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New turbo and marketing emphasis make for a happy SAAB story

When you step on the accelerator of the third-generation SAAB turbo, the car really takes off - just like the company that makes it. Sweden's No. 2 automaker believes the 16-valve turbocharged 16-S, a 3-door hatchback in the 900 series, and the still-to-be-released SAAB 9000 will give it increasing visibility on the highways of the world.

The company is so sure of itself, in fact, that it no longer lets the production department govern how many cars can be sold.

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''Now we are doing it the other way around,'' asserts Georg Karnsund, president of the SAAB-Scania Group, of which the car division is a part. The marketing people is in the driver's seat, and higher and higher production is the goal.

Right in step with the world's trend to more efficient 16-valve, 4-cylinder, intercooled engines, the output of the third-generation SAAB turbo jumps from 145 horsepower to 175 with a significant boost in torque, a measure of the way a car performs on the road. Even though the American version of the car will lose some of its zip because of emission laws, it will still be no slouch in a passing maneuver on the Interstate. Engine horsepower is 160 in the US trim, instead of 175.

Introducing its first turbo in 1976, the Swedish carmaker has already produced more than 100,000 turbocharged engines for its cars.

Significantly, in a test drive from Frankfurt, West Germany, to Mulhouse, we were told to stay in fifth gear when passing another vehicle on the road. Even at autobahn speeds, the advice was sound. The overtaking performance of the new engine is about 20 percent better than the turbo engine it replaces.

Indeed, there was plenty of low-speed torque, so that a quick pickup in speed always followed a slight pressure on the ''gas pedal.'' Excluding the exotics, only the swift Audi Quattro has higher torque, but at a higher engine speed than the SAAB.

''No other car engine in the same size class develops as high a torque at such a low speed,'' reports Stig-Goran Larsson, director of the SAAB-Scania gasoline engine development department. The new engine was unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show last year.

Both the new 16-valve, double-overhead-cam engine as well as the standard 145 -hp., 8-valve engine are equipped with SAAB's APC (automatic performance control) system, which enables the engine to run on fuels of widely varying octane ratings without a knock. The APC system monitors and controls the boost pressure so that it will always be at the maximum possible for the octane rating of the fuel used. Even low-quality fuels pass the no-knock test.

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By increasing the compression ratio in the cylinders to 9 to 1, combined with the APC feature on its cars, fuel consumption is also reduced, according to Gunnar Larsson, technical director at SAAB. The car can theoretically run 450 miles on a full tank of fuel, he says.

Rather than requiring high engine speed for maximum performance on the road, SAAB engineers say that the torque of the new 16-valve engine peaks at no more than 3,000 r.p.m. and maximum output at 5,300 r.p.m. Because of the lower engine speeds, they add, the required service on the engine should be less. Also, the engine should last longer, Mr. Larsson reports.

The Turbo 16-S includes an electric sunroof, windows, and outside mirrors. Steering is power-assisted, and the rear side windows can be put down. An electrically operated aerial is standard as well. So are central locking and delayed courtesy lights.

SAAB and its larger domestic competitor, Volvo, are becoming increasingly visible on the roadways of the world.

When the SAAB management refused to go along with the proposed merger with Volvo a few years ago, it apparently knew what it was doing.

The company seems to be doing all right on its own.Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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