Saab Had It Right All Along – Avg Engine Size Down, Power Up

[hr][dropcap]T[/dropcap]here’s an interesting infographic online at Car and Driver magazine. Go visit them to check it out.

Eggs and Grits sent me the link along with the following message:

Responsible performance for the win! Output goes up, through direct injection and forced induction (turbocharging).

Definitely vindication in my book. My C900/9-5/Viggen, etc had it before your Audi/Lexus/etc had it

I don’t think there’s anything I can add (that doesn’t involve spitting towards Detroit and other uncouth behaviour).

If any of you former Saab engineers in Sweden are reading this, I hope you recline in your comfy La-Z-Boy chair tonight, light up a cigar and bask in your collective foresight.

In short, between 2008 and 2013:

  • Average engine displacement is down.
  • The number of cars with forced induction is up.
  • The number of cars with direct injection is up.
  • Average fuel economy is better.
  • Average power output is up.
  • Average acceleration is quicker.
  • The percentage of makes offering gasoline alternatives has increased.

Here’s the link again: Car and Driver Infographic

Saab had all of that. They began the journey in the 1970’s and it continued right up until they filed for bankruptcy. Saab’s new ownership is looking to take it even further into the future.

It’s a shame that the guys who led the charge aren’t all together to see Saab leading the way, still.


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  1. The Cadillac ATS has a 2.0 turbo engine. I wonder where they got that idea and that engine from.. It is kind of bittersweet to think the next 9-3 could have been based on or jointly developed with the ATS. Could have been an interesting new future for a 9-3 with RWD. Sure beats a 9-3 with a sewing machine engine.. 😉

  2. This is really the sad part. Ford ecoboost. Turbo Malibus. Saab had a test car in the US with DI in 1986. Too much too soon. Passion gets you nowhere is the people are to stupid to see the light. In 86 ford and GM were still selling cars with carbs. Who lost? The small guys that saw the future and were passionate about the engineering. Cheers to all the people at saab through the late 70’s and 80’s. They were way ahead of the times….

  3. Saab engineers, thank you!

    Much, if not all, of that praise goes to the electronics revolution.

    Smaller, more powerful engines is a result of exhaust emission regulation.

    Less is more.

  4. Those engine sizes and average mpg figures are still shocking. Kind of makes European efforts to ‘save the planet’ and the huge taxation we pay, supposedly in the name of green, look completely futile and disingenuous.

  5. While I am a huge advocate of small capacity turbos and keeping cars as light as possible, I am not entirely sure that Saab ‘had it right’

    The reliability of highly tuned small turbos is open to question, the Honest John website in the UK has reports of many faults appearing on early VAG TSI engines, some terminal. Interestingly Mazda is pretty much going the opposite direction with its engines.

    The economy figures can also be misleading. The EU test figures are now pretty meaningless as engines are developed ‘to the test’ our new 116i with a 1.6 turbo has a switch for Sport, Comfort and EcoPro. The Eco Pro is a less agressive setting for the accelerator which was put in pace to help with the EU test. Small capacity engines give excellent economy in steady fast moving traffic – we see 40-45 mpg on a run. In town it drops to around 20-30 mpg. We knew this buying the car but a lot of downsizers are finding this a shock.

    Saab at least believed in the technology however other manufacturers are heading down this road to tick the CO2 box rather than any belief that the turbo is a better engine (Honda and BMW M Division are pretty much going through gritted teeth and they can’t be alone).

    For what its worth, the engine in our 116i would have gone in the new 9-3 and to it honest its an absolute gem, shame I will likely never get to drive one.

    1. Jon,

      The VAG TSI reliability issues are an implementation problem rather than a fundamental issue with either turbocharging or direct injection.

      There is also an industry-wide issue with DI engines and carbon deposits on intake valves (which definitely applies to the BMW 1.6), and has to do with exhaust gas recirculation (EGR). It turns out that port injectors do a good job of cleaning intake tracts. Some manufacturers are now implementing EGR through valve overlap rather than feed combustion gasses back through the intake. It’s a back-to-the-future solution: Volvo used it in the US in the 1970s and 80s. Back then it made US Volvos much rougher-running than European ones, but that can be addressed with advanced variable valve timing systems.

      1. Bernard, I have no issue with either DI or Turbos. The difference as I see it is that Saab took an engine that ran in their car and added performance (and usually not to an extreme).

        in the case of the new generation of engines manufacturers are taking smaller engines from smaller cars, boosting them and driving bigger cars. I am ok with that as well except that it is not being done to add performance, it is being done to massage the mpg figures. The smaller engine is under greater strain more of the time meaning that there can be big problems for whoever owns the car at 6-7 years old.

        Owners (not visitors to this site of course) then fail to take proper care of the engine and them blame the manufacturer when it melts and we are back to told you so from the capacity fans.

        Where BMW followed Saabs lead – right sized engines with a bit of turbo sparkle added is the right road.

        PS I run a diesel (and a Renault at a that!) so don’t mention EGRs whatever you do…

      2. In possibly related news, Audi’s new 2.0l DI engine (revealed at the Detroit Auto Show this week) features additional port injectors. Their stated purpose is to reduce particle emissions, but I would not be surprised if they are also used to keep the intake tracts free of carbon deposits.

    2. “The reliability of highly tuned small turbos is open to question, the Honest John website in the UK has reports of many faults appearing on early VAG TSI engines, some terminal.”

      Yes, VAG (Volkswagen Audi Group, for those who do not know) TSI engines did have issues, but those have been eliminated with the newer TFSI engines.

      I have had several 900 Turbos that I have put well over 200k miles on…and one with 300k+…and never an issue with an engine or turbo charger.

      One thing I have never done is “baby” my cars. Not even from day one. They all have been driven hard, and maintained to the highest levels. Take care of them…and they will take care of you with decades of fun.

      Sadly, my black 1990 900 SPG was totaled in an accident in November, 7 days after dropping over USD$5,000.00 on a mechanical restoration (maybe more on that in a future piece for here Steven has asked me to pen), but it had 206k + on it, and was running perfectly. 🙁

      As for smaller displacement & higher performance, always been my preference. I waited until 2012 (for MY2013) to get my Audi S5, simply because I did not want the V8 engine. I much preferred the Supercharged 3.0L V6. Same performance as the V8…0-60 mph in 4.8 seconds…, but lighter weight over the front end for better handling, and far better fuel mileage. Oh…and no USD$1,300.00 “Gas Guzzler Tax” either. 🙂

      Recently went on a 2,200+ mile (3540km) trip with the car, and on the return trip, we drove for 909 miles (1463km) straight home, and averaged 26.8 MPG at an overall average speed of 58 mph for 18 hours on the road. Not too shabby.

      So contrary to the old adage that “there is no substitute for cubic inches”…actually…there are MANY substitutes these days.

      1. The Charged V6 is a great engine but I still would go for the V8, it used to put a smile on my face when the Techs revved them up for servicing. My personal favourite was the S6 which I preferred to the RS6 when I drove them.

        ‘One thing I have never done is “baby” my cars. Not even from day one. They all have been driven hard, and maintained to the highest levels. Take care of them…and they will take care of you with decades of fun.’

        Exactly but sadly many of these cars will be looked after by indifferent owners, I had a customer who looked at me like I was mad when I offered to show them where the dipstick was on their £45k car (they came in a panic telling me there was no oil in the engine, driving some distance when they thought it was dry…) And as for the guy who had his S6 drained of diesel only to drive around the corner to fill it up. With Diesel.

        Happy days.

        1. Funny about the dipstick. The newer Audis do not have one, as I am sure you know, but I purchase one anyway. I’m just an “old fart” who doesn’t trust the electronic readings from the MMI…which many times are bogus.

          “And as for the guy who had his S6 drained of diesel only to drive around the corner to fill it up. With Diesel.”

          Another example of someone with more money than brains.

          As a friend used to say…”There are no lifeguards at the gene pool.” 😉

      2. “VAG (Volkswagen Audi Group, for those who do not know)”
        This is actually not correct…

        VAG is Volkswagen AG (Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft) the public stock listed parent company of the Volkswagen group

        Primarily traded on the Frankfurt stock exchange (FWB) as ‘VOW’ and ‘VOW3’

    3. I think that BMW 116i engine might have struggled a bit with the new 9-3. Rated at 100kW and 220Nm of torque, it wouldn’t have been that quick in a car that might(?) have grown to OG9-5 proportions and weighed a whole lot more than a 116i or a Mini. I’m sure Saab would have been able to coax a bit more oomph out of that BMW engine, but I always felt that the 1.6 litre was destined for a base model and a 1.8 or 2.0 would’ve been needed for Aero spec. models.
      Alas we never got to find out…

      1. Actually the new Mini Cooper S and JCW get a new 2 litre turbo BMW engine. Maybe that’s what Saab would’ve used for an Aero?

      2. I guess it depends on how heavy they made it, it certainly performs well in the 3 series. general cars are getting lighter through more intelligent use of materials.
        Certainly Saab would have used one of the existing higher tune versions of the engine either from the 118i or from ac schnitzer, though once you go past the 170bhp level for ordinary models (there are manufacturer versions of the previous Peugeot BMW gen engines running up to 260bhp so I guess 280-300 could be seen at dealers) it comes back to my original point about the care and maintenance of stressed smaller engines.

        The vast bulk of sales would have been 136 and 170 petrols and 2.0 diesel engines regardless. People always got exited about Aero models but for the ordinary customer the smaller engines were the key thing to get right.

  6. And when Mercedes-Benz produces a FWD 2 liter turbo, that is surely a sign of the apocalypse.

  7. Would’ve been nice to also see an infographic on car weight. All new cars today appear to my eyes gigantic in comparison to my old C900. Cars seem to get heavier as they get “safer” and I can’t even see out the back of most modern cars, as the bodywork rises and the windows get shorter. If they’ve accomplished the power and fuel economy gains while adding weight, that’s an even greater accomplishment.

    1. As stamping technology and materials have gotten better, those larger shells have gotten lighter, too. My guess is that they are on par with older cars with respect to weight.

  8. Thanks for the hat tip, Swade!

    As Thor mentions above, new cars have changed in other ways, too. In my view, the advent of 6-, 7-. and 8-speed transmissions has really helped to keep performance up while displacement wanes. The Achilles heel of older Saabs like my C900 is the lack of low-end torque from the 2.0l turbo engine. Once the turbo spools up, the power is there. With 6 or 8 speeds, the designers can compensate for the lack of low-end by reducing the gearing to make the most use of the torque on tap. A beautiful solution.

  9. Would former Saab engineers have a La-Z-Boy recliner, Swade? I just assumed that all Saab engineers would either have an Ekornes or Fjord recliner….or at least build one from a Saab driver’s seat. 😉

    I completely agree with this sentiment. As much as I loved big American iron growing up, the balance of economy and power of a Saab turbo 4 means fun driving on a budget!

  10. And to take this a step further, Saab had it right with the hatchback body style. Just as the premium automotive world was embracing the idea, GM took Saab out of the game. GM’s like the automotive equivalent of George Costanza…every instinct they have seems to be wrong. If only they’d realized it before carving up Saab, they could have “done the opposite”!