This well-worn shifter belongs to a 1996 Saab 900S Turbo Sensonic. Ever heard of the system? Yes, it’s the very same as noted in Top Gear’s The Worst Car in the History special. But don’t let that hold it against it. The system works, somewhat.
Need some clarification? The Sensonic system is a clutch pedal-less manual. In the footwell are the pedals from an automatic Saab 900NG, but there’s a regular-looking shifter. There’s a micro switch in the gearshift that uses the clutch for you, so you just drive with your left foot on the footrest and shift normally as you go along. The system was originally deemed good enough for Saab to hastily introduce a retrofit pedal setup for Sensonic refugees to get back into regular shifting action, as the system often ground to a halt with warning lights a-popping and the shifter immovable. Yeah, it’s not exactly hall of fame material. But what would it feel like, first hand?
Today, I took the pictured Sensonic 900 for a spin round the neighbourhood. It’s for sale in my town, so it’s a good Sensonic introduction.
Outside, especially in winter trim, there’s nothing noteworthy about the Saab. It’s the same inoffensive forest green as the non-turbo 2.0 900NG I drove before buying the BMW; this is an original Finnish car and not a German import. There’s a set of studded tires under the Saab, and the hubcaps are thrift-store ones. I hate them.
And yeah, there is a tow bar. That’s actually the reason why the previous owner traded the Sensonic in; he wanted to tow a big-ass caravan but noted the “clutchless” system wasn’t ideal for manoeuvring a caravan hooked up to the back. The owner was apparently a Saab club person, which does lend the car some credibility, maintenance-wise.
So, what does it feel like to drive? It’s weird. It’s definitely weird. I got a short instruction pep talk by the dealer, before jumping in the car. Starting it up (in reverse, Saab style, mind), was slightly disconcerting as I didn’t really know in which direction the car would jump into when I turned the console-mounted key, without a clutch to depress for safety’s sake. The brake pedal, then, needed to be pressed when starting.
The car doesn’t creep, forwards or rearwards. It does roll, however, as there is no torque converter hill-hold. Reversing out of the garage, it needed decisive throttle input so I could get out of there and on my test drive. But, I needed to think like an automatic driver so my left foot wouldn’t do any ghost clutching.
Driving it walking speed out of the dealership’s grounds, getting to the nearest crossroads was easy enough. I left the car in 1st, and held it in place with the brake, as one would do with an automatic.
*DING* DISENGAGE GEAR, said the SID display atop the stereo, familiar to Saab drivers. Alright then, I remembered this from a Saab club post I had read, as I had done my homework before engaging in Senconicity. The car doesn’t like you heating up the clutch, so it’s a better idea to shift into neutral.
Then, I accidentally selected fourth instead of second as I neared a roundabout. *DING* SHIFT DOWN. Looks like the car likes to keep track of your actions. All well and good, and you probably wouldn’t get any of these info bulletins if you used the system the way it prefers to be used.
I then turned to the highway leading out of town. The weather wasn’t really turbo weather, as the road surface was covered in ice and snow and any turbo action (when the engine had heated up) just made the front wander sideways. It’s fun to slide around in the gutless BMW, but a punchy turbo front-driver loses its trump card when the surface won’t play ball. Nevertheless, I could fathom the engine had its wits about it. It would take a dry road surface with studless tires to extract the car’s abilities, but the car definitely felt more eager to move than the totally uninspired naturally aspirated German import 900.
The Sensonic system felt better on higher gears. On lower ones, the gearshift resisted quite a bit, even if I came off the throttle to ease it. One particularly heatening moment was when I turned back to the highway after snapping a few photos off the main road. I looked left, noted there was a flock of 4pm commuters heading my way but I could well merge onto the road, since I would have plenty of time to get up to speed. So I turned. Accelerated in first – and the shifter didn’t want to move, for me to get it into second. Shit. Hnngh. There. Third? Nah ah. Firmer try: there. I don’t know if it was the subzero weather, or whether the caravanning experiments of the previous owner had affected the system. As I said, higher gears felt slick, and the lower ones didn’t always feel resistant. But, I couldn’t really count on the system, as I’d hate to get a semitrailer up my derriere just because the Sensonic wasn’t in its senses.
The gearshift itself isn’t usually Saabs’ forte, either. On manual 9000s, it’s set too low, compared to the mountainous dash and feels rubbery, cabley, unsatisfying to use, and it’s not super enjoyable in the 900, either. Comparing it to the ULTIMATE DRIVING MACHINE that is my entry-level budget BMW is unfair, but the E34’s shifter position and action is way more driver-oriented. It has to be said that the shifter on my 233 000 km BMW has some slack, and first and second do not quite gel when it’s cold outside, so having the shifter resist you isn’t totally unique to the Sensonic. I’d probably better schedule a gearbox oil change in the future.
But, I’d say this. On the non-Sensonic 900, the thing I hated most was the stiff clutch pedal, and using it meant I scraped my shoe on the loosely hanging dash bottom plastic the whole time. While a good turbo car should be enjoyably shifted manually, getting up to speed, you can often rely on torque instead and just leave it in a suitable gear. One of the things I like about a manual transmission is the constant left-foot, right-foot action you do, while rowing through gears to extract power. It’s just not something that’s natural to the ’90s Saabs; the first-gen 9-3 got rid of the stiff clutch but lost the iconic Saab 900 Turbo name as well. So, the Saab I’d get might just as well be a Sensonic.
I returned the green Sensonic and talked with the dealer for a while. He didn’t rate my Sapporo too high (I’m considering selling the thing, to free funds and parking space), and trading the BMW wouldn’t really make too much sense either. What I’d rather do would be buying an another advertised Turbo Sensonic, a red one, with cash; that one simply looks better, especially with the three-spoke alloys. And since the red one currently for sale in Eastern Finland is cheaper, I’d have funds ready to rectify any oncoming Sensonic problems. The green one had a service book, but not a Saab official dealer one, and it only started at 221 000 km. Not too reassuring, as the steering wheel rim in my opinion was quite worn for 251k – or then it’s a material quality issue. At least there wasn’t any real rust to be seen.
So, is the Sensonic the worst gearshift system in the world? Nope. For example, I hated Volvo’s nonchalant Geartronic tiptronic in the V50 T5 a lot more. At least the Saab works when you want it to and show it a firm grip to drive your point across. The Volvo box was more like a careless waiter, as it’ll serve you when it has the time. I didn’t attempt any uphill parallel parking in the Saab, like Top Gear did; simply because I’m not able to buy the cars parked next to it, BBC budget style, just in case I pulled a James and reversed the Saab into the front grille of the car behind me. Getting the Sensonic in a parallel parking spot in a hill is apparently the system’s Achilles heel. Good job there aren’t too many hills where I reside.
In closing, I remain a fan of the Saab 900NG, for reasons not totally clear to me. I also like the 185hp turbo engine, and I’m not ruling out the Sensonic. A GM partsbin hatch as nondescript as the 900NG needs a true drawback to become the real underdog, a fatal flaw to turn it into a unique car. Besides, all good high-pressure turbo 900OG:s cost twice or thrice the money of a clean New Generation car, and an eventually cashed-out Sapporo can only stretch so far.
[Images: Copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Antti Kautonen]