Home » The Saab Turbo X Was A Hail Mary Halo Car: GM Hit Or Miss

The Saab Turbo X Was A Hail Mary Halo Car: GM Hit Or Miss

Saab Turbo X Topshot

Throughout the years, it’s difficult to understand Saab’s weird decisions such as two-stroke propulsion, back-to-front engines, and repeatedly telling GM’s accountants to shove it, but it’s impossible to not like them. After all, making Volvo look normal is an incredibly difficult task, and Saab certainly persevered through adversity. After years of neglect at the hands of General Motors, Saab finally had its own all-wheel-drive system in 2008, and it would let everyone know with a limited-run performance flagship called the Saab Turbo X. Welcome back to GM Hit Or Miss, where we dig through the crates of General Motors’ pre-bankruptcy product planning to separate the bangers from the flops.

If you aren’t familiar with Saab, this strange Swedish carmarker was founded in 1945 as a subsidiary of an airplane manufacturer. For decades, it was a niche automaker with a penchant for quirky performance and a pathological obsession with safety, but it had a rocky road. From a merger with truck brand Scania, to being owned by General Motors, to being passed along to Spyker, to the sad whimper of NEVS, this source of pride for the Swedish city of Trollhaatan never found sustainable footing, and ground to a halt shortly after the Great Recession.

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Nevertheless, it attempted a halo car comeback on the eve of global financial disaster, one that took a page out of Audi’s playbook with an interesting all-wheel-drive system instead of the front-wheel-drive layout found in most prior Saabs, and had a limited run of just 2,000 units. The name of the car? Turbo X.

Spinning All Four

Saab Xwd

Underneath the Turbo X sat a Haldex all-wheel-drive system, but one unlike any other Haldex system people were used to at the time. See, in applications like the Audi TT, the Haldex setup was regarded as a “slip-and-grip” system, occasionally dragging the rear axle into play once the front tires had started to let go. While this is a technically acceptable form of all-wheel drive for people who don’t crave sporting credentials, anyone used to Nissan’s ATTESA system or even BMW’s xDrive would want more. As configured in the Turbo X, the Haldex system was a whole lot more.


For starters, this first application of Generation IV Haldex could theoretically send 100 percent of the engine’s torque to either the front or rear axle. Of course, something would have to go massively wrong for that to happen, like one axle being off the ground, but even sending more than 50 percent of engine torque to the rear axle in a transverse front-engined car is impressive. However, the Haldex unit isn’t the most impressive component of the XWD system, because Saab had something else up its sleeve.

Saab Turbo X Profile

Available on most XWD models and standard on the Turbo X was an electronically-controlled variable-locking rear differential. Yep, the same sort of tech you’d find in a new BMW M Car or hi-po Corvette. This awesome but fragile (more on that later) differential could send up to 40 percent of torque going to the rear axle to whichever rear wheel had more traction. Any all-wheel-drive system is typically only as good as its differentials, so fitting a proper limited-slip unit to the back of the Turbo X showed serious intent.

Power Play

Saab Turbo X Accent

While Saab was fiddling with all-wheel-drive, it was also figuring out how to extract more juice from its 2.8-liter turbocharged V6. For those familiar with the Saab tuning scene, this isn’t a difficult task, and Saab turned up the wick to 280 horsepower from the lesser Aero model’s 255 horsepower at the time. In addition to the powertrain tweaks, Saab went hard with the visuals on the Turbo X, casting a shadow over everything. Black paint, dark titanium accents, bi-color three-spoke wheels, this thing was trying to be the Swedish Buick GNX.


Rubber, Meet Road

Saab Turbo X 1

Was the Turbo X any good? Well, yes and no. When Car And Driver tested one in 2008, they seemed largely disappointed.

Our test car barely broke 15 seconds in the quarter-mile and needed a full six seconds to hit 60 mph. We’re not quite sure how fast the Turbo X will go because during our top-speed run, the engine began to overheat around 145 mph. On the road, the Turbo X feels peppy, but you need to use the gearbox because you’ll notice turbo lag if you let the revs drop below 2000.

Cornering grip was also less than record-setting at 0.83 g. But the Turbo X has a taut feel on the road, and if you press it hard it rotates nicely when you ease the throttle near the cornering limit. The downside of this sporty suspension is a pogo-like hop on certain freeways and the occasional harshness over severe bumps.

While Motor Trend had more positive things to say about the Turbo X’s ride and handling, they also noted turbo lag, ultimately summing the car up with the line “I wanted to like the Turbo X better, yet I still enjoyed it.” Evo magazine, on the other hand, reached a similar yet more disappointed verdict.

Yes, I want to like this car. But while I appreciate its technical cleverness and failsafe demeanor, I am not excited by it. Good try, Saab, but your arrow has missed the keen driver’s heart.

See, 2008 was a banner year for sports sedans, with everyone from Infiniti to Cadillac genuinely trying to make moves at BMW’s throne. The Saab Turbo X was quick, but it just didn’t have the panache to keep up with the segment’s most exciting contenders. A BMW 335i or Infiniti G37 performed better, albeit at the expense of available five-door practicality. Oh, and if you couldn’t get your hands on a Turbo X but still wanted a fast Saab, all you had to do was wait. In due time, the XWD system, the electronically controlled limited-slip differential, and even the high-output V6 were downloaded to less special models in the range. Sure, these later XWD models are still rare because the 9-3 was growing quite stale by then, but they’re out there.

A Road To Nowhere

Saab Turbo X Rear


Despite its technology trickling down, the Saab Turbo X is still cool, no matter how good or bad it may be. Black is still a cool color, three-spoke wheels are cool, turbos are cool, the letter X is cool, it all just adds up. Coolness only goes so far though, so was the Saab Turbo X a hit? Nope. It’s an ouroboros of hipsterdom, eating its own tail into relative obscurity forever. Bringing 600 examples to America was likely the right call, because let’s face it, how many people could justify paying E90 BMW 335i money for a weird Swedish sedan that could barely outrun a 328i? The Saab Turbo X was a dead-end near the end of Saab itself, a showy staircase to nowhere in particular.

(Photo credits: Saab)

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4 months ago

Sorry for the nitpick, but the place is called Trollhättan, not Trollhaatan.

Top Dead Center
Top Dead Center
4 months ago

I owned something similar, a 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD Sportcombi, with the auto and optional eLSD. I got it at a fire sale in 2009 when Saab was in bankruptcy. It was a good car, one I really liked to drive and own. It was about 42k mrsp and with discounts and tax incentives this ran 27k. At 42k it was steep, but sub 30k I felt pretty fair…
On paper, and with most journalists, it was disliked. I get it on the surface it seemed pretty meh or on the track. I found on a good desolate curvy road, long road trip, highway passing, real world (not 10/10ths) it was a fun drive. Punchy, quick comfortable, handling good for what it was, carried a good amount of cargo. Loved the front seats, added Bluetooth audio / phone setup directly to head unit via a harness. It would fit my road bike, with wheel on, and a little cargo as well. Heck would even fit two road bikes,if you had a sortof bed foam eggshell barrier between then – tho that was a tricky endeavor loading/unloading.
The xwd in winter was great, always just seemed to put the power down well. Add winter tires and it did the thing quite well. I’d drive up to northern WI or even UP in Mi, in winter, with no issues or concerns. City mpg was meh around 17 or so (Chicago north side), but highway I would get 25-26mpg pretty easy. I had a few small issues, biggest one was a weird shutter at WOT at higher speeds, felt like it was in the back axle – I bet the elSD. Dealer could never “duplicate” changed all driveline fluids, including trans fluid, around 20k in warranty and seemed ok after. It was not consistent or often so I never really worried too much. Did also have the coolant recovery tank crack, seeping, that engine compartment was so tight, engine had no room to vent really. After a long drive or hot weather I’d open hood for a bit to let it all cool off.

This is one of the vehicles I regret selling frankly, a 12 Volvo S60 R Design replaced it, loved that car too. I will say the Volvos interior felt more premium, less GM cost cutter plastics and cheap buttons. If that was my biggest letdown in the Saab it would be renting a Saturn Auru for a business trip, get home, back in the Saab and it didn’t really feel nicer in terms of materials. I feel GMs cost cutting here and there meant it was a compromise and ultimately hurt its competitiveness,

Oh yeah both had auto cool, because rear fog lights and adaptive headlights…

4 months ago

I always wanted one of these, along with the 9000 Aero, and 9-3 Viggen. I owned a 2006 9-3 2.0T 5 speed, and while it wasn’t a BMW it was fast, fun to drive, got good fuel mileage if you didn’t beat on it too hard, and man was it comfortable. The big letdown was in the interior. It looked cool, but was a combo of decent fit and finish coupled with terrible component quality. This didn’t help the TurboX either. There used to be a company that offered higher quality leather finished parts to replace the super cheap plastic stuff, like door pulls and e-brake handle. It was pricey, but I always thought you should spring for it if you had a TurboX to bring it more up to par with the German big dogs.

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