By Henry M. Holden
Purchase a 2007 Saab 9-3 Aero or a 9-5 Aero model, and you get an interesting bonus: free enrollment in Saab’s high-performance driving school at the Road Atlanta racetrack, located about an hour north of Atlanta, Ga., in Braselton. Road Atlanta is a 2.54 mile, 12-turn road course, where motorcycles and sports cars race every year.
“The course is two full days of driver education and high-performance driving,” said Julie Kenar, marketing manager of the 97X and 9-5 Aeros. “It starts at 8:00 a.m., and ends at 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. Customers are provided with a continental breakfast and lunch at the racetrack in the afternoon.”
Founded in 1999, the Saab Aero Academy is the former Viggen Flight Academy.
“The academy isn’t an extra and it’s not an option,” says Jay Spenchian, Saab USA general manager. “It’s as much a part of the Saab 9-3 and 9-5 as their turbocharged engines, and is something no other automaker offers.”
Kenar said the course was started with the Saab Viggen, because the customers were interested in the vehicle’s performance.
“We thought it was a great way to teach the customers about what they purchased, while displaying the benefits of the car,” she said. “It’s also a reward for purchasing a Saab.”
This defensive driving course is designed to teach owners about the car’s performance capabilities. More than 1,200 owners have participated.
“After day one, we have what we call an “afterburner” event. Customers are invited to the winery at the Château Elan Winery and Resort, which is also the host hotel for most participants,” said Kenar. “Saab customers and their guests are taken for a tour and invited to a wine tasting. After that, we host a three or four course gourmet dinner. All of that is included in the Aero Academy package.”
Following classroom time, the instructors take the customers out to the track. Academy Aero instructors are professional racing drivers, in open-wheel, sports car, endurance and oval-track racing. The ratio of instructors to students is 1:4.
“We take owners through eight different exercises,” said Kenar. “We have a skid pad, where we teach owners how to handle their vehicles in very slick conditions, such as snow, ice or wet roads. We teach them how to control their vehicles if they over steer or under steer. It teaches our customer how to steer out of a skid before it’s encountered in a real-world situation.”
Another exercise is on the autocross track, which is probably one of the customer favorites.
“A quarter-mile course takes the customer over hills and around sharp turns,” Kenar said. “It’s the capstone of the Aero Academy. It takes the skills from the other exercises and combines them, where owners can practice everything all at once. Another exercise customers really like is the slalom, which tests timing, throttle and steering skills—all while avoiding orange cones. The driver has to maneuver the car quickly and efficiently through the cones without knocking any over, while at the same time increasing speed.”
The instructors provide feedback after each exercise. After each pass through the slalom, instructors go over seating position and focus, encouraging them to look three cones ahead, instead of one. The customers receive continuous feedback to improve their skills and car performance.
“Another exercise is threshold braking, which teaches customers how to apply brakes, improve reaction time and avoid brake lockup,” said Kenar. “The lane change exercise, designed to improve reflex and control skills, is also part of the course package.”
The customers are encouraged to drive their personal vehicles to the school. For insurance purposes, and to protect the new cars from damage, Saab provides the 9-3 and 9-5 Aero sedans for use on all course exercises. Saab encourages the customers to test their vehicles’ limits, and to test their own personal driving limits.
Class sizes vary. For example, 20 to 25 owners may be registered for a weekend class. Ten to 15 owners typically attend during weekdays. Saab limits the classes to no more than 30.
“Many of our customers write to us and tell us how much they enjoyed the course, and how much more confident they feel when they’re on the road,” said Kenar. “They tell us how the course has improved their driving skills, and how it’s opened their eyes to the car’s performance.”
“I thought the course was amazing,” said Justin Lips, a recent course participant. “I had no idea what you could do in a Saab. I went down there thinking a bunch of wannabe racecar drivers would be there, with big egos and highly competitive attitudes. Although it was a little competitive, it was a bunch of great people just wanting to learn how to drive their cars. It was fun.”
Lips said they did a lot of work on the smaller autocross track.
“It wasn’t necessarily about speed, but more about control,” he said. “If you can control the car at say, 50 miles per hour on the autocross, you can control the car going at higher speeds on bigger roads. When you’re on a five-lane highway doing 80, you know exactly what that car is capable of doing.”
Aero Academy tuition is included with the purchase of the 9-3 Aero Sports sedan, the 9-3 Aero convertible, the 9-3 Aero Sport Combi, the 9-5 Aero Sedan or the 9-5 Aero Sport Combi. The customers provide their own transportation to and from Atlanta, along with meals and lodging.
The Saab Aero Package has an upgraded sport-tuned suspension, leather-appointed sport seats and a stylish interior trim. The 9-3 model is equipped with a 250-hp, turbo-charged V-6 engine. The 9-5 model has a 260-hp, four-cylinder, in-line turbo-charged engine. Both models come with a five-speed manual transmission, but a five-speed automatic option is available. Owners of one model can test the other model while at the Aero Academy.
For more information, see a Saab dealer or visit [http://www.saabusa.com/saabjsp/aero/index.jsp].