Saab goes bio-power crazy
Saab is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year with a further push into the very topical biofuels arena, and Geneva showcases two new examples of the Swedes' growing green commitment. First is the new 9-3 Biopower, a full range of saloon, estate and convertible 9-3s, all powered by a 1.8-litre turbocharged engine that's been modified to run on both unleaded and E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent petrol). The mechanical changes include hardened valves and valve seats, and a new stainless steel fuel tank and ancilliaries, adding up to what's expected to be a £600 premium in the showroom over the standard 9-3. The benefits are twofold though - not only do you get a 17 percent increase in power and a 10 percent increase in torque, thanks to ethanol's higher octane rating, you also get to drive with a clear conscience, knowing your CO2 emissions are reduced by somewhere between 50 and 70 percent compared to petrol.
Biopower 100 Concept
This 'flexfuel' 9-3 is joined on the Saab show stand by the new Biopower 100 Concept. Unlike last year's beautiful Aero X concept, this one isn't clothed in a futuristic sportscar body - instead it's a standard looking 9-5 estate with a white paint scheme and a name that sounds like a washing powder. Under the skin, however, the Bio 100 is a high-tech hint at where all this ethanol work could be leading. The concept is powered by the first production-based turbocharged engine to run on E100 - pure, 100 percent ethanol, with no fossil fuel added. The modified 2.0-litre turbo now puts out 300bhp, largely thanks to an increased compression ratio compared to the standard model, made possible by E100's high 106 RON octane rating.
The Biopower 100 isn't really about producing a hot 9-5 with white leather seats - it's actually about what Kjellac Bergstrom - president of GM Powertrain in Sweden - describes as 'not downsizing, rightsizing'. 'This car produces 150bhp per litre, but we know it doesn't need 300bhp, it only needs 150. So maybe in the future, a car like this could have a turbocharged 1.0-litre engine running on ethanol.' So this is the direction that Saab intends to go, with its perfectly Swedish philosophy of 'responsible performance' - combining its turbo expertise, accumulated since the first Saab 99 Turbo back in 1978, with its growing confidence with ethanol. The result promises to be sporty cars, powered by some surprisingly small but also surprisingly potent, lightweight, fuel-efficient turbo engines, running on eco-friendly alcohol. So hey, maybe we're not all doomed after all.
Nothing Saab is doing right now is technically remarkable - many manufacturers have ethanol expertise, thanks to their involvement in the Brazilian car market. What marks Saab out is its immaculate timing: since it launched its bigger 9-5 Biopower 18 months ago, Saab has become the European market leader in 'flexfuel' (both petrol- and ethanol-friendly) cars, all at the precise moment the environment reaches the tipping point on the world's agenda, and just as America announces a multi-billion-dollar investment into ethanol production. Now all Saab needs is the UK infrastructure to rise to the challenge (and a few tax incentives would be handy, too). At the moment, there are just a handful of E85 pumps across the UK, in Morrisons supermarket forecourts. Morrisons is promising to roll the fuel out across the UK, but this really is a chicken-and-egg situation - why take up valuable pump space with E85 when no-one is buying it? And why buy a Saab 9-3 Bio when you can't get the E85? Saab is certainly hoping enough buyers choose to pay the Bio premium now, to run the car on unleaded petrol until the E85 market grows. If any customer is willing to do that, it's the Saab customer.