Saab vs BMW

Sometimes the journos just don’t “get” Saabs. It’s therefore up to we Saab drivers to talk about why these little Swedemobiles are just so darn good.

With that in mind, I’ve been asking people to write in about their experiences with other cars so they can talk about not only the car, but also about the things that driving the alternative made them appreciate about their Saab.

Today’s writeup is a pretty comprehensive one, from Dmitry. It was originally published on a Canadian forum a few years ago and he’s kindly permitted me to reproduce it here. It does deal with older cars, but it’s no less relevant.

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The Swap

A friend of mine needed to move his go-kart from the garage to the storage bay at the race track. He started by checking if any of his minivan-driving buddies can do it. Somehow, none of them could, and he went desperate. Then he remembered my SUV (in its original meaning: the Swedish Utility Vehicle) and called for help. A few hours later, we were heading our separate ways: him in my Saab 900 with a kart in the back, and me in his BMW 328i. He asked for a couple of days to run his errands, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to make myself familiar with ultimate driving machines.

Specs

The cars have more or less similar specs.

The BMW is a 1999 328i 4 door sedan:
– 2.8l I6, 190 hp/206 ft-lbs;
– sport suspension, 16″ wheels;
– 132K km.

The Saab is a 1996 900SE 4 door hatchback:
– 2.0l I4 turbo, 185 hp/194 ft-lbs;
– aftermarket suspension, 17″ wheels;
– 273K km.

Both have a 5-speed manual transmission, weight around 3100-3200 lbs and belong to the same class size-wise. The Saab is older, has twice the miles on it, and costs about 4 times less accorting to Auto Trader ;]. The BMW is stock, while the Saab had its suspension rebuilt recently, with Bilstein dampers, Intrax springs, poly everything, thicker bars and braces, etc. As the result, it rides rather stiff, but the road quality north of Highway 7 is quite satisfying, so I don’t complain. Except when I go downtown.

Trunk Space

Without any doubt, the Saab is a clear winner in the trunk space department ;). We’ve managed to stuff in the kart, three sets of spare tires, some other parts and supplies, and there was still plenty of room left!

Ergonomics

The interior in the 328 is surprisingly basic for a top trim of a luxury car. There’s no CD, and no power seats. The windows are one-touch up and down, which is nice. But the window switches are very oddly positioned — you can’t really tell fronts from the rears without looking (on Saabs, they face different directions). It’s also impossible to open both fronts (or both rears) in the same time as they are on the opposite sides of the gear shifter. I find it more convenient when the switches are put together in a single cluster of buttons.

The wipers are adjustable at the lower speed setting, something I really miss in the 900. And there’s a whole lot of buttons on the steering wheel. The 900 doesn’t have those either, so you have to reach for that tiny volume knob on the stereo. Thankfully, they fixed that in the later years.

The instruments are a mixed bag. Most dials are easy to read, except for the speedo, which is small, and has the most useful city range of 0-80 jammed into a narrow area of about 50 degrees. Also, for some silly reason you need to use a knob to turn the instrument lights on at night (the Saab has a light sensor). And the red color isn’t my favourite, but that’s subjective.

What’s also missing is the information display. All those nifty Saab features like speed warnings, distance to empty, average speed and mileage, arrival estimates and so on, there’s nothing like that on the BMW. The only extra display on the dash is the momentary fuel consumption gauge, which is totally useless, but still a fun thing to watch ;). It reminds me of the turbo gauge in the Saab.

The seats are a torture. The back is too firm and too flat. The headrests are too low and too far back. The side bolsters are rather big, but they are so far apart that I feel like a bell tongue in turns. The driving position is acceptable, but I wish the seat had a wider range of adjustments. And why a $50K car doesn’t have power seats is beyond me.

Other than that, it’s rather nicely made. The leather, the plastics, the controls — all of that is a very decent quality. I wouldn’t mind being a passenger in this car, but couldn’t get fully comfortable as a driver in a two day driving experience.

The interior looks nice and clean, although the roof is significantly lower than in the Saab, and the top of the windshield is closer than I want it to be. Everything seems to be within an easy reach, and I don’t hit the passenger with my elbow every time I shift, which is often the case in the 900. It seems as the front seats in the BMW are placed farther apart and closer to the doors since the centre console is much wider.

Transmission

I expected the shifter to be light years ahead of the 900, yet it turned out to be rather ordinary. There’s a lot of slack in the middle, very little resistance and long throws ending with a notchy snap. On the other hand, the slightly elevated position is very comfortable if you sit higher, and the armrest is just perfect. You could shift with your wrist alone if the throws weren’t so long.

Coming from a cable clutch in the 900, the BMW clutch is way too light. I just couldn’t feel it properly. My clutch is heavier (and more tiring), but it has so much more feedback… With the hydraulic, I know where it’s going to grab, but it’s lifeless. Or maybe I should just stop whining and get on with the progress.

Can’t comment much on gear ratios, except that the first gear is actually usable. In the Saab, you want to get out of it as soon as possible.

Handling

The car has a sport suspension package, and it handles like a BMW should. The body feels very solid, which makes the stiffened Saab hatch feel like a rattly tin can filled with bolts and nuts in comparison. At lower speeds, it does a truly amazing job in eliminating speed bumps (I have a series of my favourite car testing bumps at the office parking lot).

It rolls and dives a bit more than I would like it to, but manages to remain comfortable, and feels easier going into corners than the 900. The BMW inspires confidence, but then you start worrying what would happen if you lose the grip. I know that I can take it at the same or greater speed in the Saab, but the FWD Saab would resist that, complain loudly and squeal its tires to let you know it isn’t happy about it, so you’ll have enough warning and resistance in advance, while the BMW just pulls through effortlessly.

I would think it can easily handle more, but I cannot produce a fair comparison as I don’t really know how far can I keep pushing it. I don’t have enough experience with RWD and it’s clearly not a good idea to experiment with someone else’s car, so I never went beyond a mild occasional tire squeal during my most enthusiastic tryouts ;]

The steering is surprisingly numb, especially after my super-tightened front-end in the 900. I wish it had more feedback. And I suspect Goodyear all-seasons do not stack well against Toyo T1-S I’m used to on my Saabs. I guess I should lure the guy into a couple of bimmer driving schools so he destroys his tires and gets something decent ;]

Safety

The brakes are there, and they work great. The mirrors could be a big bigger, especially on the sides. And once again I find myself completely blind with a flat driver’s mirror. Those factory convexes I have in my Saabs work miracles in eliminating the blind spot.

In the rain, it gets alarmingly tail-happy, a perk of RWD combined with average tires. I didn’t mind it much, but I had to adjust my driving style much more than I’m used to in order not to upset other people on the road. It is the number one piece of car entertainment that is completely unavailable in the Saabs. This is the problem with trying to find which one is better. The Saab would be safer, easier to drive and in fact faster in the rain, but it won’t give you such adrenaline rush.

There isn’t really much else to talk about here. I haven’t crashed either car, so I can’t offer you any first hand experience in this area. I’ve noticed that the BMW only has a 2-point belt for the middle passenger in the back, while the Saab has three 3-point belts. I guess it’s a yet another way of saying that you shouldn’t fit more than four people into the compact for their own sake ;]

Comfort

The car indeed feels very refined. The suspension smoothes out the ride well without being too harsh or too floaty. You can barely hear the engine at idle, and it’s generally very quiet inside — the old 900 is much noisier on the road. As the result, you don’t get much of a speed sensation. 100 km/h in the 328 feels like 60 in the 900. The newer Saabs are much better in this regard, but they still don’t seem to have the chassis balanced well enough to get where BMW is.

Engine

Is this supposed to be the best of the 6 cylinders? Well, it’s quite close to that. I wish it sounded angrier, but there isn’t anything else I can really complain about. Smooth power all the time, just waiting for you to use it. It’s revs up so easily and has such instant and strong pull in lower gears that it urges you to jump lanes in heavy traffic all the time. A great city machine.

On the highway it feels a bit lazy, especially at higher speeds, but I’m spoiled here. It’s not easy to beat the instant punch of nearly three hundred pounds of torque I’m used to in the 9-5. So no complaints here, it’s as good as a N/A engine should be.

But here is my problem again: because the power delivery is so beautifully linear, it lacks the sudden rush I’ve learnt to like to much, and life just doesn’t feel the same without it. People usually complain about the lag, but I don’t mind it at all. A well placed pause is essential in any good form of entertainment, and a turbo lag followed by a sudden rush of acceleration feels more fun than an instant but gradually growing naturally aspirated power.

Conclusion

This is without a doubt an excellent piece of machinery. A great example of conservative engineering. It’s well made, very capable and very good at what it does, and I admire it for that. But it doesn’t strike me as a piece of entertainment. It’s the excitement that makes you want to run out at night and drive the car again and again, not the time slips. The BMW is a precision transportation tool at its German best, but that kills the nature of a joyride. It’s more potent as a car, and it will likely get you there sooner, but the Saab FEELS faster, more raw and uncivilized.

I’ll have my old hatchback back please. It offers me an immensely comfortable chair, a few simple but well organized controls, and a whole lot of fun for a fraction of the cost.

And you can fit the whole go-kart in it.

SaabGoKart.jpg

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6 Comments

  1. …and since the guys at the BMW forum are reading this, I flogged an M3 with my Viggen just 3 weeks ago. The guy couldn’t believe it, 6 times the price and a body length behind…..

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