The cars we loved.
Few cars manage to blaze their own trails and become successful while doing it. The rear engine Porsche 911 is one that comes to mind; the front wheel drive Saab 900 Turbo is another. The last one may be the most unconventional from an aesthetic and engineering point of view, but the thinking that went into the 900 ushered in an era of mass acceptance of boosted air during the 1980’s. The 900 would go down in history as being one of the first mass market cars to bring turbocharging to the masses.
Perhaps that’s not surprising coming from a company that builds flying things. That might explain the 900’s odd upside down boat-like shape. The parent company’s experience with fighter jets really comes through here. Saab made planes well before cars. The experience shows itself in the 900’s greenhouse which resembles an airplane fuselage for added aerodynamics. The attention to passing air might have been extreme, but the result was a car with a distinctive silhouette that could slip through the wind, just like one of its jets. Its curved windshield reminded the driver that in another life the 900 may have been part of an airplane cabin. With a versatile line up that included coupes, sedans and drop tops, there was a 900 for every segment of the near luxury market from the BMW 3 Series up to the Audi A6.
The motivation for early 900’s appeared conventional at first glance, a 2.0L four cylinder engine with 100 hp in normally aspirated form and up to 145 hp for the turbo. Closer inspection revealed a backward facing engine with power delivered from a crankshaft in the front of the car – like again-some kind of airplane! The odd twist to a front engine/front wheel drive setup combined with a double wishbone front and trick rear beam suspension gave the 900 excellent handling.
Through the years the 2.0 would go from 8 valves to 16 per cylinder by the mid 80’s. In Europe the 16 valve cars were producing the unheard of power output of 175 from just 2 liters. That matched what BMW and Audi were getting from larger 6 cylinder engines. Audi and BMW were Saab’s biggest competitors, although the 900 had two door versions that hey could not match. The popular two door represented Euro style early on before the 3 Series would become the yuppie car of choice. The 900 Convertible had its moment in the sun as it was nearly as popular as the BMW’s 325 Cabriolet during the close of the Eighties. It remained popular throughout its long production cycle.
The upscale nature and interior volume of the sedan version of the 900 meant that it would be competing with typically rear wheel drive luminaries like the BMW 5 Series and Audi 5000. Although the Saab approach to luxury was similar, its engineering stressed safety nearly as much as its famously safety obsessed neighbor Volvo. Making do with less was a typical European car trait, but Saab took this engineering approach for performance to new heights, thanks to turbocharging.
Various options and packages like Aero or Sport endowed the two door 900 with ground effects and a beefed up suspension (uprated springs, shocks and bigger sway bars). Even convertibles got the treatment and could be ordered with attractive three-point aero style wheels, that became a kind of 900 Turbo trademark.
In time, the 900 would be available with a few special editions, some of them higher performance variants that would not be for sale in North America. Still the car’s popularity was not unwarranted. The accolades kept pouring in, with the 900 finding spots on the Best, Safest and Executive Car of the Year lists. Eventually Saab’s involvement with GM would produce a redesigned 900 that came from GM’s Opel Vectra platform, losing some of the uniqueness that made the 900 so charming. By this time the more upscale Saab had settled way behind BMW and was falling further behind a resurgent Audi sales wise. Saab might be gone (for now at least), but its many innovative cars are not forgotten. Its advancements in the efficiency, smoothness and reliability of turbocharged engines are part of the reason they are so widely used today.