Junkyard Classic: 1990 Saab 900 Turbo SPG – Darth Vader’s Ride?

If Darth Vader was a real person and inhabited this planet in the 1980’s would this in fact be Darth’s choice of ride to commute to the Mos Denver Space Port from his lair in the foothills of the Rockies?  I think it could be.  Back when the Saab 900 Turbo SPG debuted in 1984, it was powerful, dark, and subtle.  It didn’t carry a huge stick but it had huge presence.  It made itself known without overt theatrics and was underestimated by many.  And I wanted one so bad I could taste it. 

As one of the pioneers in production turbo technology, Saab’s 900 Turbo (and 99 turbo before it) had been around for a few years, and in the early 80’s Saab engineers took the technology a step further.   They introduced a little box filled with electronics they called Automatic Performance Control (APC), the first boost and knock controller.

This allowed them to tune a turbocharged engine for higher performance while allowing it to protect itself as needed by altering the fuel flow and boost pressure for poor quality gasoline and higher temperatures as well as other parameters and thus allowed the engine to run a higher standard compression ratio.  That’s all a gross oversimplification of the technology but it allowed a variable rate of protection as needed due to fluctuating external factors rather than having to simply engineer to a lowest common denominator.

For 1984, Saab tweaked a version of the APC and used it to create a more powerful, special top of the range Saab 900 Turbo known as the SPG (Special Performance Group).  In other markets this was known as the Aero.  Most were black but a few other colors were offered during the run and most otherwise optional features were included in the spec.

The overtly defining feature of an SPG car are the three spoke wheels as seen here; over the next couple of decades Saab designed multiple different versions of the three spoke but this is where it started and this is the wheel that most any Saab aficionado has in their top three wheel designs of all time (usually the Saab “Inca” wheel design also features in that same group).

From an exterior viewpoint the smooth cladding around the lower body is the next obvious sign of an SPG car.  Subtle fender lip extensions and integrated deeper front and rear bumper skirts round out the exterior changes.

The suspension was stiffened slightly and while not the ultimate handler around a skidpad, Saabs in general and the SPG in particular was known to be an extremely capable all-rounder, able to soak up potholes one after another while remaining securely planted (albeit while leaning a bit) around most corners.  V-rated 195-60/15 Pirelli P6’s helped in this regard as well.

Like all 900 Turbos this one came with a large rubber rear spoiler, sadly already gone on this example.  Along with leather upholstery and loads of standard kit they were very well equipped cars, as they should be for the 1990 sticker price of US$28,995.

By the time this car was built in the fall of 1989, the 2liter turbo 16-valve inline-4 was producing 175hp and 195 lb-ft of torque at 3000rpm.  For 1990, this was quite impressive and also the most powerful Saab ever offered for sale in the U.S. to date.  The only transmission offered was a 5-speed manual (posers need not apply), and this never changed over the length of the run.  Weight was just under 3000 pounds.

Conveniently someone has taken the exhaust off this one enabling us to see the turbo unit here even it they snapped two studs in doing so.  It was a Mitsubishi TE-05 16G for 1990 and looking at this one some wear is evident.  I didn’t check to see if there was any play in the shaft and I have no idea if this is the original turbo or not but for all the naysayers out there, I’ve personally replaced a few turbos on Audis over the years and it is a very straightforward procedure, especially on these older units.  In fact I’d say it’s no more difficult than changing a waterpump.

Saab is one of the manufacturers that was big into the front hinged hood.  While it impeded access somewhat it is a very satisfying hood to open and close and not having the body cutline above the fenders makes the front end look much smoother than other vehicles.

Hatchback Saabs have always been known for their prodigious carrying capacity, this is likely why they waited so long to make a proper wagon out of the 900 (and never for this generation).  The hatch simply held almost as much as a wagon. Note the upside down speaker deck in this one, rotate that 90 degrees, flip it over and it’s the cargo cover tray that extends from the rear seat back to the end of the track/support visible at the C-pillar base.

That panel is huge and gives an idea of the volume under it.  And then note that the trunk lid extends out almost again as far (after the track/support piece ends).  Being FWD also allows for a low floor, in fact the base is level with the top of the bumper with additional space below.  Fold the rear seats and it’s massive.

I believe this one is trimmed in Buffalo Gray leather, looking a bit worse for wear after much time in the strong Colorado sun.  By 1990 a driver airbag was standard and you can see how upright the seating position would be along with the upright wraparound windshield.  You’re perhaps wondering after seeing that turbo above just how many miles are on this one since you can just see the instrument cluster.

The cluster in the 900 is one of my favorites, it’s clean, easily legible and just looks good.  The turbo boost gauge is at the upper right and when driven properly is a delight to see in your peripheral vision as it bounces around but ideally is pointing as far to the right as the road allows.

As far as mileage goes, this one reads 195,445 which is pretty good for a supposedly finicky euro car.  But wait!  Look below.

Here;s the door jamb placard, below which is a sticker denoting that the odometer is not original, it was swapped at 70,744 miles on October 15 of what I believe looks like 1996.  So the total mileage should be just over 266,000 which is quite impressive for what absolutely was a high performance car in its day.

Am I a booster of the 900?  Oh, yeah, absolutely.  Always a fan of the 900 Turbo, and simply gaga for the SPG.  Never owned one though, it’s definitely one of those that got away.  With only 771 SPG examples sold in the US for 1990 of about 8000 total over the years they are relatively rare.

While this Saab like every other wore the SAAB and the Griffin badges on the left (which someone has absconded with before I showed up), SPGs didn’t usually have any 900 Turbo badges and there was no SPG badge at all for the ultimate in subtle bad-assery in my book as opposed to M, RS, and AMG or whatever.  When you just have the look and don’t need a label to shout about it, there’s absolutely nothing cooler than that.  Darth would have loved one.  As would I.