Twenty years ago, a black Saab 900 Turbo three-door was the hottest yuppie car on the planet. Doctors, lawyers, and investment chiefs saw the spacious and distinctive aerodynamic profile, a turbocharged and intercooled 16-valve four-cylinder engine, and quirky key-on-the-floor exclusivity as their ticket to the "me" generation. Saab, the traditional builder of sturdy and dependable front-wheel-drive Swedish cars, had broken away from its base and been discovered by the young, urban, beautiful people. U.S. sales of the 900 reached more than 38,000 in 1985, more than three times what they had been just five years earlier. The Saab 900 was available as a three-door, a five-door, and a two-door convertible, and came with several turbocharged and normally aspirated four-cylinder engines. Although a plain-jane Saab 900 from the '80s makes a reasonable all-around beater, it's the Saab 900 Turbo that gets an enthusiast's attention.
Engines Under PressureSaab was an early subscriber to the world of turbocharging. In the mid-1970s, the small Swedish company experimented with turbocharged rally cars based upon its successful Saab 99 model. In 1978, Saab produced a limited series of turbocharged Saab 99 vehicles to gain experience with the concept. By the time the Saab 900 Turbo was introduced in 1979, a 135-bhp turbocharged engine was in the line-up. This 2.0-liter B-series engine gave a useful 20-hp advantage over the normally aspirated fuel-injected motor. In 1981, the B-series engine was replaced with the H-series engine with a cam-driven distributor and belt-driven water pump. In 1982, Saab introduced its Automatic Performance Control (APC), an electronic system that used a knock sensor and adjusted turbocharger boost to allow different grades of gasoline to be used. Per Gillbrand, Saab's far-seeing engine chief, once explained that a small company like Saab couldn't afford to invest in frequent wholesale changes to its engines' architecture, but that it could work with advanced engine management systems to squeeze more performance out of its long-running designs.
The next big change came in 1985 with the introduction of the B202 160-bhp 16-valve turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine. The United States saw the introduction of a "Special Performance Group" model (unofficially dubbed "SPG") with front and rear anti-roll bars, gas-filled shock absorbers, Pirelli V-rated tires, aerodynamic side-skirts, and distinctive three-spoke alloy wheels. Leather upholstery, foglights, and an electric sunroof were all part of this highly desirable package.
Fun In The SunIn 1986, the Saab 900 Convertible arrived. It had been the pet project of Saab U.S. President Bob Sinclair. The 900 Convertible was produced in the Valmet Plant in Uusikaupunki, Finland, and nearly all were fully equipped turbo models. With a power folding top, heated seats, sound system, and power windows and door locks, the 900 Convertible was quite a sensation.
The Last Few YearsIn 1988, Saab changed to a watercooled Garrett T3 turbocharger to help with durability. In 1990, the 900 SPG got a slightly smaller Mitsubishi TE-05 watercooled turbo that would spool up and produce boost more quickly, and in 1991, all 900 Turbo models got this upgrade. By 1993, the Saab 900 had been around for 14 years and more than 340,000 had been sold in the U.S. It's fair to say that although Saab's quirky nature had been established by its two-stroke and V4 models of the '50s and '60s, it was the Saab 900, particularly the 900 Turbo, that put the company on the map in this country. As the flagship of that line, Saab decided to give its 900 Turbo an appropriate send-off with a '93 commemorative model Saab 900 Turbo three-door in black with 185 bhp and a five-speed manual transmission. Only 325 were produced, and all featured wood dash panels and special alloy wheels. The '94 Saab 900 was an all-new car based upon the Opel Vectra.
What Goes Wrong?The newest traditional Saab 900 Turbo is now more than 12 years old and will likely have well more than 100,000 miles on its odometer. Saabs have proven themselves to routinely travel more than 200,000 miles, but the usual high-mileage used car checks should be made to any car you might consider. The Saab 900 five-speed manual transmission is fragile, and it's easy to find cars for giveaway prices whose transmissions are shot. The shifter in a Saab 900 isn't the best, so make sure the car goes into all five gears and reverse, or count on some expensive repairs. Aluminum cylinder heads also can be porous on these engines, causing consumption of engine coolant. It the coolant level drops far enough, the engine will overheat and the head gasket will blow. The interiors of Saab 900 models are only of average durability, and nearly every Saab built in the '70s and '80s will suffer from its headliner falling down around the driver's ears. Apparently, the foam backing can't stand the heat in North America, although why Saab could never solve the problem remains a mystery. The Saab convertible top is expensive to replace and its hydraulic motor is difficult to repair, so make sure it is working properly if you want to choose open-air motoring. Saab's electrical parts are on par with other European cars of the period, meaning electric windows often won't open, lights will occasionally stop working, and gremlins sometimes seem to have taken up residence. Air conditioners also are prone to weak performance and failure. Power steering racks sometimes leak badly and are expensive to replace. Rust is a real enemy, especially in earlier cars from northern climates.
Which One To Buy?Clearly, for a car enthusiast the Saab 900 Special Performance Group model, built between 1985 and 1992, is the car to own. It has the most performance and the cool appearance that stands out even more today than it did more than a dozen years ago. Cars built in 1988 and later benefit from a watercooled turbo, and those built in 1991 come on boost more quickly with their smaller turbochargers. Convertibles are well made and suffer from some cowl shake, but offer true four-person seating out in the open. The bad news is that most people who own an SPG know how desirable their car is and prices ranging from $3,000 to more than $10,000 are not unknown. Lesser Saab 900 Turbo models can be found more cheaply, from free-if-you-take-it-out-of-my-field to the $1,000-$2,000 range. This is a lot of car for the price, and even the early models can be upgraded with newer wheels, tires, springs, anti-roll bars and body parts from later cars.
Why Would You Want One?So many modern cars, including, unfortunately, ones from the present-day Saab, lack visual interest and true character. The traditional Saab 900 of 1979-1994 is distinctive and unusual. Best of all, it's an all-around athlete. It isn't great at any one thing but performs admirably at a variety of tasks. As a Swedish car should, it performs well on ice and snow and is designed by people who understand cold. The steering is linear and predictable and a well-driven Saab 900 Turbo is difficult to catch on a twisting road. You can run it at an autocross one weekend, a track day the next, and rallycross on a third weekend, and then drive it at high speeds on a 2,000-mile trip with three friends in perfect comfort and with good fuel economy. Backyard tuners regularly make more than 200 bhp from the 16-valve engine, and parts are cheap by European car standards. There is even a large and active Saab club scene, so you can share your affliction with others. Cheap, fast, easy to tune, fun and distinctive? Could this be the enthusiast's ultimate beater car?