Curbside Classic: 1997 Saab 900 SE Turbo – As Good As It Gets


It’s no secret to us car-loving enthusiasts that particular cars can invoke particular memories in time, whether they be personal or not. I don’t have any major personal memories of a Saab 900 convertible other than my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Murphy obtaining her self-described “dream car” in the form of a gently used one the year I was in her class. But when seeing one of this color, I can only think of one thing: the 1997 film staring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear, As Good As It Gets.


Appropriately named, “Sky Blue”, I rarely saw this color on 900s even in Saab-rich New England. When this generation 900 was seen more frequently on the roads, the majority of them seemed to be either black, gray, silver, or sage green. But this Sky Blue, complete with very Saab-esque three-spoke alloy wheels is an ultra-rare beauty, identical to the one prominently featured in As Good As It Gets, driven by the obsessive-compulsive, misanthropic lead character played one and only Jack Nicholson, although the car’s actual owner is Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character. And as far as second generation Saab 900s go, this one basically is “as good as it gets”, in the ideal bodystyle, color, wheels, and turbo engine. The only thing left desired is that it is not a 5-speed manual.


Introduced for 1994, the second or “New Generation” 900 (a.k.a. “NG900”) replaced the iconic but aging “Classic” 900, which debuted as a 1978 model, itself based on the vintage-1968 Saab 99 chassis. Unfortunately, for the die hard Saab loyalists and brand purists in general, the fact that the new car now rode on an Opel Vectra chassis, and not a Saab-developed platform was disconcerting, particularly as it produced a ride and driving experience that was not on par with the cars the 900 competed against.


The root of the New Generation 900’s development on a non-Saab platform lay in the small Swedish automaker’s somewhat omnipresent shaky financial situation. Despite its enthusiastic owners and high rate of loyal buyers, Saabs always had a narrow appeal and never sold in very high numbers. With its somewhat more mainstream 9000 failing to achieve its anticipated volume and its tried-and-true 900 becoming glaringly stale, Saab was faced with a serious lack of cash flow and a questionable future by the late-1980s.


In serious need of an investor, in 1989 Saab was forced to pimp itself out to General Motors — for lack of a better term. Naturally, this was much to the dismay of Saab loyalists and neutral parties alike, because let’s be real, GM did not have a very reputable image in the minds of many by this point, even those who couldn’t have less interest in the quirky Swedish brand.

In any event, GM now owned fully 50% of Saab, and would own the entirety of the Swedish automaker by the year 2000. Despite the apparent sale of its soul to the devil, Saab was now blessed with the aid it needed to finally develop a successor to the original 900. The first fruit of this “joint-venture”, the New Generation 900, was developed in less than four years, appearing as a 1994 model in three- and five-door hatches, and the following year in convertible form.


Notwithstanding its Opel relation, there was little visual resemblance to its relative, with the NG900 still looking distinctly Saab. Retaining its predecessor’s long hood, steep windshield, upswept beltline, and large sloping hatch, the second generation 900 was an attractive, contemporary update of the classic design.


Softer angles in the sheetmetal made for a more fluid, organic shape, and styling elements such as headlights, taillights, and door handles complemented this, and made for quite a seductive shape. Versus its predecessor, the new 900 rode on a 3.3-inch longer wheelbase, although length was actually down by 1.8 inches. Width and height were each up by 0.9 inches and 0.4 inches, respectively, and Saab claimed an increase in torsional rigidity by 50% on 3- and 5-door hatches, and 73% on convertibles.


As stated, the NG900 was engineered not on a Saab platform, but on the GM Europe-developed GM2900 platform. Engineered as a platform to serve the mid-size family sedan/hatchback Opel Vectra (Vauxhall Cavalier in the U.K.), the GM2900 was not the ideal basis for an entry-level luxury sports sedan/coupe that competed against cars including the BMW 3-Series.


Furthermore, whereas most competitors and even non-luxury cars of a less sporting nature were featuring four-wheel fully-independent suspensions, Saab stuck to its simpler and less expensive twist-beam rear suspension, with the expected independent MacPherson strut front suspension.


The twist-beam did have its advantages in weight, space, and most importantly, cost savings. Yet, when this was combined with an unforgiving chassis, it produced a driving experience and ride quality that was not up to BMW E36 levels, or even Volvo 850 levels.


Per contemporary reviews, body roll was prevalent in cornering maneuvers, despite generally favorable remarks on the NG900’s precise steering feel. Furthermore, the 900’s short wheelbase and firm suspension produced a choppy ride over non-Autobahn-like roads, an experience made worse by poor sound deadening to prevent wind and road noise at higher speeds.

As for the convertible, which arrived one year later than the closed-tops as a 1995, it was largely a unique body sharing only the front fascia and lower door assemblies with the 900’s 3-door hatch bodystyle. One-touch power-operated after the initial manual unlatching, the NG900’s soft top fully retracted in about 40 seconds from start to finish. A total of six electric motors powered the retractable soft top and hard boot cover.


As with the exterior, the NG900’s interior was a thoughtful update of the classic 900’s distinctive aircraft-inspired motif, retaining a familiar shape and layout with a few modern upgrades. As with its predecessor, gauges and controls were straightforward and concise, placed high on the instrument panel for easy driver reach and legibility. The ignition switch was once again located in its traditional spot between the front seats.


The instrument panel gained a small analogue clock for a touch more character, and dual front airbags were now standard, but among the most interesting new feature was the new Black Panel (later renamed Night Panel). With the press of a button, all interior lighting except for the speedometer was switched off, allowing for minimal driver distraction at night.


The engine lineup for the 1993-1998 Saab 900 was comprised of five different offerings, three naturally aspirated inline-4s, one turbo inline-4, and one V6, the first such application of V6 in any Saab car. Contrary to its predecessor, all NG900 engines were transversely mounted. Four cylinders were all versions of Saab’s in-house H-engine, and included a 2.0L making 128 horsepower, a 2.0L making 131 horsepower, and a 2.3L making 148 horsepower, with only the latter making it Stateside.


The enthusiasts engine was unquestionably the 2.0L turbo. Making 185 horsepower and 194 lb-ft torque, it was capable of propelling the 5-speed manual 900 SE convertible from zero-to-sixty in 6.9 seconds, a quite respectable figure for the day. Technically the top engine in terms of price, the 2.5L V6 was GM Europe’s corporate 54-degree V6 found in cars including the Opel Vectra. Despite its price premium over the turbo, output was substantially lower, at 168 horsepower and 167 lb-ft torque.


The standard transmission in all 900s was Saab’s in-house F35 5-speed manual, with a 4-speed automatic with sport mode available. Not offered in North America but briefly available in Europe was Saab’s Sensonic transmission. An unusual type of semi-automatic transmission, Sensonic implemented a traditional manual gear shifter while eliminating the clutch pedal in favor of an hydraulically-linked, electronically-controlled clutch. Proving unpopular, Sensonic was quickly discontinued.


With the 900 SE turbo convertible stickering for $41,470 in this car’s 1997 model year, the days when Jerry Seinfeld still drove one on NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday night lineup, the top-spec 900 SE was priced right in line with the BMW 328iC convertible ($41,960). For comparison, the 900’s figure translates to some $62,178 in 2016 dollars.


The NG900 was sold through the 1998 model year, upon which a moderately revised yet visually similar successor arrived, now called the 9-3. As for the verdict on the NG900, it was certainly a car not without faults, but in the end was a successful update of a modern classic. Furthermore, it should be remembered that a substantial amount of its buyers bought the 900 because it was still very much a Saab, and were not interested in how it compared to other European entry-level luxury cars.


Most buyers were willing to overlook any handling deficiencies, the fact that it shared substantial DNA with other GM products, and any other eccentricities because after all, the NG900 still embodied all of the characteristics that made the classic 900 such a loved vehicle. And for the Saab faithful, the NG900 could easily be summed up as “as good as it gets”.

Related Reading:

1991 Saab 900 (3-door)

1992 Saab 900 convertible

1993 Saab 900 Turbo (3-door)

1996 Saab 900 (5-door)

1997 Saab 9000 CS Aero