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  1. Barely a mile by yellow taxi from New York’s glossy skyscrapers,
    but a long way in socio-geographic terms, the Saab PhoeniX concept car stands,
    at 2am, on a street corner of one of Manhattan’s scratchier, edgier districts.
    It used to be all meat wholesaling round here. Many of the old warehouses have
    been converted into fashion-forward shops, industrial-chic loft apartments and
    frostily cool bars. The rest, of course, have simply been converted into
    abandoned warehouses. As in any such district in any city, the small-hours
    crowd is full of opinion.

    Words: Paul Horrell
    Photos: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This feature was originally published in the June issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. A drunkish, dressy couple shambles by. She double-takes and
    unwinds herself from him for a better look. “That car is f***ing awesome,” she
    screams. Soon a pale hipster, hair asymmetrically floppy and jeans pipe-cleaner
    narrow, adds his view: “It’s a Saab? It’s a beautiful vehicle.” Cabbies slow.
    Cops stop. In Britain, we’re used to people like this keeping a studied
    detachment from the world of cars. Are they all over this one because we’re in
    New York? Unlikely. Manhattan’s an overcrowded finger of real estate and a hostile
    place to drive a car: most people opt out. So it must be the look of the Saab
    that’s getting them juiced up.

  3. And maybe too the simple fact it’s a Saab. A nicely
    alternative brand that’s been through the wringer lately, a fact acknowledged
    by the PhoeniX name. No one wants to see Saab die - even though far too few
    people will do the one thing that would really help save it: buy one.

    So Saab needed a jolt. And the PhoeniX is the car to do it.
    Jason Castriota, an Italian-New Yorker, is Saab’s hired-gun designer. His
    commitment to the company overwhelms you. When Castriota gets cracking, his
    verbal rev-counter barely drops out of the red, with a self-confidence that
    pins you back in your chair with the force of a wind-tunnel fan. But then he
    does have the CV to back it up, having worked at Pininfarina and done the
    Ferrari 599 and Maserati GranTurismo, plus the couture Ferrari P4/5 and
    Maserati Birdcage, and the next-generation SSC. All of those cars had obvious
    aerodynamic innovations, and Castriota says that had to be a given with Saab.

  4. “The Ursaab [Saab’s first prototype, in 1947] had aero, but
    it was all about low drag not downforce back then. It had a fuselage body and a
    canopy cockpit. Nowadays we use air to push, pull, direct, cool and
    supercharge, but the PhoeniX still has the teardrop fuselage and canopy. It
    takes an aeronautical approach to car design. Hence the winglets and so on. And
    it’s got a Cd of 0.25, with proper cooling and wipers. The actual 9-3
    replacement will have a very low Cd too.”

    The complex demands made of air have led to a bewildering
    array of solutions in the PhoeniX. Most extraordinary are those flying buttress
    wings levitating beyond the upper edges of the cabin. They hold lipstick
    rear-view cameras at their front corners, then flick back to guide the airflow,
    before compressing it into a vortex that flings down to the rear spoiler,
    making that more effective. Nice idea, but not for a real Saab eh?

  5. Still, Castriota says that 70 per cent of a car’s drag is at
    the nose, and that this one is very slippery. And that it will be transferred
    near-intact to the 9-3 replacement. If the nose is critical for drag, the tail
    is vital for stability, says Castriota. This one has a cut-off Kamm tail, and a
    high, central exhaust, because hot air moves fast and it shapes and neatens the
    wake. Pressure release vents lie low down aft of both front and rear wheels.
    The wheels dome outwards to keep the air flowing cleanly.

  6. Physically, this is a very layered car. See the stepped, channelled sills, as well as the buttresses and the freestanding carbon-fibre valance around the tail. Inside too, material seems to float freely. But Castriota goes further. “It’s also about philosophical layers. You discover more and more of it as you go on, like onion skins. I wanted to keep the Saab DNA but change the rules. To move forward and diversify the brand, increase its bandwidth. To hang onto our core buyers but also to capture people who’ve never looked at a Saab before.” That’ll be our 2am New York crowd. 

  7. But pardon me if I just look at this as a car rather than a
    manifestation of a philosophy. I venture to Castriota that there’s just too
    much going on. Isn’t it a bit too busy? Messy, even? Especially when one of
    Saab’s distinguishing marks has been a pared-back Scandinavian simplicity. A
    Saab shouldn’t over-stimulate - it should soothe, both as a drive and as a
    visual object.

    Castriota doesn’t break step before chucking it back at me.
    “Look, when Bangle arrived at BMW he did five concept cars in five years. We
    didn’t have the wherewithal to do that, or the time. We had to compress BMW’s
    five years into five months. We released the PhoeniX at the Geneva show where
    the VW Group had eight cars. And we got the most coverage. This car had so
    muchto do. To change the perceptions of Saab, and broaden the bandwidth. And do
    it fast. And do something real.”

  8. Something real? Huh? A concept with scissor doors and wings
    like the handles of a shopping bag? “Look, even couture clothes have to fit a
    real human body. And this car fits a real platform. The crash structure is
    real, and the drivetrain, and the cooling. The packaging is real. Real people
    can fit inside.” Indeed they can - it’s quite accommodating in there, and you
    can even see out. It really does feel driveable.

    Suddenly, as if remembering the rules of some PR script, he
    back-pedals a little. “It’s not the next 9-3 and I didn’t want this to be
    Photoshopped onto magazine covers as that.” OK, but a few minutes later, I’m
    with Saab’s chairman Victor Muller who can’t resist getting out his smartphone
    and showing me an image of a 9-3 coupe he’s had Castriota design. It’s
    basically the PhoeniX without the wings and the lower-body layering, and it
    really does look like a car to give the TT and RCZ pause.

  9. Anyway, Castriota says the whole nose section of the 9-3
    replacement will look just like what’son the PhoeniX. The swept-back wheel-arch
    modelling too. And since the PhoeniX uses Saab’s new platform, the relationship
    of wheels to bumper is right, including the shortened but more effective front
    crash structure, so Saabs won’t look as nose-heavy. The engine is real too:
    Saab has done a deal with BMW to get Mini Cooper S engines. And the suspension,
    because Saab has announced that ZF will design and build this, although the
    concept has a slightly wider track. And the four-wheel-drive system
    - hence the capital X in the name. This is done with American Axle, and
    consists of a rear-mounted battery and electric drive. So it’s a hybrid along
    similar linesto Peugeot’s HYbrid4 system, but features torque-vectoring
     side-to-side.

  10. I tend to dismiss concept-car interiors as designer fluff,
    because they always get hopelessly toned down for production. But the PhoeniX
    has something they swear will be here next year. It’s that tablet screen, called
    IQon. It runs Android, and the idea is the entertainment, ‘nav, comms and
    various sport and hybrid functions all work through the touchscreen. But that’s
    not all. There will be an IQon app store where any Saab owner can buy and
    upgrade functions during their car’s life. Imagine you want to reprogramme the
    hybrid system or adaptive dampers or the way the nav functions or the car
    interacts with the web. Justget a new app. An IQon beta test fleet is already
    running, with a kit for third-party developers that takes feeds from 500
    sensors around the car.

  11. We’re hearing that both the five-door and cabrio of the 9-3
    replacement will be shown before 2012 is out. Though I’ve jibed at the hectic
    and un-Saab design, I’m happy to accept Castriota’s assertion that it is true
    to the company. It’s aerodynamic, green, has a downsized turbo four, is unusual
    and well-packaged and practical. “It won’t be a direct A4 or 3-Series
    competitor,” he says.

  12. But all the time I was with Castriota and Muller, and even
    now as I write, Saab’s financial problems are hanging over it like a cloud the
    colour of the PhoeniX’s mercury-grey paint. The factory has been closed for
    weeks because they can’t pay the companies who supply the parts. This funding
    block is complicated but temporary, Muller insists, and once resolved there is
    the money to forge onward. Even if you don’t take your car advice from to a
    load of intoxicated barflies, take it from TopGear. On the strength of this
    car, new Saabs do deserve to see the light of day.

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