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.
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.
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!