24/11/2006 00:00 | By By Richard Aucock

Saab 9-5 Biopower 2.3t review (2007 onwards model)



Saab 9-5 Biopower (© Image © Saab)

Last year Saab launched the Biopower brand in the UK. It has since sold 60 cars. Hardly a ringing endorsement. But this hasn’t stopped the Swedes: a year on and another Biopower derivative joins the 9-5 range.

Like the existing 2.0t, the new 2.3t’s power is up 14%, CO2 emissions are down by 70% - and all this for £23k. Compelling, isn’t it? So why hasn’t the concept taken off?

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Saab 9-5 Biopower (© Image © Saab)

Simple: (almost) nobody sells the fuel. Yes, Biopower Saabs can run on regular unleaded with no detectable effects. But that’s slightly disingenuous. It only cuts CO2 emissions when running on bioethanol, and if only 11 retailers in the country sell it, then you’re hardly likely to become the saviour of the ice caps, despite what your car says of you. This frustration has clearly encompassed Saab, whose disdain at governmental policy, whose veiled irritation at fuel companies’ reluctance to retail alternative fuels, is all too evident. Morrisons has committed to rolling out the ‘E85’ fuel, but they can hardly do it all themselves.

Saab 9-5 Biopower (© Image © Saab)

Phew. All this, almost before the car was mentioned at the launch. Still, suitably assured that rollout of E85-brandished stations is hastening, we listened to Saab’s engine guru, on why the new 2.3t unit was so good. Clever bloke, cunning concept. E85 (that’s 85% bioethanol, 15% unleaded) has an octane rating of 104 (this is a guestimate: the octane scale only goes up to 100, as in per cent, so they’ve extrapolated). Compared to ‘performance-enhancing’ 98RON super-unleaded, you’ve a considerable immediate advantage. As higher octanes prevent engine ‘knocking’ (‘pinking’ to we traditionalists), there’s an added benefit, too – the ability to optimise.

Saab 9-5 Biopower (© Image © Saab)

Saab, as it doesn’t have to ‘knock’ (har) the engine back to avoid knocking, has been able to tune it closer to tolerance. More performance can be realised without fear of the engine self-detonating; for example, instead of ignition being optimal 65% of the time, now it’s up to 80%‘ideal’. Emissions benefit, too. For 95% of the time, they are also ideal – not too lean or rich. That’s up from the regular car’s 80% boast. Combine all this, plus the “extra lever for us to pull” of a tuneable turbo, and Saab has been able to push power up to 210bhp and torque up by 11% to 236lb/ft.

Saab 9-5 Biopower (© Image © Saab)

0-60mph is down by nearly half a second to under 8 seconds, too. All sound a bit racy? That’s the intention. Because we all know the theory of Biofuel is sound. Saab’s preferred bioethanol is grown from wheat and barley; while the current ‘1st generation’ fuel carries a few environmental concerns, future generations will realise the dream of automotive fuel being grown in fields, with no adverse impact on climate. Grow it and it absorbs CO2, burn it and no more CO2 than it swallowed is produced. That’s they key to it all. There are more CO2 emissions at the tailpipe, and it uses no less fuel. But the ‘well to wheel’ CO2 balances – something no conventional fuel can boast.

Better to drive?

Saab 9-5 Biopower (© Image © Saab)

Yes, it’s coming. What they’re trying to do is infuse it with some ‘best of both worlds cool’. Thus, we grabbed the keys for a liveried, shipped-over-from-Sweden 9-5 auto (at what environmental cost?), to see what tricks the old timer had up its sleeve. And… well, it looked, started and drove just like a conventional 9-5, and both throbbed and whistled in that charming Saab way. Indistinguishable. But hang on – doesn’t it seem smoother and more sonorous than the last 9-5 we drove? Doesn’t the engine pull more cleanly and eagerly, even with the (actually quite perceptive) auto ‘box?

Saab 9-5 Biopower (© Image © Saab)

It’s like a 9-5 that’s benefited from a blueprinted engine. Which in a way, given the purity of the fuel, it has. Almost uniquely for a ‘green’ fuel, it adds to the drive, rather than taking something away. Rather pleasant, and all, given how relatively straightforward equipping a car to run on it is, for a modest £600 premium. It will cost more to run – 25%-plus less mpg isn’t fully offset by the Government’s incentives for E85 (more Saab irritation) – but it’s still a cheaper way of going green than, say, buying a Lexus GS400h. It’s also currently the closest we have to a car approaching independence from fossil fuels.

Saab 9-5 Biopower (© Image © Saab)

There’s no doubting the concept. Bioethanol makes even the ageing 9-5 a more appealing proposition, and we look forward to its appearance in the more youthful and appealing 9-3 (the delay, according to rumours, is in perfecting the car’s electronics). A few doubters question whether E85 is quite as green as claimed, but these will be addressed with future derivations of the fuel. The big problem, in the UK, is getting hold of the stuff – and Saab knows the concept won’t prosper until availability improves. Where E85 is available, so too is interest and orders at Saab dealers. But there simply aren’t enough of them.

Saab 9-5 Biopower (© Image © Saab)

Muddled Governmental thinking doesn’t help, nor does TFL’s refusal to consider it for the congestion charge (daft, when hybrids and LPG cars are exempt). But logic says all that will change. What’s important is that, while Saab isn’t saying biofuel is our salvation (they’re investigating hybrids and fuel cells too), it’s a solution that we can implement today. Future tech is just that – in the future. If we’re serious about reducing CO2, we need to use what’s available right now. Biofuel is, the on-paper evidence is undeniable… question is, when there’s so much talk about being green, why the intransigence over its introduction?

Now it’s doubled its Biopower line-up, Saab deserves to do much more than double its sales.

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