We ditched our reliable 2011 Hyundai Elantra for a quirky 2009 Saab 9³ wagon. Here’s what happened.

By Dallas Hansen

Almost a year ago, my then-fiancée Solange and I boarded a plane at LAX en route to Boston to buy a car we had never seen from a seller we had never met manufactured by a company that was no longer in business.

Oh, and it had already racked up 128,000 miles.

Such are the lengths one will go to satisfy an obsession—one that my fiancée may not have shared but against her better judgement was willing to accommodate. I was almost as excited for the 5000-mile road trip and the subsequent YouTube documentary that was to come as I was to drive what was the car for which I had long lusted: the all-wheel-drive, 2.8 V6 turbo SportCombi (wagon), loaded with Xenon headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, parking sensors, navigation, and an 11-speaker Bose sound system.

Solange’s Hyundai Elantra was purchased new four years earlier. It had been reliable, had only 50,000 miles, and would for a few more months still be under warranty, but in several ways it had been lacking. The 1.8L, 140hp 4-cylinder was feeble compared to the ubiquitous 5-series BMWs and E-Class Mercedes-Benzes that dominated the LA freeways, but the worst part was the perilous body roll experienced any time the road turned left or right. Also, it was a sedan. With a sporty wagon, we could have something that not only performed well but also had great hauling capacity—important for the road trips that we so enjoyed.

Upon meeting the seller—a British chap in his early 40s named David—we determined that the goods were more or less as advertised and handed over 80 $100 bills and set off down I-95 toward NYC.

The first time we stopped for gas I noticed white smoke rising from beneath the hood. I lifted the hood and observed it emanating from between the bulkhead and the engine.

“Smoke? No I don’t know anything about it,” said David when I rang. I checked the oil and all fluids, which remained at appropriate levels, and continued toward our hotel reservation in Manhattan.

After unloading at our Lincoln Center hotel, I found parking 19 blocks away in the Upper West Side and parked the wagon for the weekend until it was time to bring Solange to JFK so I could continue the journey solo.

My first mission: get out of NYC and get this smoking engine bay doused. At night, I sped through New Jersey. Then the Check Engine Light came on. In Hazelton, PA I checked in to a Days Inn, and in the morning, after an Internet search, I headed over to Eurotech in Wilkes-Barre.

Taking note of my ambitious itinerary, the Eurotech staff bumped me to the head of the queue—within minutes of my arrival our new wagon was on the hoist and the smoke issue was diagnosed as being threefold in origin. First, during the most recent oil change, performed at a Valvoline Instant Oil Change, the O-ring attached to the new filter wasn’t replaced, but the one from the old filter was reused. Thus creating an oil leak. Second, there was a slow drip from one of the coolant lines leading from the expansion tank. Third, the brake fluid reservoir cap had a broken seal, and that was leaking too.

A veritable mess! No matter—$75 (including a complimentary lunch) and I was on my way with a warning that the Check Engine code—P0089 Fuel Pressure Regulator Performance—was common to the Saab 2.8 and generally benign, remedied only a fuel pump assembly replacement (a $1000 job).

I barely remember Ohio. I got into Chicago and parked in the Wildwood neighborhood near Caldwell Woods, and in the morning I got on my bike and rode the North Branch Trail—where I learned to ride a road bike in 2012.

Moving on, I had just passed Tulsa on the Oklahoma Turnpike when the smoking returned—thick and white. I looked under the hood and saw coolant leaking at that same hose clamp Eurotech had just replaced. I wasn’t going to continue under these cirumstances, and it being late Friday afternoon I would be unable to make it to Autohaus Unlimited, Tulsa’s resident Saab specialist, until Monday morning.

The usual Saab hangout

The usual Saab hangout

I hunkered down in the Downtown DoubleTree for the weekend, rode my bike around Tulsa, and may have ducked into a couple of bars. Monday morning I was at Autohaus before they opened, and when Toby, the head technician, arrived, he pulled out a 7mm socket and a pivoting ratchet, gave the clamp a few turns, and sent me on my way at no charge. Oh well—at least I got in some Tulsa time!

The rest of the way was mostly uneventful. I folded out the rear seat and slept a few hours in the wagon’s cargo area at an Arizona rest stop, convinced I was bringing home the ultimate road machine.

The next move was, first, another oil change (Mobil 1 0W40) and then to replace the serpentine belt and the transmission oil (ATF). All was fine until our first big repair bill came in January. There was a thudding, booming sound coming from the rear differential—the Haldex eLSD. A quick search online revealed many of these had been replaced under warranty. I called around to price out an out-of-warranty replacement and was given prices ranging between $3200-$3600.

Buyer’s remorse started kicking in.

I dumped the car at the nearest Saab Official Service Center—Scandanavian Service in Simi Valley. Three weeks later, they changed the three fluids and replaced a clutch pump inside the differential—for under $1000. Good to go.

Our next major road trip was in July of this year, to St Louis and back. Before leaving I replaced all six spark plugs and ignition coils and the fuel pump assembly. No more P0089!

What we hadn’t counted on was the A/C compressor failing on I-70 near Salinas, Kansas. Admittedly, Solange had been driving a little aggressively with it running while the outside temperature was 108°. With our beagle in the back, we rolled down the windows, opened the roof, bought a bag of ice and put it beneath the pooch and managed to dodge heatstroke. But let’s just say the drive to St. Louis was nonetheless a long one.

Once in St. Louis we located a Saab specialist—Ecotech in Webster Groves—who diagnosed the Beaglewagon’s A/C compressor as “clanging like pots and pans.” And another $1000 later, we were chillin’.

Back home, the Check Engine Light had returned—P0449 EVAP Vent Malfunction. After extensive diagnostics—and another three weeks—Gert at Scandanavian Service had determined there were two corroded wires at along the passenger floor preventing the EVAP canister from receiving ECU commands to open and close. A little soldering, some shrink tubing, and a lot of money—another $1200—and it was lights out for P0449.

molaspassbeaglewagonDespite having cost us over $4000 in parts and repairs in under a year, we still love the Beaglewagon. It’s comfortable, practical, powerful, handles well, and has quite a lovely exhaust note. Looking around, I don’t think it’s even possible to get a better looking wagon—a newer Volvo V60 Polestar would be nice, and so would a 2014-ish Cadillac CTS-V Wagon, but they both run around $60,000 and the latter gets only 12mpg around town.

As for the Elantra, we intended to sell it to a private party, but just when I had it detailed and ready for sale, I espied the perfect trade-in opportunity: a 1999 Saab 9³ Viggen. With 145,000 miles. You might question the wisdom of trading a 2011 car with 54,000 miles for a 1999 car with over 90,000 more, and you would be right, but that’s an explanation I’ll have to provide another time.

E85: Fuel of the future?

Dallas Hansen


In Chicago last month I bought a used car, and, because the tank was nearly empty, filled it with gasoline. Next to the regular, mid-grade, and premium pump nozzles was another option, labelled “E85.” Although it had been a while since I had pumped gas into a motor vehicle, the availability of E85 — 85 per cent ethanol fuel blended with 15 per cent gasoline — left me unsurprised. In recent years I had, in my voracious daily readings, read many times about flex-fuel vehicles and 85 per cent ethanol gas. This is, I thought, 2006; cars are running on ethanol now. Flex-fuel sensors, which allow a vehicle to use E85, straight unleaded gasoline, or any combination of the two, are standard equipment on many new cars.

Through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, E85 was offered at every gas station at which I filled. Back in Winnipeg, however, I rolled up to a pump and wondered: Where’s the E85?

If you’re driving a provincial or federal government fleet vehicle, the E85 is at Notre Dame and Dublin, where a filling station was opened just this March. If, however, you’re driving your own private vehicle, you’ll have to distill your own, as some Midwestern motorists are doing. E85 is not commercially available in Manitoba.

Why would a supply line that’s consistent throughout the Midwestern U.S. suddenly halt at the border?

Most Manitobans are familiar with E10 gasohol, a 10 per cent ethanol/gasoline blend manufactured and marketed at Mohawk gas stations. Mohawk, which has since been acquired by Husky Energy Inc., began producing ethanol at its Minnedosa plant in 1981. While current capacity is 10 million litres annually, look for a 13-fold increase in production in mid-2007 when the new Minnedosa plant now under construction comes online. But don’t look for E85. According to Husky vice-president Vince Chin, the company has no plans to commercially market E85 in 2007. The production increase is rather to satisfy the provincial government’s mandate that gasoline sold in the province contain 10 per cent ethanol.

Chin says the commercial availability of E85 is “contingent upon a number of things. It’s like a chicken-and-egg effect.” You need, he says, the demand before there’s the availability, and the availability before there’s the demand. But many cars sold in Manitoba since 2001 are already flex-fuel capable, even if their owners don’t yet know it, and cheap, after-market kits are now available to convert many late-model vehicles to E85 readiness.

Jared Carlberg, a University of Manitoba agribusiness professor, doesn’t know where the E85 is either. In fact, he was surprised when I revealed to him the extent of E85’s availability in the Midwestern states.

“The buck kind of stops at the Canadian border,” he said. “It’s not really clear why.”

“At 75 bucks a barrel it makes a lot more sense to start investigating these non-traditional fuels.”

Other countries are doing it. E85 is widely available in Sweden, and in Brazil “total flex” vehicles can use 100 per cent ethanol, readily available at the pump, or any proportion of ethanol mixed with gasoline.

Finally, I spoke to Shaun Loney, director of energy policy for the Manitoba government.

“You’ll have a difficult time,” he said, “finding E85 anywhere in Canada, for the simple reason that the federal government hasn’t stepped up to the plate yet.” Whereas the U.S. federal government offers generous incentives for the ethanol industry, Canada’s incentives fail to match even those given to the oil and gas industry.

Rest assured, however, that E85 is coming. According to Loney, ethanol distillation, which in Manitoba currently comes from wheat (and in the U.S. comes primarily from corn), is moving to straw cellulose, which produces proportionately more ethanol. And as a by-product of producing ethanol from wheat, you get distiller’s grain, a high-protein livestock feed that comprises up to 35 per cent of revenues from ethanol production.

“Not only is this a homegrown solution to energy security,” said Loney, “it’s an important part of our overall economic development strategy.”

Which makes good sense for Manitoba, as the agricultural industry becomes, in one sense, a fuel industry. Archer Daniels Midland, the “supermarket to the world,” is fast becoming known as “the Exxon of corn” now that it is the largest producer of ethanol in the U.S. In the last year, ADM’s share price has more than doubled. As Manitoba wheat makes a big comeback, the answer to “Where’s the E85?” could soon be “Everywhere.”