(first posted 2/3/2015) This is nothing less than the quintessential Saab of the classic era; a car profoundly compelling to classic Saabistas, being in their eyes the last true genuine Saab. And in turbo version, the one to really pine for, then and now. I know I’ve shot a few along the way, including this veteran just a few days ago. It may have had some turbo lag, but it can wait no longer.
It’s hard to overstate what a significant car the Saab 99 Turbo was when it arrived rather unexpectedly in 1978. Just when the US industry was declining into the deepest years of the malaise era, along comes Saab with a very fresh breeze in the market: the first turbocharged car in the mass-market sedan/coupe segment since the brief and unsuccessful 1962-1963 Oldsmobile Jetfire and the Corvair Spyder/Corsa. The 1976 Porsche 911-based Turbo led the way in defying the near-universal decline in performance, but that was a very expensive machine. And just two years later, Saab bestows a turbo upon the masses. What a boon.
The 99 Turbo was (rightfully) acclaimed widely and loudly by the buff books, and it led the way in a wide-spread turbo resurgence. Ford was just one year behind with their turbo 2.3 four, but that was a dud, with a carburetor and other shortcomings. Volvo soon joined in, and soon others. The great eighties Turbo Boom was building boost, and the Saab set it off.
Finding a 99 Turbo would be a huge coup; it was only made for one year, as the substantially improved 900 appeared in 1979 to supplant and soon replace the 99. The early versions of the 99 and 900 Turbo made 135 hp, a laughable number now even for a normally-aspirated 2.0 liter four. But this was at a time when four cylinder engines struggled to break the century mark, and the turbo’s extra horsepower and its substantially fattened torque curve was a delicious treat at the time.
This Saab press photo shows the unusual configuration of these engines, with the clutch at the front, then a chain drive to the transmission and final drive, which sat below the engine. Starting in 1982, Saab pioneered electronic boost control/engine management with its APC system, which reduced concerns of detonation and allowed any grade of gas to be used without harm.
This is a last year 1993 model, with the 16 Valve engine. Horsepower was now a lofty 160. Given that these cars were quite light (∼2750 lbs. listed), performance was brisk for the times. One source shows a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds. I’m inclined to believe it. And the SPG version upped that to 165-175 hp.
The seats are Swedish-comfortable, and the dash is classic Saab, or I should say that the 900 started the classic Saab dash look. The stick shift has been described in a variety of terms, the full spectrum from crisp and accurate to vague and rubbery. It got the job done, either way. Handling is crisp, which was no joke for a turbocharged car of this era. Making a substantial amount of power go through the front wheels back then was still more black magic than science, and Saab had been invoking the right deities. Not that one didn’t know it was FWD; it pretty much always let one know that. But it wasn’t objectionable, and the fun factor easily offset the momentary lapses of everything pulling in unison.
Speaking of lapses, turbo lag was of course part of the smorgasbord, but this was still the early days. The switch to a smaller Mitsubishi turbo to replace the Garrett starting in 1990 helped close the gap between desire and fulfillment.
The sun was shining on Saab lovers during the 900’s long ride, from 1979 through 1993. It was shining a bit too much so for my camera, spoiling the shot of the 900’s classic long nose.
No worries on that account; I’ve got several more in the files. The 900/Turbo is very much a classic Eugene-mobile, given the personality profile of both the car and the town: out of the mainstream, fun-loving, eccentric, leading-edge, rugged (mostly), and…well, just right. Their numbers are dwindling, and it’s going to be a sad day when the last of them leaves the streets. We’d have to do a eulogy just for them alone, but I’m not exactly holding my breath.