For the latter part of the 20th century, the two Swedish brands could easily be distinguished by their shapes. Volvos were square and Saabs were distinctly swoopy. This philosophy held true for just about every Saab and Volvo produced from the late 1960s through the year 2000, with a few exceptions. One of these was the Saab 9000–the square Saab. While not as sharply creased as the Volvo 700-Series, the 9000 was decidedly more squared-off than Saabs both before and after, save for maybe the short-lived, badge-engineered 600.
The 9000 owes its difference in appearance from the iconic 900 largely due to the fact that it was based off of the Type Four platform that was co-developed with Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo. The Type Four cars also encompassed the quite similar-looking Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema, as well as the significantly different-looking Alfa Romeo 164. Except for the Alfa, the other three Type Four cars were primarily designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, with Saab designer Björn Envall pitching in for the 9000.
The 9000 appeared in 1984, initially with a stubbier nose and only as a hatchback.
Despite looking similar to the Fiat and Lancia, particularly in its earliest years, the Saab 9000 shared little actual sheet metal with its relatives, although the doors from a Croma will fit on a 9000, as well as the windshield. Further distinction was added with the 1988 9000 CD 4-door sedan, and an updated 5-door liftback in 1992, known as the CS. The CS sported a more rakish roof line than the original liftback, now known as the CC. It also featured updated, more aerodynamic sheet metal at both ends, resulting in the sleekest and sportiest appearance of the three.
A signature difference between the 9000 and other Saabs was that it abandoned the company’s traditional center console mounted ignition switch in favor of a more conventional location on the steering column. Saab intended to continue doing so in future models, but the commercial appeal of heritage (nostalgia?) was too strong to ignore and the console mounted ignition returned in the 1994 900.
Notwithstanding these departures in design, the 9000 was distinctly Saab. It would not be mistaken for any other car, at least not in the United States, where Fiats and Lancias were not sold. Indeed, the 9000 shared many styling and engineering elements with the original 900, which was still in development when the Type Four cars were conceived.
Headlamp, taillamp, and grille design remained in-sync with the smaller model through the years, as did the roofline, following the introduction of the CS. Further differentiating the 9000 from its Type Four siblings was a more substantial inner structure, along with a solid rear axle and a power plant nearly identical to the longitudinally-mounted unit found in the 900.
The familiarity continued in the interior design, with a driver-focused layout similar to that found in the 900. This theme would continue to provide the basis for cabin architectures in Saabs up until the present, while
front seat design was essentially identical between the two models, similarly influencing those in later cars.
The 1997 9000 Aero that I’ve photographed is a special find indeed. Powered by a high-pressure turbocharged version of the standard 2.3L I4, making 225 horsepower and 252 lb-ft or torque at a low 1,800 rpm, it was the most powerful Saab ever produced upon its introduction in 1993 and would remain so until superseded by the 9-5 Aero seven years later. Turbocharged, small-capacity engines are all the rage today, but Saab was one of the first to successfully power a larger car with a boosted four cylinder.
This very highly developed version of the unit that debuted in the 99 powered the car (classified by the EPA as full-size) very effectively, enabling blistering in-gear acceleration while boasting competitive fuel economy and low levels of noise. Very smooth running characteristics were virtually guaranteed by the engine’s square stroke ratio, along with newly added balance shafts. Attachment to a subframe using hydraulic mounts, ample sound deadening and the turbo’s silencing effect on exhaust noise ensured refinement levels befitting the 9000’s status as an executive car.
Aeros also featured sport-tuned suspension, ground effects, a rear spoiler, and distinctive “Viking Shield” 3-spoke alloy wheels, whose design would appear on newer 900s, 9-3s, and 9-5s. The exterior modifications naturally added a more aggressive look to an already slick-looking car.
Inside, passengers were treated to special Recaro front and rear sport seats. The dash also featured rich-looking real wood veneer. I was happy to discover that this 9000 Aero sports the 5-speed manual; with the 4-speed automatic, output was limited to 200 horsepower and 238 lb-ft of torque. Savvy readers will note that, as a 1997 model, the featured car lacks the intrusive traction control system that marred the driving experience in earlier versions.
The 9000 ended production in 1998 and was replaced by the sentimentally styled 9-5. I’m sure by now, many are tired of hearing Saab’s sad story, but in truth, the company’s troubles are something to lament. Even when its bread-and-butter cars shared many components with Fiats and Opels, Saab dared to be as different as circumstances allowed. In a market where one can’t tell a Ford Fusion from a Toyota Avalon from a Nissan Altima, it’s thoroughly refreshing to see this old Saab.