Turbo tributes & tribulations

2007, Saab, 9-3 2.0T SportCombi

In case you haven't noticed, our transportation choices have become a bag of
mixed greens. There are hybrids for the credulous; electric motors and fuel
cells for the futurists; and diesels for the realists. Lost within this menu
is "turbocharging." Once the preserve of hot-rodders hoping to goose more
power from pint-sized powerplants, turbocharging has been undergoing a quiet
evolution into an eco-option. The idea is that those same pint-sized
powerplants can be made to feel like gallon-sized ones while improving
efficiency and conserving fuel.

In principle, turbocharging is elegant and effective. The engine's exhaust
pressure is used to power a small turbine that, in turn, compresses intake
fuel-and-air for a bigger bang that then powers increased exhaust
pressure, and so on and so forth. It's a virtuous cycle, and it really works.

In principle, turbocharging is elegant and effective. The engine's exhaust
pressure is used to power a small turbine that, in turn, compresses intake
fuel-and-air for a bigger bang that then powers increased exhaust
pressure, and so on and so forth. It's a virtuous cycle, and it really works.

Depending on your temperament, turbocharging may in fact work too well.
Turbo motors are often nervous, skittish thoroughbreds. They're either off
or on; at full stop or at full gallop. Turbo motoring is fun; but if you're
not in a fun-loving mood, turbo-motoring won't meet you halfway. That's when
"fun" begins to feel like a prickly pear in the pants. But you can at least
console yourself with all the great fuel economy you're achieving.

Here's the lowdown on Saab's 9-3 turbo sport-wagon, or SportCombi in
Swedish: It's big and roomy. And heavy. And slow. Sometimes even scary, as
you discover when you say, "Giddyup!" and ol' SportCombi decides to play
"One-potato, two-potato" before deciding to get out of its own way. With
this turbo-wagon, you need to plan your on-ramp accelerations with a
Day-Timer.

The fault, and it is indeed a fault, lies with the 2.0-liter turbo-four. There
are twin cams, but only 210 horsepower and 221 foot-pounds dedicated to
bringing 3,320 pounds of car up to speed. Perhaps it's a lack of variable
valve timing; but for whatever reason, turbo lag is frustratingly apparent.
As a result, the 22 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway fuel rating has all the allure
of a false economy.

Inside, the SportCombi is roomiest and most versatile of the three turbos
evaluated here. In addition to seating five, it will package cargo within an
SUV-like range of from 30 to 72 cubic feet. Safety is a strong suit for
Saab, of course, and ABS brakes and six airbags come standard. So do 16-inch
wheels, which combine with Saab's distinctive, unusual styling to render the
SportCombi's exterior rather eccentric. Base price is $27,495, which grows
rather lofty after adding goodies like a moonroof, 17-inch wheels and
others. Price as-tested then rises to $32,510. That's asking a lot,
literally, for a vehicle that suggests tepid performance is more than offset
by moderate improvements in fuel economy.

If turbocharging is relatively unnoticed as a "green" technology, the
MazdaSpeed3 is relatively unnoticed among turbocharged vehicles. Of the
three models evaluated here, this super-sporty five-door wagon offers the
best combination of performance, road manners and practicality. And it's the
least expensive of the lot.

The secret lies with two simple considerations: power and weight. Mazda's
2.3-liter turbo inline-four uses a twin-cam design and variable valve timing
to produce 263 horsepower and an astonishing 280 foot-pounds of torque. With
a curb-weight almost 200 pounds lighter than the Saab 9-3 SportCombi or VW
Jetta GLI, the MazdaSpeed3 is a rocket. Torque reaches its maximum at
relatively higher rpms, but there's so much of it that skittishness is muted
and turbo-lag while commuting is almost non-existant.

What's more, this Mazda sport wagon is fun to drive. The cockpit is
driver-oriented and very European. It's a true five-seater, and the wagon
design affords decent headroom for adults sitting in back. Cargo space of 16
cubic feet is analogous to that of a full-size sedan, yet it expands to
about 30 cubes with rear seatbacks folded.

Six airbags and 18-inch wheels are standard, along with sporty bodywork, for
a base price of $23,995. An optional nav system brings the as-tested price
up to $26,300. But this is a car that's going places, so paying extra for
navigation might well be worth it.

Volkswagen's Jetta GLI Fahrenheit is an exercise in flagrancy. There's the
all-yellow-all-the-time paint scheme, for starters. And it isn't just
restricted to the interior. There are chrome-yellow accents flecked
throughout the interior of the Fahrenheit, as well.

And then there's the performance. But, wait a minute! Here's another
2.0-liter turbo, as in the Saab, but it only makes 200 hp and 207
foot-pounds of torque. And the Jetta's 25 pounds heavier than the
SportCombi, to boot. But look: maximum torque appears at a low-low 1,800
rpm. And that means, when you tip the accelerator even a little bit, you're
underway like a sprinter off the blocks. Where the Saab is glacial, the
Fahrenheit is volcanic, hence, one must assume, the name.

Fuel economy is the best of the three reviewed here, at 25 mpg/city, 32
mpg/highway. Of course all three models require premium fuel, which is a
hidden "turbo tax," so to speak. Jetta's interior is satisfyingly Teutonic,
with a great layout for instruments and controls, and firm but comfortable
seating. But in more ways than one, this unmellow yellow Fahrenheit is a
kids' car. It's not just the paint-scheme. It's also the fact that the
sloping rear roof line transforms any tall, rear-seated adult into
Quasimodo. Of all three five-seaters described here, this one seems least
versatile for hauling five grownups about town. Better, perhaps, to fold the
rear seatbacks and expand the 16-cubic-foot trunk.

At $29,970, as-tested, the VW Fahrenheit slides in just under the magic
"$30K" threshold. But that's still a whole lotta hard-earned green to ask
for so much frisky yellow.

By Marc Stengel
26/07/2007 12:00 am

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Images of the 2007, Saab 9-3 2.0T SportCombi

2007 Saab 9-3 2.0T SportCombi front view
2007 Saab 9-3 2.0T SportCombi front view
2007 Saab 9-3 2.0T SportCombi rear shot
2007 Saab 9-3 2.0T SportCombi rear shot
2007 MazdaSpeed3 GT front view
2007 MazdaSpeed3 GT front view
2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Fahrennheit front view
2007 Volkswagen Jetta GLI Fahrennheit front view