Curbside Classic: 1996 Saab 900 Turbo – Born Under a Bad Sign?

DSC05478 (Large) (Custom)

Some cars just seem to be born under a bad sign. They can be rather good cars, but you just know they can’t meet the expectations created, because their predecessors left the bar too high. The second generation (or NG for “New Generation”) Saab 900 is one of those cars.

Saab-900_Turbo_16S_1984 (Custom)

At the end of 1993 the 900 NG was launched into a market in recession, something that never helps, but the biggest problem was, aside the fact that Saab was immersed in a deep crisis (despite recent GM´s ownership, or perhaps due to that), that the new car was never to be as loved as the old 900 (above). The car that made Saab´s fortunes in the ´80s was a bit old fashioned in the ’90s (it was based in the 1967 Saab 99, after all), expensive to make and lacking in some features, but it was THE Saab, and its fans were never going to take the new one to their hearts easily.

Anyway, Saab knew that they couldn’t survive selling cars only to Saabists. They were few and far between and, anyway, tended to keep their cars for a long time. So bearing in mind that the market for entry-level luxury sedans was booming, doing a more mainstream car trying to mimic the BMW 3 Series, Audi 80/A4, Mercedes C-Class, Volvo 850 and assorted Japanese near luxury sedans was the sensible option.

 

As expected, the car got a somewhat lukewarm press reception. The styling was nice, a successful update of classic 900´s lines (although the rear was far from pretty), the interior, again an update of the original, well styled and finished, and the 2.3 counterbalanced four cylinder (Saab) and 2.5 V6 (GM) engines rather competent; the four cylinder turbocharged 2.0 litre gave a very healthy 185 bhp. Why, then, the tepid magazine reviews? You guessed it: GM screwed it up. Its main contribution to the 900 NG, the chassis, was flawed.

Back in 1989, when Saab was really in its “state of independence” but cash strapped too, needed a buyer to take hold of the company and provide much needed funds. It seemed that Fiat would take the prize, and the 900 NG would carry the then-new Fiat Tipo platform. It wasn’t a technical marvel, but the Tipo chassis was more than competent, with a very acceptable ride and handling compromise (perhaps the best of European small family cars). Later, that platform was used in a variety of Fiat group cars: Fiat Tempra/ Coupé, Alfa Romeo 145/146/155/GTV/Spider, Lancia Dedra/Delta, and I´m sure that I forget a few more. Besides, the Tipo was a very roomy car, like almost all its descendants.

 

Opel-Vectra-Hatchback-1988-1992 (Custom)

But at the eleventh hour GM bought Saab, and that was a decision that marked forever the future of the company and its cars. The 900 NG was hastily developed using the 1988 Opel Vectra platform, another example of a car slickly styled, propelled by good engines, but let down by its chassis. Nice work, Opel/GM.

So while the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C- Class, Audi A4 and Volvo 850 enjoyed very good road manners, 900 NG drivers had to make do with mediocre damping that felt like their cars had the tyres filled with concrete, crashing and bouncing over bumps, and understeering like a loaded trolley cart. The body rolled in bends, too, and the car neither rode nor handled particularly well. Another Vectra “gift” was the less than solid steering wheel column mounting, and a crack- prone bulkhead in right hand drive versions, a feature that wrote off a lot of 900s. High prices and low resale value compared to its German competition didn’t help.

DSC05468 (Large) (Custom)

In the beginning of 1998 the 900 NG was followed by the 9-3, a car very similar in appearance but updated very effectively in the suspension department; it was still no BMW, but at least the suspension worked serenely and it rode a lot better.

Never mind; despite the 900 NG being a bit of a dog, sometimes it’s easy to become fond of a dog. And this is the case with Marco’s 900 Turbo. Marco is a good friend of mine that bought this 1996 Imola red Turbo nine years ago. The car was parked in the street with a “for sale” sign; dusty and unloved. The poor 900 was very lucky when, in that hot summer afternoon, Marco and me were walking by and saw it. From that day forward, the car has had a pampered life, serviced by a Saab dealer, and getting everything it needed. Mind you, Marco has a lead right foot and he likes to give the car some stick, even drives it on track days, so the car doesn’t need any extra “Italian tune-ups” to clean its throat.

DSC05471 (Large) (Custom)

This 900 has a well-traveled past, being bought in Sweden by its first owner, a football player; then a few months later he and his Saab moved to Chile to play for a local team, and moved again to Sevilla (the city where I live). Marco calls his 900 “Tommy Norlin”, after the name of its first owner.

With almost 280,000 kilometres on the clock, the car pulls like a train and doesn’t drink a drop of oil. The B204 engine is a jewel and now that the ECU has been reprogrammed to a “mild” 220-225 bhp and a sports exhaust has been installed, the 900 is more than brisk. The body has little or no rust thanks to the dry and hot climate, the red paint has responded really well to a recent detailing session, and the interior, with that unattractive dark gray upholstery that holds you like velcro, is proving very durable (although I´m sick of telling Marco to remove that ugly 9-3 Viggen fake titanium dashboard). The car needs a bit of suspension work, through.

DSC06839 (Custom)

Marco is very attached to his 900 and he says he´ll never sell it. Now it is sharing space in a new and rather nice garage with Marco´s other cars, a 2002 9-3 Aero convertible and a 2001 9-3 Tid (a Isuzu diesel- engined version sold in Europe), so while some cars may be born under a bad sign, it’s a relief that you always find somebody who cares about them.