At Saab, thinking outside the box is second nature. Rebecca Wright celebrates 70 years of visionary motoring – and the new XWD system
You have to challenge conventional thinking," says Knut Simonsson, Director of the Saab Brand. "There are so many new innovations out there and there's certainly no lack of new ideas in the car industry. But the test is whether you can grab people's attention – and to do that there must be a good story to tell behind the idea." He could be referring to several things.
He could be talking about the premium Swedish car-maker's state-of-the-art XWD (cross-wheel drive) technology, which was debuted on Saab's limited edition Turbo X 9-3 car earlier this year, and which is now available on other 9-3 models, enhancing both their performance and their safety levels. Or he could be referring to any number of ground-breaking ideas from the past decade or so – or perhaps from even further back. After all, with over 70 years' experience of innovation, Saab has plenty of good stories to tell.
It was in 1937 that Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (eventually abbreviated to Saab) was founded for the manufacture of military aircraft in Trollhättan, southern Sweden. Over the next decade, the company's engineers and designers turned their hands to developing cars as well. The first car they came up with had a drag coefficient of just 0.32 – proof that Saab has always pushed the technological boundaries. To this day, the UrSaab, as it is affectionately known, is famed for being as aerodynamic as versions of the Porsche 911 and Ferrari F40 which were developed and sold as recently as last decade. An early example of this amazing piece of engineering still proudly sits in the Saab museum in Trollhättan.
There are plenty of other examples of Saab's tradition of unconventional thinking. In the 1950s, the group made headlines when Greta Molander was the first driver to win a prize for Saab at the Monte Carlo Rally – at a time when female racing drivers were almost unheard of. Towards the end of that decade, Saab was the first carmaker to fit seatbelts as standard in one of its models. (Of course, seatbelts had been common in aircraft since the 1930s.) In the 1970s, back pain suffered by a senior Saab executive prompted the development of one of Saab's most-copied innovations: the electrically-heated driver's seat. (The executive's pain was particularly bad on cold, frosty mornings, and so a colleague devised a means of heating the driver's seat to minimise the discomfort.)
It comes as little surprise, given this innovative tradition, that Saab started caring about the environment long before it was fashionable to do so. For example, turbo-charging, now used across the automotive industry to achieve better performance with lower emissions, was first introduced by Saab back the 1970s. In the 1980s, Saab was the first car manufacturer to take advantage of new materials to replace asbestos, introducing asbestos-free brake and clutch linings; in the 1990s, it was the first to eliminate CFCs from in-car air-conditioning systems.
More recently, Saab's visionary tendency has seen the emergence of the flex-fuel "BioPower" range of cars which are capable of running on the renewable fuel bioethanol E85 – the use of which can reduce CO2emissions by 50-70 per cent on a whole lifecycle basis while offering substantially increased horsepower and torque.
This year, Saab unveiled XWD: a cutting-edge, "intelligent", active all-wheel-drive system that continuously distributes engine drive torque between the front and rear axles, giving optimum handling, stability and grip in all driving conditions – from fast bends to slower corners, in dry or wet weather.
Because XWD is a pre-emptive system (as opposed to a reactive one), its rear drive will always engage before the front wheels slip, which makes it a remarkably effective safety device. Previously, all-wheel drive systems in Saab's segment of the market had all been reactive, meaning that the back wheels would not engage until the front wheels went off course. But while its rivals were focusing on speeding up the reaction times of their systems to make them safer, Saab's visionary approach was to look at the problem from another angle – that is, how do you prevent the front wheels from slipping in the first place?
The icing on the cake with Saab XWD is the active rear limited-slip differential (eLSD), the first application of an electronically-controlled rear LSD in this segment of the market. The eLSD can transfer up to 50 per cent of maximum rear torque between the rear wheels, to whichever has more grip. Under hard cornering, or when completing a high speed manoeuvre, the brief application of more or less torque to either wheel helps the rear of the car follow the direction of the front wheels more closely. The result is better handling, improved stability and a sportier driving experience. As one respected motoring magazine put it, "XWD works, and brilliantly. It looks like it could be a landmark car for Saab." And, because XWD is a unique offering in its segment, it sets performance standards that competitors are already seeking to emulate.
This innovation might not have come about if snow and ice were not such an important fact of life in Sweden. In winter, when the sun sets at 2.30pm and the cold creeps in, a trustworthy car that gets you to your destination quickly and safely is vital. "Innovation is critical to the Saab brand," says Knut Simonsson, "but we don't do innovations that don't have meaning. We didn't want to just increase the performance of our cars by adding a standard four-wheel drive system – we also wanted to increase their active safety levels. The result of that is XWD, which is one of the most advanced all-wheel drive systems available on the market today."
Of course, that won't be the last of Saab's innovations – in fact, only last month, another visionary concept, the Saab 9-X Air Convertible, was premiered at the Paris Motor Show. Twenty-five years after Saab stunned the automotive world with its first Convertible model, the 9-X Air features a unique Canopy Top, which breaks the mould of conventional convertibles by incorporating prominent rear pillars which curve upwards to mount the flat folding roof. With the top down, motorists can enjoy open-top motoring free from buffeting; with it up, the 9-X Air assumes the appearance of a true coupè. No other car-maker has ever designed such a clever, stylish or functional convertible roof. It's still just a concept for now, but it is fair to assume that the 9-X Air provides a tantalising glimpse of what a future Saab convertible could look like – and another exciting example of the visionary approach to motoring.