NORCROSS, Ga. - In a marathon drive that proved to be the first real-world test of the new Saab 9-3's performance, endurance and durability, six adventurers drove from the northernmost point in the continental United States to the southernmost point in only 4 days. Spanning temperatures from 42 below zero windchill in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to a balmy 83 degrees in Key West, Florida, and encountering virtually every kind of weather and road condition along the way, two Saabs were driven day and night, stopping only for fuel. The '98 Alaska-to-Florida Challenge was certified by the Automotive Racing Club of America (ARCO) as covering 5,782.34 miles in 96 hours, 23 minutes and 22 seconds.
The five-door Saab 93 SEs started on March 16 from well above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and drove through Canada's Yukon Territory, British Columbia and Alberta Provinces and then into Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, lowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, directly to the southernmost point at Key West. Average speed was 59.995 mph, virtually matching the team's target of 60 mph. "The first 150 miles were driven over snow-packed gravel roads," said Linda Sharp, a journalist who participated in the marathon drive. "But unfortunately, the snow was gone for the remaining 300 miles of the unpaved Dalton Highway. We slowed to about 35 mph on the rutted, rocky road, sustaining some windshield damage from trucks thundering by in the opposite direction. The pace improved through Canada, even up the grades of the Canadian Rockies. "The turbocharged Saabs never lacked for power," Sharp added. "We didn't slow again until we encountered road construction that resulted in a five-mile stretch of heavy mud that was a foot deep. We crawled through in first gear, without once getting stuck. Other cars and trucks were littered around, mired in the thick goo." The mud pit did result in a two-hour delay at a high- pressure car wash, where it was necessary to remove all eight of the wheels to clear packed mud from the wheel wells, brakes and suspension of each car.
While the Saabs continued traversing the western Canadian Rockies, the eastern slope around Calgary was getting the region's biggest snowstorm in 113 years, according to local radio reports. "We drove through Calgary and down into Montana on roads that were either snow-covered or ice slick, through thick fog and continuing snow flurries," related Jim McCraw, another of the six drivers. "Highways even as far south as lowa were still icy and slippery, until we encountered heavy rain in Missouri."
Each Saab carried a team of three, who took turns driving, navigating and sleeping, utilizing half of the split fold-down rear seat to stretch out into the trunk. Extra luggage was carried in roof-mounted carriers.
The segment through northern Georgia was uncomfortably close to severe thunderstorms that had even spun off damaging tornadoes. Skies finally cleared in Florida, where the team was able to relax and make up some time on the Florida Turnpike in light traffic. The last 100 miles - around Miami and down the Florida Keys - was the most traffic-intensive, as spring-breakers were making their way to Key West. The Saabs arrived at the southernmost point at 11:20 a.m. on Friday, March 20.
"The Saabs were incredible," commented Billy Edwards, event organizer. "The suspension was remarkable, especially considering each car had a full load of passengers and luggage. Even over severe frost heaves on the Alaska Highway, the Saabs maintained control and composure." The Saab 9-3 SE's standard trip computer was a valuable traveling tool, according to Edwards. "We found the 'Estimated Time of Arrival,' and 'Distance to Empty' calculations to be quite accurate. The outside temperature readout was an important piece of data as well," he said.
The new 1999 Saab 9-3 goes on sale May 1, 1998 as the replacement for the popular Saab 900. The full 9-3 model line - Coupe, Convertible or five-door - is powered exclusively by a 185-hp 2.0L Turbo engine. The Saab 9-3 has undergone extensive improvements to its suspension, steering, climate control system, seats and more, all of which were put to the test on the Alaska-to-Florida Challenge - and passed with flying colors.
Throughout the journey, the Saabs were praised for their long-distance comfort, and also received high marks for their versatility and spacious interior.
A previous uncertified drive over the same route by a pair of sport utility vehicles in 1996 was recorded in approximately 99 hours.