There are certain cars that everyone knows, everyone talks about and everyone seems to have an opinion of. They are benchmarks for certain qualities, or just legends on their own. They tend to be used to compare anything new that comes out, and they spark flamewars every time they are mentioned on an internet board. In time, you find that while everyone keeps talking about them, most people have never driven them, oftentimes includes motoring journalists. After many years of being hard-core petrolhead and few more of working as motoring journo, I realized that although I have driven literally hundreds of different cars, my “motoring education” is still lacking. How can I write about a new Alfa and evaluate its character, when I have never driven the “true” Alfas of yore? Can I really say anything about qualities of a front-wheel-drive sportscar, if I have never driven a Honda Integra Type-R, which is considered a benchmark for FWDs?
I decided to fix this. I am making a list of cars every petrolhead should experience at least once in his lifetime. And I will share my thoughts and opinions with you, dear reader. So, we can start with the first one. SAAB was legendary by its unique, quirky cars, which were said to be unlike any other. We were told they were “born from jets”, and not from other cars. But in modern days, they were not born from jets. They were born from Opel Vectras. Which leads to lengthy fights between brand enthusiasts and cynics. Is modern SAAB just a gussied-up Opel, or is it something truly special? I had to find out, so I borrowed one…
If eyesight is your primary means of appreciating a car and you care great deal about details, you will probably consider the 9-3 very individualistic, typically Scandinavian, and quintessentially “Saabish” on the first walkaround. Details like the grille, the shape of the headlights and taillights, and of course interior, make it very clear that you’re looking at a SAAB. But if you stand back a little, you see that proportions, which made the old 900 look so unique, are gone. No flat hood with nearly vertical windshield, no lean profile – the 9-3 may be more beautiful in a traditional way, but has little of the wonderful weirdness of the old 900.
And it’s the same story about the interior. Sit inside and you notice the airplane-like vertical dash and other aviation-inspired details, like green-lit displays. The ignition is still on the centre console, right behind the gear selector. But the windscreen is far in the front and steeply raked, the beltline is high, seating position laid back. I have only ridden in an old 900 once, and I vaguely remember windscreen being close to your face, low nose of the car sniffing the road in front of you, narrow and nearly vertical A-pillars. While I have never been in classic 911, it was quite similar to what I imagine a 911 must feel like. The 9-3? Not so much. In fact, it really feels like any modern car of its era. It feels like…like a posh Opel Vectra. But it’s extremely nice gussied up Vectra. Even if you don’t like Saab’s weirdness, you must admit that the interior is pretty well made, the materials are on par with premium makes, the fabric roof looks like metal one from the inside. It may have lost some of the uniqueness, but you can clearly see what you are paying for. Besides the proportions, there’s not much to show that this car is based on pedestrian Opel.
But classic Saabs weren’t bought for looks, or for fine Corinthian leather. They were bought for unique engineering. Which means we need to go for a drive.
Now, you may argue that to really see what modern Saabs are made of, we should’ve chosen a more powerful, stick-shifted variant, like 9-3 Aero or even Viggen. But most of those cars’ unique feel is in their power and speed. With 200+ horsepower on the front wheels, anything can feel interesting, and it’s too easy to confuse the drama of sheer acceleration and brutal torquesteer for “true character”. No, the fleeting “Saabiness” I’m looking for would be present even in the most unsporting model available. And I wanted to find that fleeting “Saabiness”, which should be present even in the lower powered, slushbox-equipped convertible. If you drive a modern diesel Mini with automatic, it’s slow and clumsy compared to a Cooper S or JCW. But the “Mini feel” is still there – you still feel the playfulness, the interior is still unique not only in details but also in basic architecture. And the same goes about base-model 3-series BMW (well, maybe not counting the latest F10 generation) or, as I imagine, about soft-top 911 Carrera 4s with tiptronic. If the whole “born from jets” thing remained true even in the GM era, the character will reach further than just a cool dash or a big turbo, and will be present in the old man’s cruiser as well as the hardcore Viggen models.
So I twist the key by my right hip, waking the two-litre turbo four into life. The engine is one of the parts that are pure SAAB, so it will be crucial for preserving the brand’s character. And even though this is the LPT, or “low-pressure turbo” variant, designed for high mileage and not brutal power, the Scandinavian character shows. The engine isn’t loud, but its note is interesting enough, and once you wait through the turbo lag, it pulls with great authority. Compared to modern turbocharged engines it needs a bit more revs, and cruising in high gears is not as easy as with a large V6, but that’s a part of the car’s character and its quirkiness.
In town, with the top down and occasional heavy foot at traffic lights, you can appreciate the reasons for owning this car. The interior is really nice place to be – and it remains so even when it rains, unlike most soft-tops. This may be a part of the Scandinavian character. In Sweden, there’s not enough sunny, hot days to warrant having a car that’s only good with its top down, so Saab made a convertible that should work fine all-year-round.
The car itself is quite pretty, but it doesn’t exude the “easy money” air of BMWs or Audis. You look much more sophisticated in the SAAB, it makes people think not about the money you make, but about your sophistication that led you to choosing such oddball machine. A 3-series Cabriolet is much more likely to get keyed, and much less likely to be let out of the side road.
But there is one last question remaining – what happens on said side road, when you leave town and head for the twisties? They say that Swedes changed most of the car when making it their own. And as we could see with the engine, they still knew how to give it character. So, did they apply this magic on suspension as well?
Sitting behind the rather large and thin steering wheel, I am about to find out. First disappointment – there doesn’t seem to be any feel in the helm. First good thing – the shift buttons on the wheel work quite well and the ‘box is surprisingly fast to downshift. I expected the old auto-box to be slow and slushy, but in fact, it is fairly adept for spirited driving. Second disappointment, and much bigger one: what was supposed to be a block of Swedish steel feels much more like chewing gum, which is particularly sad concerning the fact that this car was made after redesign, which supposedly improved the car’s rigidity. The responses are vague, the chassis twists, the suspension is squishy. And even worse than its inability to tackle the corners is the unwillingness to do so. The problem is not that the 9-3 is slow – after all, the slushbox-equipped convertible is more of a cruiser than a B-road bruiser. But the legends, or myths, of Saab would suggest that there would be some driving joy present even in the most pedestrian model. You can hop in the aforementioned diesel automatic Mini and head to the backroads for a nice dose of fun. But if you had any ideas of Saab + Turbo = fun, you are headed for great disappointment. There’s nothing “born from jets” about the way this car drives. Yes, it’s fairly nice and refined cruiser, as long as you drive leisurely, but there’s not a hint of sportiness in it, and what’s worse, not much of a driving enjoyment, either. It really feels like a ordinary family sedan with its roof sawed off. It is a nice place to be in, and it will be great for people who like to stand out in the crowd and dislike the social stigma, often associated with traditional premium brands like BMW or Audi.
But if you’re a petrolhead, looking for an interesting and fun-to-drive car with character? Is it a legend you need to meet, or a just a myth, living from the past? For me, the “Saabiness” of the late cars is just a myth. I really wanted to find it, and I really tried to. But driving this car did not bring me much closer to understanding the Saab’s legend than I was before. To me, it really is just a posh Opel Vectra. Not a bad car, but not even in the same league as BMW or Mercedes. And, more importantly, not offering the kind of “character” that makes you love it over all its faults – or because of them, like many Alfas do.
But that’s not to say that the “Saabiness” doesn’t exist. It’s just that the late, GM era models lack it. Maybe I’ll find it in some older model. I’m off to find a 99 or 900 to drive, and I will be back with results…
Myth or Legend?
Myth. Most of the uniqueness is tacked on, not in the substance.
Do I need to drive it?
No. Actually, if you want to understand the brand’s magic, you should probably avoid it and go for older cars, preferably the first-generation 900 or 99.
Should I buy it?
Why not… It’s a nice car, and if you want a cheap, four-seater convertible for all-year use, it may be one of the best out there.