There are some cars you just shouldn't find desirable. We all lust after Porsche GT3s and Enzo Ferraris; naturally, they're gorgeous and have performance enough to render you infertile. Most would never put a Saab in such illustrious company. To many, Saabs are for your granddad once he starts to dribble. So how is it I find myself at a race track, wide-mouthed, lusting after one of these Swedish sensible-wagons more than is humanly healthy?
The Saab in question is performing a rather spectacular drift-tires smoking crowd-pleasingly-at the Rudskogen racetrack in Norway, as part of the renowned Gatebil show. Not only am I appreciating the sideways action from this unique Saab 9-3 X4R that loosely resembles a 2006 9-3 Aero, but that tell-tale dump valve sound and rapid turn of speed up the straight means there's some serious turbo action going on here.
I've got nothing against Saabs on the whole. They perform well enough, are unquestionably luxurious, and these days don't even look half bad. But they'll never stir emotions the same way a BMW or Alfa could. There's just something missing. Perhaps this is why you'll struggle to find a highly modified example.
Fast forward 48 hours. Long gone is the Norwegian track, and I'm in the town where Saab's road vehicles are made. Trollhattan, in western Sweden, is proud of its Saab heritage, and you'll find more of them driving around here than anywhere else in the world. If you're looking for a highly modified example, surely this is the place.
Turns out 'modified' isn't a strong enough term for Per-Anders Johansson's Saab 9-3 X4R. "The idea was to build the world's most extreme street Saab," the Saab worker explains. "With 802 bhp, it is the most powerful four-cylinder Saab we know of. It is even more powerful than Per Eklund's Pikes Peak 9-3 racecar." Amazingly, this car has as much right to be driven on the street as a brand-new factory Saab. Somehow, the Swedish authorities allow it.
It may still be street-legal, but this thing is more race than street. The body, painted in Porsche Titan Gray, is noticeably wider (and tougher) than a stock 9-3. If there were to be a Saab DTM racer, they could do worse than turning to this car for inspiration.
"The body kit was developed by the Saab Technical Department for racing in the Nrburgring 24 hours and the Swedish Long Distance Cup," Johansson says. "We managed to get hold of carbon fiber racing panels to put on this car." Good connections, then.
The front bumper has been extended using carbon, the entire front panels are of the same lightweight stuff, and the rear arches have also been fattened by it as well. Fatter by around two and three-quarter inches front and rear to be precise. Far more obvious, with carbon weave on display, is the trunk lid and the gorgeous M3 CSL-style roof. The rear wing by Wargia Engineering just rounds off the tough style. I really am finding this Saab much too appealing.
In a town where rotten fruit could be thrown at you if you dare drive anything but a Saab, things get interesting when Johansson takes me out for a cruise. Battered old Saab 900 drivers and smug 9-3 Aero pilots all do a double-take as we cruise up to a set of stop lights, race engine warbling with menace. The combination of the wide body lowered by a custom coilover suspension system over race-style 10x20-inch BBS RS GT rims, plus the exhaust note, sends purists ducking for cover. Brilliant.
Johansson hints at the car's potential with a gentle squeeze of the throttle. It's only a four-cylinder, but once the mighty Turbonetics/ITS T76 turbocharger catches its breath, acceleration is plain ridiculous.
There's enough custom work gone into this engine to make even racing teams blush, and the level of engineering-traditionally extremely thorough with Swedish custom turbo engines-ensures it all stays together under abuse. "I have destroyed a very expensive carbon fiber triple-plate clutch, though," Johansson admits.
In the engine bay, it's all custom piping and a single massive turbo. Where's the engine gone? Thanks to fitting a Tractive all-wheel-drive system to the car, the engine had to be mounted behind the front axle, so it sits right back into the center console within the cabin. This helps the 56/44-percent front-to-rear weight distribution, which is pretty much ideal for the racing Johansson does.
Sitting snugly in a Sparco Evo VTR bucket seat, I take in the Tractive five-speed sequential gear changer and Wilwood rally-spec handbrake. Throw in a multi-point roll-cage, carbon fiber dash, Aim data logger and a whole panel full of please-flick-me racing switches, and there are few other cars I'd be more keen to abuse around the Nordschleife. Just let the local Porsche boys try and keep up.
And if you still aren't convinced of this 9-3's race-readiness, check out the anchors: massive Tarox 12-pot calipers gripping 15-inch discs up front are backed up by equally neck-snapping eight-pots on 14-inch discs out back.
Understandably, Johansson won't push it too hard on the street; it's quite a noticeable machine. Anyhow, the track is its natural home, a fact highlighted as Johansson shows me the sky-high gearing that takes him to a ridiculous 70 mph-in first gear.
"It is most important in Sweden to have a good quarter-mile time," he explains, "so I'll have to change the gearing for that. I'm hoping it will run under 10 seconds when it is sorted this winter." For the non-quarter-mile enthusiast, that's McLaren F1 territory.
If nothing else, Johansson knows how to enjoy his toy. Nor does he aim to be a quarter-mile hero. With the car's programmable active differentials, he can shift the car from AWD to rear-drive effortlessly. "If I want to play, it is very easy to smoke the rear tires," he says, smiling.
We would hardly expect everyone to run out and buy a Saab after having seen this one, but as long as the likes of Johansson and his 9-3 X4R are around, the Saab tuner underground is getting one hell of an image boost.
2006 SAAB 9-3 AERO X4R
Longitudinal front engine, all-wheel drive
'94 Saab 900 transplant, 2.0-liter in-line four, bottom end rebuilt to 9.35:1 compression, custom forced induction system with Turbonetics compressor and Racecoolings intercooler, custom head and valvetrain, custom intake manifold, Pectal T6 ECU
Tractive five-speed sequential manual, AP Racing triple-plate clutch, Trollspeed lightweight flywheel, Tractive four-wheel-drive system with programmable hydraulic differentials, custom hybrid driveshaft
Custom Bilstein race coilovers
Tarox 12-piston calipers, 15-inch rotors (f), Tarox 8-piston calipers, 14.2-inch rotors (r)
Wheels and Tires
BBS RS GT, 10x20Yokohama Advan Sport, 255/30
Carbon fiber bumper, fenders, rear bumper extension, roof and trunk lid, aluminum hood, Wargia rear wing
Multi-point rollcage, Sparco Evo VTR race seats, Sparco harnesses and steering wheel, carbon floor plates, custom dash and center console
Peak Power: 802 bhp
Peak Torque: 572 lb-ft