High-performance turbo 900 from Saab

When Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald visited the United States in May, he not only traveled by limousine, but in a Saab turbo 900 as well. It was the prime minister's idea, not Saab's, and a choice that gave the US Secret Service fits. The federal government's protective arm clearly knows a lot about ``checking out'' a General Motors, Chrysler, or Ford car. But a Saab!

Powered by a 16-valve, double-overhead-cam, turbo-charged engine with inter-cooler, the innovative Turbo 900 is the fastest Saab yet and the only 16-valve turbocar in the US today.

Four-valve-per-cylinder engines have long been used by Saab and its rivals in rally and competition cars. The 4-valve design, which more and more carmakers are using in their production cars as well, is expected to do away with the need for a sometimes-finicky turbo.

The high-performance 2-liter Swedish turbocar, which comes as both a sporty 3-door hatchback and 4-door sedan, develops 160 horsepower and 188 pounds-feet of torque, making it a fast performer on the highway, with peak power and torque at low engine speeds. Even in stop-and-go city traffic, engine response is quick.

Also, behind all the engineering and design is a car that's a whole lot of fun to drive. It's superbly well behaved on the road, the braking is straight-line and swift, and the steering is sure. The car has Pirelli high-performance tires and alloy wheels with large ventilation holes for the brakes. The wheelbase is 99.1 inches.

Prices stretch from $18,439 for the base 900 4-door turbo up to $21,684 for the sporty 3-door hatchback with all the fixin's.

Saab has long been an aircraft builder and now supplies Viggen jet fighters to the Swedish Air Force. It's been in the car-building business since 1950.

In the independent company's early days as a car builder, an energetic management team and work crew kept it from falling through the cracks. By the 1970s, the company's board could even turn down a merger with much-larger Volvo when the going got rough.

The distinctive, small-volume automaker started out with an offbeat, even ugly, design, front-wheel drive, and an engine that was primitive and fast. The first Saab was really based on the prewar DKW, a big seller in Sweden at the time.

Remember the ``2-stroker'' engines of the early days, when you could hear the cars coming and going from far down the road? (Well, some of us remember.) You didn't just pour gasoline into the tank, but you had to mix oil with the fuel as well, just as in a chain saw or lawn mower.

The cars drew an admiring audience of car buffs, environmentalists, and others. The early Saab 92 earned a reputation as a rally car with the legendary Eric Carlsson at the wheel. Besides road racing, 92s were raced on ice, too.

As part of its longtime, do-it-our-way charm, Saab still has the ignition lock on the floor in its 900-series cars. Even so, the stunning new Saab 9000, which won't reach the United States till November, has the ignition lock ``where it belongs,'' and not on the floor.

The Saab turbo will get a new Bosch ignition system in 1986, thus enabling it to meet or even surpass the revised corporate average fuel economy rating of 26 m.p.g.

Further, the company is testing a nonturbo 16-valve engine for the driver who doesn't need the ``total punch'' of a turbo. The nonturbo 16-valver is rated at 125 hp., compared with 110 for the nonturbo standard Saab 2-liter engine and 160 hp. for the turbocharged 16-valver.

The Saab management never bows to the whims of the marketplace without giving it a whole lot of thought. When diesels were all the rage in the late 1970s and early '80s, they refused to submit.

The subsequent rapid decline of the diesel only proves the company was right.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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