Unsung Heroes : Saab 9000

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble looks at another often-forgotten car from yesteryear, cars that once littered the UK’s cityscapes, but which now have all but disappeared.

And lest we forget this Super Swede before its maker sinks into an undignified oblivion: The Saab 9000.


Saab’s reinvention

The Saab 9000 was something of a change in direction for its maker when it first appeared in 1984
The Saab 9000 was something of a change in direction for its maker when it first appeared in 1984

Without a shadow of a doubt, the 1980s were the glory years for SAAB with the decade ushering in a new breed of cars brimmed with technology. Outside of Sweden, SAAB’s two largest markets were the USA and the UK, and following on and replacing the 99 Turbo came the eight-valve 900 Turbo, with the blisteringly quick 16-valve version hot on its heels a few years later.

Even with the engineering partnership with Scania, SAAB on a global front was still a small company doing a rather good job at producing well built, reliable vehicles with a slight idiosyncratic twist. At that time and even though SAAB could sell every car it produced, profit was slim resulting in product range of just two cars: the 90 and 900. By the mid 1980s, SAAB decided to expand the portfolio by developing a new model aimed at the executive sector in either a spacious five-door hatchback or four-door saloon, arriving with what became the 9000.

As many of us know, a new car in new sheet metal costs a great deal of money to get off the drawing board and eventually into the dealers. Entering into an engineering alliance with another world car maker is often the only way a smaller manufacturer can afford such a feat, this is what SAAB did, but with two unlikely marques.

Forget about the present day never ending SAAB saga, for back in the ’80s SAAB had a rock solid image built upon years of rally wins and thoroughly well engineered designs. Worried that costs would undermine the company, SAAB teamed up with Fiat to share the development of a new bodyshell and floorpan for a new model which would eventually become the SAAB 9000 – Alfa Romeo 164 – Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema, this team designed chassis and body became known as Type Four, with the bulk of the design/styling carried out by SAAB and the design house Ital Design.

Engines were esentially carried over from the exisiting 900 range, but transmission was mounted conventially end on rather than underneath as was the case with the 900. Powertrain installation was also the traditional East-West layout as opposed to in line. This gave the car a shorter bonnet, better road manners and more importantly, greatly improved passenger room oddly enough in a car which was actually a few inches shorter than the exisiting 900. Thanks to its longer wheelbase, the 9000 looked a larger car than the 9000 though the front and rear overhangs were smaller, this change in styling gave the illusion that the 9000 was physically longer, though it was substantially wider.

The interior was all own SAAB’s work, carrying on the tradition of superb ergonomics, excellent seats and crystal clear instruments with levels of equipment reflecting the executive sector this vehicle was aimed at. SAAB did however, break away from tradition by fitting the ignition barrel on the steering column rather than on the floor, brand purists bemoaned of that but drivers other marques trading up to a SAAB would find the 9000 more conventional than SAABs of old, which in terms of sales prospects, could only be a good thing.

Launched in the UK in 1985, the 9000 was initially offered in one range topping model – the 175 bhp 9000 Turbo 16 which proved to be an instant hit with demand outstripping supply. SAAB soon offered a model aimed at the business sector – the 9000i offering a 2.0-litre engine with 16-valve head, visually, the differences being a raised ride height and full width brushed effect steel wheel trims.

Even in the lower trim model, the interior was up to the usual standard expected by Sweden’s no2 car builder, brushed velour upholstery could be found on what the trade called “those seats”. I’m sure many will argue but on a personal level, I have yet to find a car with more comfy seats, huge in proportion, extremely hard wearing and above all a joy to sit on for hours on end.

The expected SAAB safety continued with passenger doors that fitted with the precision and solidity of a bank vault, the brakes were a disc all round system with ABS that gave superb anchoring and the huge dashboard was padded. Where the 900 felt cozy and snug, the 9000 felt large and spacious inside. Most of this extra room was a product of the engine installation which also gave other improvements over previous SAAB models.

Gone was the usual ponderous and clumsy gearchange you found with the 900 along with a slightly nose heavy feeling, the 9000 had a slick changing gearbox, superb road manners and a ride comfort as placid as the Lake itself. Advertising was vivid, many will remember the SAAB SUITE short film featuring the drivers of the SAAB Stunt Team performing an epic routine to music in a fleet of SAAB 9000s – amazingly, these cars were actually standard Turbo 16 models – only the drivers were special.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JROCSmSsjow[/tube]

The feel good factor allied with superb marketing created a halo effect all over the world, with all models flying out of the showrooms just as quick as their Jet fighters, the eighties was certainly the techno era for the motor car, and SAAB were right in the thick of it cleverly exploiting every new feature and seemingly not putting a foot wrong!

The 9000 model range remained unchanged for a few years until 1988 when at the Birmingham International Motor Show at the NEC, SAAB launched a four-door saloon version. From this point onwards a subtle badge change took place, five-door versions became the CS while saloon variants became the CD.

The saloon even though being lavishly trimmed and equipped, never sold in the same numbers as the 9000CS, but that said, SAAB never expected the CD to be a massive hit but this did give booted executive car drivers an alternative option to the likes of the Granada, Rover 800 or Vauxhall Carlton/Senator.

As mentioned before, clever advertising and the fact that many owners repeat purchased SAAB time after time gave the brand a prestiege perception, the 9000 became viewed as genuine rival to makes such as BMW 5-Series or Mercedes W124 range. Where the Fiat Croma and Alfa struggled to make any real sales impact despite having the build quality that was vastly superior to any Fiat or Alfa before, the SAAB 9000 became known as yet another rock solid car and its used car values became almost as sure as the sunrise. The 2.0-litre injection and Turbo power units were joined by high torque 2.3-litre engine offering a more relaxing persona rather than the massive top end punch found with the turbo.

The different nose styling of the saloon model with its slimmer headlamps found its way into the rest of the range in the early 90’s, rear end styling was also tidied up at the same time with redesigned light clusters and subtle tweaks to the interior. SAAB’s superb ACC climate control remained in situ with the higher models allied with other benefits including leather upholstery and cruise control on the range topping models.

Soon after, SAAB saw fit to update the 9000 by the way of a new front end comprising a sharp aerodynamic nose with new lights and side repeaters while up at the rear, the reflective panel between the rear light clusters which SAAB called the ‘tailblazer’ was deleted. Smart looking smoked rear light units modernised the look of the car and a high level brake light was fitted just above the rear window, as not to encroach on rear visibility.

The exisisting transmissions of the five-speed manual and ZF sourced four-speed auto remained put, but the major changes came in the form of power units revised to give more power, economy and sympathy to the enviroment. The SAAB standard 1985cc units were eventually joined with a 2290cc four-cylinder which essentially was a stroked 2.0 but also featured balancer shafts for optimum refinement – a design touch which was to feature on later 2.0 engines also.

Visually the improved 9000 lost it’s ornate quarter glass effect tailgate, now gaining chunky C posts that hampered rear view visibility slightly, but drove home the impression of solidity. Engine options now comprised of a 2.0i – 2.0 Turbo 150 – 2.0 Turbo 175 – 2.3 non turbo 175 and a 2.3 turbo offering either 200 or 225bhp in the Aero. Some impressive special editions could be had including the Aero, Carlsson and Griffin models, and following some input from General Motors, a 3.0 V6 from the Omega found its way into the 9000 but sold in small numbers and avoided like the plague by many loyal brand purists.

Perhaps the swansong of the 9000 to many, was the 9000 Anniversary, introduced to celebrate 50 years of SAAB. This hatchback only model came in a choice of four colours in either 2.0 or 2.3 turbo with features including the Aero body kit and stunning two tone leather embossed with the original SAAB aeroplane logo on the backrests. Fully kitted out with everything bar cruise control, the 9000 Anniversary sold in huge numbers and still command a good price today when in good fettle. My own automatic 2.0 model was maybe the nicest high speed crusing car I ever had the pleasure of driving.

Oddly enough, the 9000 was never offered as a diesel, this was to change with the 9-5, an even though GM had its grip on SAAB for the last few years of 9000 production, looking back, it almost seems as if they decided to avoid tinkering and diluting this model, 3.0 engine aside. 9000 production ceased in 1997 and was replaced by the pretty looking 9-5 – a model that never reached it’s deserved and full potential thanks to quality and engineering problems brought on by GM’s bean counters. To some, the end of the 9000 marked the end of the last “real” SAAB design – a truly great car!

Gallery

 

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

28 Comments

  1. One of the last great Saabs, this along with the Volvo 900 series were the last of the great solid Swedish cars.The FWD chassis setup was so good that the Lancia Thema offered a V8 Ferrari engine that supposedly handled well with no torque steer!

  2. what a brilliant article Mike. Rumour is that SAIC are circling Saab but just like MG-R they want to pick the brand up afer insolvency. Big mistake as the brand image across the world will be destyroyed by then. The glory days will not return I am affraid. volvo have lost their cudos as well as far as I’m concerend. The 850 was the last true Volvo for me.

  3. Yup, we had 3 as I grew up.. The 1st, black, CSE 2.0 got stolen so my Dad borrowed his business partners silver CSE 2.0 (who was on holiday at the time).. and that one got stolen as well, seriously.. 2 stolen Saab 9000’s from the same parking space with in the same week!They found the silver one with no wheels and about full of power tools a day or 2 later but the black one never turned up.The Black one was replaced by a dark blue 2.3t Anniversary.. WE had that car for years. It’s still going  as it was sold to a friend.Epic cars… defiantly a future classic.

  4. @  Will M  I’d forgotten about that Lancia Thema 8.32 with the Ferrari engine – what a wonderful car!  It also had a rear spoiler that raised from the boot at speed.  I liked that very much!

  5. “superb road manners and a ride comfort as placid as the Lake itself”Have you ever driven/been in one? The ride is choppy and the handling is quite wallowy. They aren’t bad to drive but nothing remarkable.I had a pre-GM 900 for a while, that seemed very chuckable in comparison with superior traction, almost eagerly seeking corners with its ‘front heaviness’ – shame about the very vague and over-assisted PAS.

  6. The last of the great executive Saab models and with the ultimate developments of that much admired Slant Four engine. The original 9-5 was a handsome looking car but, as you say, never really maintained the Saab legacy for quality and forward thinking.

  7. Hector – I have maybe driven more SAABs including the 9000 than you have had hot dinners, that said, the 9000 was a wonderful car to drive by 1985 standards. I drove my 9000 Anni from one end of the UK almost to the other and then back again in one day. My memory from the 1000’s of cars I have driven was that it was the nicest thing I had driven (for the money)

    David3500 – Shame the early 9-5 was so pi** poor, they looked wonderfull from almost evey angle, ruined by shocking engineering cost cutting that had a critical knock on effect in terms of reliability.

  8. I remember looking at a SAAB 9000 about ten years ago at a SAAB specialist.  I asked him why the 9-5 models were so cheap (pretty much the same price as the older 9000), his reply was “because they’re crap”!  He much preferred the 9000, and tried to avoid the 9-5 like the plague.  Enough said. 

  9. Will M, not sure that I agree with you on the handling of the Thema 8.32. I remember the “Bionic Bitza” article in CAR magazine showing heroic understeer and clouds of smoke equalling anything an Oldsmobile Toronado could achieve. Apparently they sold 9 in Britain and 5 in Taiwan (the former at least, not being helped by being LHD only). A former Lancia mechanic told me the engine was so squeezed-in that it took 12 hours (officially) to change the timing belt!

  10. @ Steve BaileyYou are so right, a trader I know near Leatherhead in Surrey won’t get involved with early 9-5’s for the simple reason that he’s been caught out before.Personally, I would consider a 9-5 but then i`m lucky enough to able to sort out the problems and would have to be very very cheap. That said, some models go on to give faultless service but they tend to be serviced above and beyond the call of duty and normally by a SAAB agent or a decent independant specialist.Withoubt doubt though, a solid looked after 9000 is a vastly superior car in terms of durability, engineering quality and overall reliability. If all you need is a cheap large barge to lick the miles and carry your odd’s n ends, a 9000 is a smashing buy!

  11. Had a couple of 9000s now, first was a 2.0t CSE, that with a few choice upgrades and an ECU remap developed 240bhp and went like a stabbed rat. That eventually relented to head gasket failure at 175k miles, so was replaced with a 2.3 Aero. Similar upgrades – by heck it’s quick. Surprises quite a few cars on the road.Handling as standard, bearing in mind the freshest one is now 13 years old, can be a little ponderous and floppy, but that’s mostly down to worn bushes. Both mine had poly bushes all round, and new suspension – transforms the car. Standard brakes aren’t up to much with the extra power, so uprated pads from a Ferrari 328 fit with a little effort. That helps somewhat.Tremendous cars, buy a useable smoker for £200, or buy the very best Aero for £3k. They really are superb value. 

  12. Truly great cars the 9000s.Can’t really believe that anyone views current Volvo range as inferior to slab sided battle ships like the 850 though -current V70 is way superior.

  13. My work colleagues husband has got a 9000 salon with the 16v turbo. He has had it for nearly 15 years and not much has gone wrong with it – both of them love it and fight over who has the keys (her car is a Hyundai i10 – nugh said)

  14. Talking of 9-5’s. A couple of years after the Anniversary was bought, a 9-5 Griffin V6 Bi-Turbo replaced the above mentioned returned silver CSE.That’s popped it engine last month on 110k. Suspected head gasket turned out to be massive over heating and warping / melting of the pistons.. EEK!So the 9000 has out lived the younger 9-5. 

  15. Nice article! I have a 1996 Anniversary 2.3t Automatic with 287.000km as a daily driver and it makes me smile every day! Before the 9000 I had a 1994 Fiat Croma 2.0 8v. The Saab is by far the better car!

  16. Re-reading this article reminded me of a chap I know who bought a new Saab 9000 Turbo automatic in 1987. Fourteen years later I had a lift home in it and noticed that it had covered 237,000 miles. I asked about the turbocharger and he replied that it was still on its original turbocharger (and it was boasting well too!).@ Simon Weakley:Sorry to disagree with you on the last proper Volvo, but I would have to say the 940 and 960. A friend of mine recently looked at an 850 and also the V70 that transcended from it in 1996 and was horrified by the cheapness of some of the trim used and the fact that the rear seat release mechanism was now plastic not metal.

    The usual Volvo standards of quality engineering had definitely taken a nose dive.He eventually went over to a 240 saloon (as a modern classic), which is great, although bearing in mind it is a 2.3-litre catalyser version, does not offer any scope to increase its performance – sadly, it was the Amercans and Swedish who got the turbocharged 240s. However, the quality of engineerng and build is definitely there, just as it was when the last of the 940s and 960s bowed out in 1998.

  17. @ David 3500Have to disagree about 940/960. My uncle had one before they moved to Canada. It was a pig – two head gaskets and numerous electrical probs

  18. A mate of mine had a Volvo 740 Turbo on an F plate.  He later had a Volvo S70 (rehashed 850) and he didn’t rate it at all, said that it wasn’t a patch on the 740. 

  19. “Rumour is that SAIC are circling Saab but just like MG-R they want to pick the brand up afer insolvency”Surely there wont be a brand to pick up, the SAAB brand is licensed by Aircraft manufacturer Svenska Aeroplan AB (SAAB). They would have the say on who can use the brand, SAAB auto only licence it. It’s much like “Rolls-Royce” is owned by Rolls-Royce PLC and only licensed to BMW. Which is why VW had to stop using it when they bought Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motors. Rolls-Royce decided not to renew the licence agreement with VW group and sell a licence to BMW instead.

  20. Ohh I remember these
    when they 1st came out, always wanted the Turbo 16v! Spookily due to the
    problems with our current VW (hence the name) we were going to cut our losses
    with that car and go for “Bangernomics” this was only last week and was really
    looking forward to an eventful life with either a 9000 or Alfa 164, or Rover
    75, fuel consumption (In Theory) if driven with restraint shouldnt be that far
    from our 20month old supposed highly economical piece of utter cr”p

    Reliability (again in theory with the
    Saab) shouldnt be any worse! Sadly we have decided to keep “Our embarrassment”
    and perhaps live in hope it gets written off on the way to work! A Black
    Carlsson sounds nice.

  21. I love my ’92 9000CD and agree that I have never experienced a more comfortable car. The Lancia Thema also came in a wagon. What a SAAB that would have made!

  22. my brother in law still has a 9000cd turbo 5 door with big wheels in car – red and body kit. fantastic looking car goes like a cut cat and sits on the road real nice. this is what cars should be. the Japs still dont do it right….and the MG still looks like a let down. I this SAAB model (like the rover 827 vitesse) are iconic cars. alex

  23. Saab’s always did (and still do) look classy and fairly unique.  Some relations in London have owned a late 1990’s one since new (not sure of exact model).  Only now are they considering to change it…

  24. Surprised about some of the negative comments that have been posted about the Volvo 850.  Granted, the interior wasn’t the best (although the S70/V70 did improve on it), but as a car it probably put Volvo on the path to where they are today.  The 5 cylinder range of engines were excellent and the T-5 delivered scintillating performance.  It gave the brand a better image for a brief period in its history and also introduced world first safety innovations such as SIPS.  In summary, the 850 was the future of Volvo cars.

  25. Have a 9000CSE now, and it’s wonderful. However the ergonomics are not perfect; I’m tall and cannot see the speedometer (wheel in the way) and the driver’s side grab handle will brain me one day if I don’t remove it soon. The driving in the video is amazing. I went to the 2005 Spa 24hours, and there was a Saab stunt team in action there, quite incredible (they were driving 9-3 convertibles IIRC)and another thing – -3 and -5 (Saab), C- and E- (Merc)… how many other manufacturers consciously ape BMW naming/market positioning??

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