to the national grid and pumped the energy generated by the clients back into the system? This electricity can then be used to power plug-in electric cars.

It might become a noble thing in the future that people go to ‘grid gyms’ – a place where your workout actively generates electricity for the city. Perhaps  you get tax credits.

OK, so now I’ve set this idea of a utopia where there’s unlimited energy available by human work. That’s not going to be the case: a fit human can generate around 100W for a couple of hours maximum. 30 humans, if you take into account mechanical losses would therefore only generate around 2kW. That’s enough to run a heater, which isn’t bad. If you had 60,000 people nationwide you may generate 4MW of power. With a very rough calculation, that would power bugger all.

But every little bit helps.

News: Porsche releases details on new 911 Carrera 4


Porsche continues the change of the 911 model series with the announcement of all-wheel-drive versions of the next generation of its iconic sports car. The new 911 Carrera 4 and Carrera 4S will enter the market in both Coupe and Cabriolet guise, and offer a wide range of innovative engine, transmission and drivetrain technologies providing higher standard of driving dynamics combined with much lower fuel consumption.

Porsche Traction Management (PTM)
In the new generation 911 Carrera 4 and Carrera 4S, the all-wheel drive is now provided via electronically-controlled Porsche Traction Management (PTM), which replaces the former all-wheel drive with its viscous multiple-plate clutch. The superior PTM system was first developed for the 911 Turbo and has been modified for the Carrera models. The transmission delivers an even higher level of driving stability, traction and agility, further enhanced by the mechanical limited slip differential now fitted as standard to the rear axle.

PTM feeds exactly the right amount of engine torque in each situation through an electronically-controlled multiple-plate clutch to the front wheels, supplementing the flow of power to the rear wheels. Combined with the highly dynamic PTM control system, this clutch precisely delivers a distribution of power and torque to the front and rear axles as road and driving conditions change. With the previous viscous clutch, up to 40 per cent of torque could be directed to the front axle. The new electronically-controlled PTM system delivers an infinitely variable torque split, and is able to distribute up to 100 per cent of traction to the front or rear wheels.

PTM provides a faster and more precise transmission of power in all driving situations, and this offers not only excellent stability at high speeds, but also increases further the level of responsiveness of the car to the driver.

New engines with Direct Fuel Injection (DFI)
The 911 Carrera 4 models share their all-new flat-six engines with Direct Fuel Injection (DFI) with the two-wheel drive Carrera 2 and Carrera 2S. Depending on the model, the all-wheel-drive 911 Carrera offers up to 8.5 per cent more power, fuel economy improved by up to 12.9 per cent, and 15.4 per cent lower CO2 emissions than the previous generation. Specifically, output of the 3.6-litre power unit is up by 20bhp to 345 bhp (254 kW). At the same time, a Carrera 4 Coupe with PDK transmission, to take just one example, offers fuel consumption of 10.1 l/100 km.

The improvements on the 911 Carrera 4S with its 3.8-litre power unit are equally significant, with maximum output up by 30bhp to 385 bhp (283 kW) and overall fuel consumption down in the case of the Carrera 4S Cabriolet with PDK to 10.7 litres/100 km.

The driver benefits from a further advantage of direct injection every time he touches the throttle pedal: with fuel being injected fractions of a second prior to combustion, the engines respond more directly and spontaneously to even the slightest movement of the driver’s right foot. This is not only the case when accelerating, but also when lifting off the throttle, for engine speed drops more quickly and smoothly since there is no residual fuel left in the intake manifold which might otherwise prolong the combustion process.

Depending on engine load and speed, fuel is injected into the combustion chamber at a pressure of 120 bar. The big advantage is that unlike conventional intake manifold injection, direct fuel injection serves to form the fuel/air mixture directly in the combustion chamber. This better mixes the air and fuel in the cylinder, establishing an important prerequisite for clean and complete combustion. This ensures the ‘homogeneous’ operation of the power unit with a consistent balance of the fuel/air mixture in the combustion chamber at all times and under all running conditions. Such smooth operation guarantees optimum combustion and maintains low emissions, across a range of fuel qualities.

Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK)
The new generation 911 Carrera 4 and 4S are available for the first time with the new Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK), literally Porsche double-clutch gearbox. Offering no less than seven forward gears, the new gearbox combines the driving comfort of a torque converter-equipped automatic transmission with the dynamic manual gearshift functionality of a sequential racing gearbox. PDK also boasts an entirely automatic gearshift function, and replaces the Porsche Tiptronic S automatic transmission previously offered. Through its optimised and adaptive gearshift programmes, PDK further improves the acceleration of the 911 and reduces fuel consumption to an even lower level.

In principle, the PDK consists of a conventional manual gearbox and a hydraulic control system divided into two separate transmission units. Two wet clutches in radial arrangement, controlled hydraulically, and using oil for both cooling and lubrication, form the heart of the transmission. One clutch is for the first transmission unit with the uneven gear ratios (1,3,5,7) and reverse, and the other clutch is for the second transmission unit with the even gears (2,4,6). Via a number of pressure valves, the hydraulic control unit masterminds both the wet clutches and the shift cylinders activating the transmission ratio required.

The gearshift perceived by the driver comes not from the gears actually changing, but from the change of positive clutch engagement. In this case, the clutch on one transmission opens or disengages while the clutch on the other transmission closes or engages in a simultaneous process. The big advantage is an even faster gearshift than with a conventional manual gearbox or torque converter automatic transmission. The gears are already ‘in mesh’ when shifting and the power of the engine need not be interrupted in the process.

PDK also reduces to a minimum transmission power loss courtesy of the high standard of mechanical efficiency in the double-clutch, and this manifests itself in fuel economy improvements of approximately 13 per cent compared with a conventional Tiptronic S transmission. PDK also offers an advantage in terms of weight — despite two additional gears, it weighs 10kg less than Tiptronic S.

To use the various functions of the double-clutch transmission, the driver can either shift gears by means of sliding toggles on the spokes of the new steering wheel, or via the new gear selector lever. The driver can press forwards to shift the gears up, and press them from behind to shift downwards. Alternatively, pushing the gear selector lever forwards shifts up a gear, and pulling it back shifts down.

This PDK gearshift principle was first developed by Porsche for motor sport 25 years ago. Porsche works drivers benefiting from this technology were able to accelerate faster than their competitors and keep both hands on the steering wheel while changing gears, thus avoiding even the slightest distraction while shifting.

The seven-speed PDK shifts gears up to 60 per cent faster than a conventional automatic transmission, and naturally, gives the new 911 Carrera models even better performance. And those in search of optimum driving dynamics have the option to combine PDK with Sport Chrono Package Plus, now featuring Launch Control.

News: Renntech power-up the Mercedes-Benz McLaren 722


When Mercedes-Benz introduced its SLR McLaren 722, there was a bit of confusion about the special-edition’s name. Many believed the car would offer a fire-breathing, 722 hp supercharged V8, but it doesn’t (it makes 650 hp). Some believed that “722″ meant there would be 722 of the cars made, but that was wrong, too. In the end, the 722 badge actually referred to 7:22AM – the starting time of Sterling Moss’ epic 1955 Mille Miglia run in a then-new Mercedes SLR.

Renntech have rectified the confusion, and more, by turning the wick up on the the McLaren with upgrades to extract 740hp out of the supercharged V8.

Modifications include upgraded intercoolers, a larger crankshaft pulley, adding a less restrictive, motorsports-style exhaust system and re-mapped ECU software to achieve the headline 740hp figure and a whopping 950nm of torque. Scary.