Gripen drives the XWD

Trollhattan Saab’s rockin-rollin-riding-and-roving reporter, 1985Gripen, recently attended the US launch for the 2008 Saab 9-3. The press event was held in Washington DC and included a brief run in the new XWD Saab 9-3.

Ryan, from Saabhistory,com, was also there and shot some video. The video includes Gripen’s run around the brief airfield circuit in the XWD version of the car. There’s another link to this video in the relevant section of the post, below.

If you’re after more photos, then try Gripen’s account at Flickr.

This is another long one, so sit back, relax and enjoy.

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On Tuesday, 28th August at around 8:00 a.m. we had just attended a presentation on the model-year 2008 SAAB 9³ over a delicious breakfast at the Ritz Carlton Georgetown hotel in Washington D.C.

The group was then invited to go outside the hotel and choose one of around ten (I’m guesstimating) 2008 9³ models to drive. There were Aero and 2.0T models in both Sport Sedan and Sport Combi guise to choose from. Only one of them was equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission (I later learned it was the black Sport Sedan). I tried all day to find the manual transmission-equipped model (as I’m apparently the last American to prefer a manual transmission) to no avail.

Saab 9-3

We were to pair-up into teams so I paired-up with Nik Miles of Miles Around. We had met back in February where we were part of the same group at the SAAB 60th Anniversary Media Event in San Diego. Nik didn’t want to drive as he wanted to have his hands free to shoot video for his television show so I obliged. We chose a silver Aero Sport Sedan.

Nik had to both shoot video as well as navigate from the route book provided to us by SAAB USA. The course took us out of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and out into the beautiful countryside of Northern Virginia. Nik, who’s originally from England, couldn’t get over how much like England Northern Virginia is, both in its terrain and its architecture. I’ve never been to England (or anywhere in Europe, for that matter) so I had to take his word for it. It occurred to me that this is the first time I’ve ever been to the United States’ “South”. Virginia was part of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, so technically I was in the South and we were driving on the south side of the Mason-Dixon line.

Driving the Aero on the freeway was a blast. Every opportunity I had to put the “pedal to the metal” I felt a surge of power. It was very hard to stay somewhere near the 55 miles-per-hour posted speed limit. Constantly I was reminded to do so however, as we encountered countless state trooper “interceptors” on the side of the road. How embarrassing would it be to get a speeding citation while on a “ride and drive” of the new 9³? Actually, come to think of it, it may have been a badge of honor, but I don’t think my wife would see things the same way as I was writing that check to the State of Virginia.

As we were driving we came alongside the car with SAAB USA President Steve Shannon in it. After Nik got a good video shot of a Metro train being passed by Mr. Shannon’s 9³ I decided I needed to overtake him. So I did. I hate driving new cars because now I want one and know I have to go home and settle for my Dodge Stratus company lease car and my wife’s older 2001 9³ LPT base-model 5-door. It’s just not the same!

Our route book had us get off the freeway and drive beautiful country back roads for quite a distance. Our first pit stop was a nice European-style cottage shop where we were provided with our choice of coffee and various breads and muffins. Nik raved about how fresh the croissants were. “These just came out of the oven!”

In yet another stroke of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder I noticed that Jan-Willem Vester (Communications for SAAB USA) and all the Swedes in attendance were wearing Salomon brand athletic shoes. You might already know that in Europe SAAB has a partnership with Salomon (http://www.saabsalomon.com/). Coincidence? Probably not. I joked that I need to get a pair of those shoes to fit-in! Yeah, I’m a funny guy. You’re probably making the same look right now reading this as those guys made when I said it. You’re wondering if I ate a lot of paint chips when I was a kid.

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Anyway… when it was time to leave this pit stop we were to switch cars with another team. Nik didn’t have a preference and was busy getting his video shots so I asked him if he minded if I try to get us a Sport Combi. He didn’t mind. He wondered aloud several times why someone would opt for a sedan instead of a combi and I agreed with him. He told me that in Europe the combi’s the way to go. I told him that if it were my choice I’d choose a combi as well. But then again, I’m the guy who still prefers manual transmissions too.

When we walked over to the combi (a 2.0T model) I told Nik, “look at this!” as I lifted the little airplane-shaped handle in the trunk under which the spare tire resides. I was fully expecting to see the subwoofer hidden under the floor. I had first seen this at the Los Angeles Auto Show and thought it a brilliant use of space. But you know what? There was no subwoofer.

I was utterly confused. I pondered aloud that maybe the subwoofer comes only on the Aero, or as part of some sort of upgraded audio which was always present in the Sport Combis at the L. A. Auto Show. Perhaps there was no subwoofer because these were pre-production cars? I felt a bit like Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back when he’s behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon and brags, “watch this!” only to have the ship make a dying sound. At least Nik was impressed with the little airplane-shaped handle.

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Saab 9-3 SportCombiWe strapped ourselves into this 2.0T Sport Combi (photo’s of an Aero, but what they heck…SW), which was not equipped with roof bars. I would later have a discussion with Mr. Vester on the roof bars subject and we both agreed that the 9³ Sport Combi looks better sans the bars whereas the 9-5 Sport Combi looks wrong without them. Neither of us can explain why. Something to do with the shape and “lines” of the two cars.

With Nik as my navigator we headed back into the rural road system on the course described in the route book. I immediately noticed the difference in power between this 2.0T model and the Aero model we had been driving, even though we weren’t driving more than 35 or 40 miles per hour most of the time. I guess I’d gotten used to the Aero, and found it a bit disappointing to have “only” 210 bhp on-tap rather than the 255 bhp I’d just gotten used to having. It sort of reminds me of how in the new Rolls Royce Phantom there’s a “power reserve” gauge in the instrument cluster to let you know that there’s power available should you need it. The SAAB doesn’t have a “power reserve” gauge, but you know in the back of your head that the power’s there.

The thing with the 9³ Sport Combi is that it drives exactly like the sedan. You forget that you’re in a combi unless you look in the rear-view mirror. This is a testament to SAAB engineering, that they can provide a functional wagon that doesn’t detract from the sportiness of the car.

Saab 9-3The drive went quite well and we stopped once so Nik could get some photographs. I turned the car’s hazard lights on while pulled over to the side of the road which caused Steve Shannon to stop behind us when he saw us and ask if we were okay. Of course we were okay, we were out enjoying the scenery! What did you think, that our D.I. cassette failed?!?! 😉

Another stop at a small country inn (a bed-and-breakfast type place from the look of it) and a car change later (I really wanted the black manual transmission SS, but it was already taken) we were in another Sport Sedan, but this time a 2.0T, not an Aero.

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Airlie MapOur next and final stop was a beautiful private country resort in Airlie, Virginia.

A fine buffet lunch was served and we had our choice of whether we wanted to drive short loops in the local area driving any of the cars provided for the day or walk across Airlie Road to the private air strip (used only a few times a year by a private pilot) to drive the XWD-equipped Aero Sport Sedan. Hmmm. A difficult choice. I took about a half a second to decide to walk over to the air field.

When I arrived one of the other journalists there was driving the car on the course, which consisted of cones set-up on the tarmac as a slalom course and then rows of cones to guide one through a grass area which they’d wet-down with a hose. The journalist driving was quite aggressive and was the only driver I’d see all day in the car by himself.

Saab 9-3 XWD

Everyone else had a SAAB rep ride-along with them in the car. The aggressive-driving journalist had told us over dinner the night before at the House of Sweden that he drives exotic cars all the time, acting as a middleman for wealthy Koreans who buy cars, have them shipped to the States, then shipped to Korea. He explained that once he got to drive a Bugatti Veyron for a client and drove VERY fast.

After this gentleman was done driving frequent TrollhattanSaab commenter and the man behind the saabhistory.com website, “SG” took to the course. While SG was driving the car, I was invited to watch a video presentation on the XWD system by Peter Johansson, Engineering Specialist Driveline & AWD for GM Europe.

Peter’s grandfather was one of the 16 aircraft engineers who worked on the SAAB 92 and his father was a successful rally driver and one of the engineers for Haldex. The XWD system really is an amazing system. A few things that separate it from other AWD systems is the “predictive” element: most AWD systems wait for wheel slippage before transferring power to the other gripping wheel. The XWD system predicts when a wheel is going to slip and transfers that power before losing traction. Also, the XWD system can transfer up to 100% of its power to the rear wheels, which is very valuable during fast starts from a dead-stop. Peter showed us an animated video that shows the power distribution between the wheels during various road conditions. It was very interesting, but really I just wanted to drive the car.

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Saab 9-3 XWD After watching SG take a couple of runs in the car I decided it was time I give it a try. The course starts with a tarmac slalom. I’ve never driven a slalom before (or in any other kind of performance situation, truthfully), but I wasn’t about to tell my co-driver this. I gunned the accelerator toward the cones and of course though I was pushed-back in my seat by the 280 bhp and 400 Nm of torque, there was no sound of squealing. The XWD system was sure to take care of that.

As I approached the cones I first went left and then right and then left again and I was told by the co-driver to accelerate out. I realized that because I didn’t know what I was doing I had the clutch pedal held in the whole time! The co-driver advised that next time I actually accelerate while in the slalom! This seems counterintuitive to me, but I’m far from an expert on it so on my next run I really stepped on the gas.

I was cutting the cones as closely as I could and I think as you can see from the video of my second run at saabhistory.com (linked at the start and again below) I went pretty fast that time. On the way back we are to cut to the right onto the grass field and really gun it while driving in a big curve on the wet grass between some cones. I did really gun it as best I could but I was concerned about sliding right off the course. Of course the XWD system made sure that I didn’t slide at all. There was little to no lateral movement, just straight-forward movement.

So now it was time for my second run. Everyone seemed to get two shots at it and from what I can tell I was no different than anyone else: we all seem to use the first run as a practice run and drive cautiously, then we go all-out on the second run once comfortable. I figured that I’m here to really test this XWD system and if it can keep an inexperienced performance driver like myself on the course, it’s really something!

I accelerated through all the cones on the tarmac, then turned around and when I came back the other direction and made the transition from the pavement to the grass I was going so fast and made such a sharp turn that I heard the co-driver gasp. I think I took it a little too fast, but the car did everything I demanded of it. It didn’t slide off the course like I would have expected with a turn that sharp on grass at that speed and I asked the co-driver, “did I hit any cones?” He replied, “I don’t know”. I then said, “well, I guess I’ll worry about that later. I can’t really look back now”. When we got around the curve, which I was trying to take as fast as I could to show-off for SG’s video, the co-driver looked back and actually sounded surprised when he said, “you didn’t hit any!”

I pulled the car around on the tarmac to the starting position, knowing my run was over (but really wanting to do it again). As I got out of the car with a huge smile on my face (and my heart racing) SG shouted from behind his video camera, “anything to say?” and I responded, “that was fun!”

You can view the video of SG’s run, my run, and Steve Shannon’s run at Saab History.

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Nik was getting his video interviews of various SAAB people and wasn’t as concerned about trying-out the XWD car on the closed course, but after I was raving about how much fun it was, I insisted he make the time to drive it. Needless to say after his runs he got out of the car smiling.

Saab 9-3 XWD

The funny thing is that I later learned that originally the XWD driving portion of this event wasn’t on the schedule. It was just supposed to be the 2008 9³ U.S. debut for the media, but when SAAB USA officials learned that one of the XWD-equipped Aeros would be available they scrambled at the last minute to find a venue for the event. They found this air field in Airlie and it just so happened that right across the road was a quaint little restaurant perfect for their needs. I’m told that a true 9³ Aero XWD introduction will come at a later date and that the day’s events were just a “taste” of the XWD system.

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All good things have to come to an end, so it was time we all went our separate ways. Nik had to catch a flight out of Dulles airport so he rode with some of the crew in the 9-7x support vehicle. Steve Shannon had to return one of the left-over 9³s to the hotel (how did we have leftover cars!?!?) and SG and I decided to take a red Aero SS back to the hotel. He drove this time as I had been the driver all day up to that point. SG showed me that this Aero is equipped with the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. I hadn’t noticed that and wondered if the Aero I had driven earlier in the day had them. Not that I’d use them anyway, as I don’t care for those manumatic transmissions. Clutchless shifting and a +/- shift pattern are just too weird to me. I tried using the manumatic transmission in manual mode in the 2007 9³ Anniversary Edition I had the week before at the Saab Owners’ Convention, but found it too distracting. I have to seemingly concentrate harder to use it than a manual transmission. I know, I’m weird…

As I dragged my huge 27” Victorinox suitcase out of the trunk I wished that we had a Sport Combi rather than a Sport Sedan as I had to pull the suitcase quite a way out before I could lift it due to the trunk. As the suitcase came out the wheels kind of rolled off the lip of the trunk and across the bumper (my suitcase weighs a strategic 49.5 pounds. Did I mention I have O.C.D.?). Andreas looked at the bumper and there was a black scuff mark on it. I didn’t notice if it was there before or if my suitcase wheels just made the mark on the bumper. To you from SAAB USA who are reading this: if it was due to my suitcase I apologize. However, I’m going to tell myself the scuff was already there and was probably easily buffed-out…

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Big thanks to everyone from SAAB USA for inviting me and making this event possible. You are a great group of people and I really enjoy “working” (if you can call it that…) with you. Thanks also to Steven Wade for giving me a venue to report on these events. If it weren’t for you, I’d never have been invited.

And lastly, thanks to all of you SAAB fans who have stuck around to the end reading this account of my experience. I hope you have found it mildly enjoyable and informative. Keep on SAABin’! 🙂

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks again Grip for a great “everyman” review. I appreciate how hard it must be for you to make endless stops at diners and cafes in between stints of driving bleeding-edge Saabs. Unfortunately one must be sacrificed for the benefit of the many.

    Lucky bugger.

  2. oh goodness. the photo of the silver XWD tearing through the grass……a week ago it was black, yesterday it was red, today i am back to snow silver.

    is it possible a car can look _too_ good? i believe that one does. 🙂

  3. Yes turbin, I suffer for my craft. 😉

    I’m sorry to report that I wasn’t able to directly compare the non-XWD Aero to the XWD Aero because I couldn’t take the XWD Aero on the road and I couldn’t take the non-XWD Aero onto the slalom or grass (not that I’d want to!). But the point of the event wasn’t really the XWD (that’ll come later at a dedicated event I hope I’m invited to “report” on…), it was the 2008 9³ U.S. debut. The XWD inclusion was basically a little added bonus taste!

    I took the time to add captions to just about all the photos in my Flickr set dedicated to the event (Swade links to it in the post above) so if you’re interested head over there and check it out (but come right back here afterward!). 😮

  4. SG: How about Nome, Alaska? 😮

    Vermont. Feh. Bunch of Ben & Jerry’s eatin’ hippies up there if you ask me (I’m just kidding. I’ve never been there so I have no idea what it’s like. It’s probably nice)!

    You should suggest it to the “powers that be” at SAAB USA and then try to finangle us onto the guest list. Yes, I said “us”. 😉

  5. an enjoyable read. thx!

    i was thinking, on the way back from the dealer, a few minutes ago, that subaru has how many awd vehicles and has been doing it how long, and i’m supposed to be all “dithery” about saab’s tardy approach? well after reading your post and watching the video, i know there’s a big difference and that saab’s isn’t the “garden- variety” kind of awd. how it can predict when slippage will occur and transfer power “offensively,” rather than “defensively,” seems to be a major accomplishment. cheers!

  6. Thanks for the kind words, saab9X. I’m glad to have enlightened you on the XWD system.

    I wish there was somewhere on the web where one could view the XWD demonstration animation Peter Johansson showed me. It illustrates visually the XWD system and it’s a great tool to understanding how the system works. Maybe SAAB will make it available at a later date online (perhaps after the Turbo-X debut at Frankfurt, as the Turbo-X is the “launch vehicle” for the XWD system).

  7. Gripen, I think you and I are the last of a dying breed of Americans who still prefer a traditional manual.

    I don’t understand the paddle-shifters or the push-button starts … oh well

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