Curbside Classic: 1992 Saab 9000 – Snapshot From The Heydey of Snaabery

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It wasn’t hard to notice this green machine in this dreary parking lot last Thursday.  I’ve always found these to be one of the most elegant sedan shapes of its era and from twenty feet away, it looked to be in very good condition.  Yes, this was truly an education in “the twenty footer” phenomenon.  As I found out from its owner who walked up as I took my snapshots, it’s quite terminally ill: the right rear shock broke clear through the apparently rotten unibody just last week.  Schade.

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I’ve almost always had pleasant experiences when encountering cars’ owners as I take pictures for my articles: CC brings people together both online and in real life.  This 9000 has benefitted from the attentive eye of its young owner, a lean red-head who singularly does all the work on his own car, named John.  A starving artist in his early twenties, it was quickly apparent that he understands what keeps a car healthy as he named off all he’s done.

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Among other efforts, he’s swapped in a 1991 ECU on this car to rid it of its crude, intrusive traction control (which made its debut in ’92); this also required a 1991 throttle body.  He’s installed new front control arms with polyurethane bushings, along with other suspension hardware.  Bypassing the faulty A/C meant removing the compressor but instead of putting a dead pulley in its place, he installed an accessory drive belt of a custom length and it fits perfectly.  A manual boost limiter control allows him to easily tune the charge for optimal performance and a new boost gauge went along with it, because without any numerical readouts, the stock unit simply won’t cut it.  Gregarious and soft spoken, he defies the stereotypes often assigned to gearheads.  If my phone hadn’t died, I’d have take a picture of him with his pride and joy.

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As Brendan Saur has already profiled the 9000 for CC once before, with an article on a post-facelift version, I was excited to have documented this top-of-the-line 1992. With the sweptback 1991-1992 front end, this is the most attractive incarnation of the 9000, lacking the first cars’ bluntness and the forcibly imposed curvature of later versions.  The quarterlight and squared-off “decklid” combine to mark one of my favorite rear-end designs.  Whatever can be said about the styling, these cars had a lot of cachet when new.

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That classy reputation was simply a pre-requisite for an expensive car which bucked so many luxury sedan trends.  It’s been forever since I’ve been in a Saab 9000, but John enthusiastically granted my request for a short ride around the block.  One thing that’s apparent, even as a passenger, is how unsubtle the acceleration is.  The Saab B-block is always smooth but, much as I need to do in my 2000 Civic, perhaps even more so, one needs to upshift quite late even in slow traffic to keep the engine on boil.  Peering under the hood at the engine’s short, fat intake runners, it seems marketing couldn’t convince engineering to exorcise this characteristic.  I would bet enlarging the engine to a big 2.3 liters in 1990 was more a matter of giving the non-turbo car decent shove.

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In daily driving, upshifting above 3000 rpm in a big, pricey car with a second-rate manual transmission is simply tiring.  Yes, torque was ultimately plentiful; yes, in-gear passing acceleration was devastating, but in mundane situations, old Saab turbos gave a false impression of weak performance.  Not great test-drive material.  A torque convertor would smooth out power delivery immensely; that’s probably why Volvo’s similarly appealing 850 Turbo came to the US solely with an excellent Aisin-Warner automatic.

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When John says he’s on the lookout for a car to replace his shattered Saab, two cars immediately come to mind.  Since he does all mechanical work himself, I could recommend any forced-induction late ’80s Audi without a sense of compunction and given the context, the fully-galvanized Audi seems especially attractive.  The Alfa 164, another comprehensively galvanized car and platform-mate to the Saab, is a second excellent candidate.

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Possibly the best case of diversity in platform sharing, the Type Four cars each had a unique personality.  This meant the Type Four project was not nearly as profitable as it should’ve been but that’s of no concern to us enthusiasts.

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The 9000 and Alfa 164, as different as they were, demonstrated textbook front-wheel drive handling in a most positive sense.  The Alfa was tuned to load its rear wheels more, and with razor sharp throttle response, showed how fun a big front-wheel drive sedan could be.  The Italian was a 5/4ths-scale hot hatch; the mature Swede tended toward stability to temper its testosterone-infused, high-speed rush.

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Obviously an E34 5-series had superior dynamics baked in, with a creamy ride to boot, and any competing Mercedes naturally had a more impressive dynamic repertoire than the 9000 could’ve hoped for.  But the big Saab wasn’t humiliated.  It didn’t “suffer” the single-minded unflappability of a competing W124 and, complete its torque steer and kickback bugbears, offered a more tactile helm than either of the Germans.  There’s never been a large front-driver quite like it.

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I feel quite sad that our featured car needs major surgery to stay alive.  Its very talented owner has the deftness of touch needed to undertake the welding necessary to keep his Saab together, but finding and applying the necessary funding is, of course, not worth the trouble.

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He has another Saab in the form of a 2001 9-5 (which in his words, is “shit”), but it can’t replace the spunky 9000.  I named off two potential suitors, but I’d like to turn it over to CC’s deep well of knowledge: what car do you, dear readers, feel is a fitting replacement?