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1986-1992 Saab 9000 Turbo

90003 When Saab debuted the 9000 in 1986, it raised some eyebrows. It's not often that a car garners attention because of its normalcy; but such is the case when a noted oddball carmaker like Saab introduces a car so seemingly bone-stock conventional as the 9000.

Saab had always been known for cars with profiles that could best be described as quirky. From the early 92 and 95, to the swoopy Sonnetts, to the swollen and hunchbacked 99 and 900, Saabs looked different than normal cars and were seemingly proud of that fact. By contrast, the 9000 was clean and attractive but otherwise unremarkable by the standards of 1986. The aero headlights and the smoothly contoured sides were handsome and aerodynamic, but reminiscent of the ground-breaking Audi 5000 and Ford Taurus. Without the Saab grille and insignia, it would be difficult to identify the 9000 as a Saab--while the 900, on the other hand, showed its Saab heritage clearly and proudly. Only the five-door hatchback bodystyle betrayed Saab's quirky tendencies.

In another break from non-conformity, the 9000's platform was the result of a joint development effort with three other European carmakers. The 9000's chassis and, in some cases, body panels, were shared with the Alfa Romeo 164, Lancia Thema, and Fiat Croma. Sharing a platform with the likes of Alfa and Lancia doesn't exactly raise the spectre of awful and irrelevant clones like the Cadillac Cimmaron or Mercury Bobcat, but its conventionality was a bit worrying for this slavish Saab-ite. Had Saab sold out and built a bland every-car?

90001 In a word, no. For those who looked beneath the anonymous exterior, the 9000 had Saab flavor baked deep into its very essence. Strangeness aside, Saab had built its reputation on cars that married dependability, amazing utility, and the traction of front-wheel drive. To that utilitarian base, the 99 and 900 Turbo added the sheen of a performance reputation. In the mid-1980s, Saabs were known for being supremely useful and rugged cars that, with turbocharging, were also all-world European sports sedans. The 9000 proudly upheld that Saab tradition and served as a worthy stablemate to the classically quirky 900.

The 9000 Turbo debuted in the United States as a five-door hatchback only; the four-door sedan appeared a few years later when Saab inevitably bowed to the American market's unexplainable hatred for hatchbacks. That hatchback bodystyle meant the 9000, especially with the back seats folded, could swallow an eye-popping volume of gear--enough to rival a station wagon or small SUV.

90002 The 9000 also acquitted itself quite well as a performance car. The 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo could run the 0-60 sprint in the mid 6-second range and top out around 140 mph, which was startlingly performance for it time. The 9000 Turbo could run with and past the Porsche 944, the Toyota Supra Turbo, the Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z, the buzz-bomb Shelby Omni GLH-S, the Mazda RX-7, the Ferrari 328 GTS, or the Porsche 928. Unlike those cars, the 9000 Turbo also offered a complete package of passenger capacity, luxury-car comfort, sure-footed all-weather traction, and sophisticated flair. Significantly, the 9000 Turbo could outrun my 240-horsepower 2003 Honda Accord, which has the benefit of two extra cylinders and 17 years of computerized technology.

Taking into account its cavernous cargo space and high performance, this was a large sedan that could haul in both senses of the term--like a Dodge Colt Vista with a JATO booster attached. The second-generation 9000 Turbo, especially in Aero trim, continued the tradition, but that is a post for another day. Is it truly quirky enough to be a Saab? I can't pretend to answer that question, but as a low-profile, high-speed, highly useful luxury cruiser, the 9000 Turbo is a long-time favorite of mine, conventionality be damned.

The video below is a compelling tribute to Saab's mid-1980s bravura, back when sales were strong, and when the company was still independent and proud of it--a highly impressive demonstration of precision driving in 9000s set to stirring classical music. If you're interested in a funny 9000 commercial of the time, click here--but beware, I'm not embedding it here because it features foreign language and nude male buttocks.

The top picture is courtesy of Flickr user arnold_broese. The second and third images are scans of the owner's manuals of the 1986 and 1987 9000s, courtesy of Saab Sport Club.

--Chris H.


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By the way, regarding the slightly racy 9000 commercial, the meaning of the events is clear - but since it's all in Finnish, here's a rough translation from the YouTube comments:

"hahaha, nice it's Finnish : D as you probably don't understand a word, in the beginning they're talking like "this car is just like sitting on a couch at home, though you won't be driving your couch to Lapland, will you?" The text in the ending says "Saab. Made in Finland. For Finns." That's a great ad : D"

I have several questions regarding this ad, and I'm hoping there's an easy cultural answer.
1. Why did these guys strip down to their birthday suits in this cabin? Do Finnish guys typically all drive to Lapland to strip down naked in remote cabins to chat with their friends?
2. Why did they all simultaneously leave the cabin? Was this an, uh, relief mission, or was this some sort of on-land equivalent of a polar bear swim?
3. Was one of them holding the car key in his hands upon exiting the cabin? Or was the car left unlocked with the key in the ignition? I know it would've made a bad commercial to have them all freeze to death next to the shiny Saab 9000, but how did they get into and start the car?

i'm very partial to the second movement of the saab suite. i always love dvorak. the cascading j-turns out the back of the car carrier are pretty cool.

I remember the early 9000 always got good press for meeting EPA "Large Car" passenger certification while having a small overall footprint. I however have no lust for this generation, you nailed it when you said it's just too normal/conventional for a Saab.

The second generation is quite possibly my favorite Saab ever though. Those squinty headlights give it so much more character and the smoked taillights are fantastic. I'd love to have an Aero in my stable someday.

Kitos, Chris! gads, i lust for those saabs in such a personally carnal way - i very nearly bought one back in '99, but ultimately lost my nerve at the prospect of maintaining a used quirky foreign car...

...oddly, at the time i wasn't even aware that they're a of bit cliché for architects to drive (i'd ever only seen one 900 way back in high school) so perhaps it was for the best that i resisted its siren call...naaah, i'd have adored taking it along fog-rippled runs up the northern california coast...

I must admit I've never understood Saab lust. We used to call them Saab-stories.

Not that I would ever question anyone's taste in automobiles. I just don't get it.

...well, a huge part of it is that they're works of inspired engineering, of course, and exceptionally-appointed high-performance personal luxury utility sedans, kind of jack-of-all-trades opulent shuttlepods which happen to excel at everything they do, but what *really* pushes them from well-earned respect for an excellent car into the realm of irrational lust is the way every little detail is slightly different from the typical evolutionary automotive industry standard implementations we've come to blindly developing over such a long history in an isolated market, saabs are a case of parallel evolution which by its alien-yet-familiar nature which really makes one lucid of every careful design decision which goes into a well-planned automobile, the sort of thing often hidden and buried behind the cruft of fashion...

...saabs are just awesome...

Best friend in high school had a black 9000 turbo we named Olga. While listening to "Crazy Train" he spun it (with me in the passenger seat!) going 55 on a 35 turn here in town; that song still takes me back. It was NOT a car for a 16 year old.

Though I loved Olga, the best interpretation of the "Type Four" cars is undoubtedly the Lancia Thema 8.32. Basically the same car but motivated by the Ferrari 308 QV engine, and star of one of my favorite promotional videos:

I bought a 9000 Turbo(035M) new in 1986, after driving one that belonged to a friend. I was impressed by the performance, room and the level of equipment for the price. After just over 100,000 somewhat problematic miles I swapped it for a leftover '91 figuring they'd probably improved the switches and the crappy (manual) trans.

They had, a little, but the clutches and slave cylinders on those cars were junk. After replacing a fractured clutch disk and two slave cylinders I dumped it at around 45K.

These cars might've seemed conventional to a Saab-freak of the era but they were quite odd to the rest of the world since there were and are very few luxury-performance hatchbacks.

I bought an Alfa 164 on ebay a few years ago, after talking to the owner for 2 hours on the phone. When I went to pick it up the glass was cracked, the interior door handles were broken, and the HVAC system was screwed. Oh, and the waterpump was so bad that it was pouring out coolant. Needless to say I refused to give the guy any money. It was a cool looking car though.

Since we're talking the platform mate cars also, I've forever lusted for an Alfa 164 S, red please. As Rob aluded to - they have so many Italian car problems, the HVAC stepper motors in particular, that my common sense gets back in the way of my lust.

And Marcus really got me going with that Lancia Thema video too. Here I thought the VW Corrado was the first car with an speed-actuated rear spoiler but surely this came out first. So we have an attractive family sedan with a classy leather/wood interior, typical Italian car problems to deal with, AND a Ferrari engine to maintain in a car with likely little resale value. So impractical but so awesome at the same time!

Shawn... if you can find one that's well taken care of though, go for it. Yeah, it'd be more expensive to own than a Honda, but it's an absolutely fantastic sounding/looking/driving engine, and the car has that clean "smart" look to it, like a Studebaker Avanti. As long as you change the timing belt religously it is supposedly pretty reliable. I would have bought the one I "won" on ebay if the seller hadn't lied to me about all it's problems.

I had a girlfriend who drove one. She called it "the sofa with a rocket engine" because it was fast and comfortable.

SAAB never seemed to get the hydraulics squared away. I learned to speed-shift my '74 99 Wagonback because the slave cylinder seals would go out every few months. I always supposed that the Florida humidity got into the fluid. I would go months at a time speed-shifting - worked OK but must have been tough on the starter motor.

Buyer beware: You should do your homework prior to making a car purchase under the 'cash for clunkers' program. Various news outlets have highlighted some scams, both online and at the dealership that you should look out for.


SAAB hydraulic problems stem from one major cause, in our experience at the shop. Using the wrong brake fluid. Using DOT 3 fluid in the clutch and brake systems will destroy the seals in a matter of months to, at most, a year. The ONLY brake fluid to use in these cars is DOT4. My daily drivers for the last seven years have been various iterations of the classic 900 series, and I have had minimal hydraulic problems. (I don't think I can blame a chafed hose on fluid...)

I had a NA 1990 9000/5speed that I bought in the late 1990's as a commuter car. I loved that car. The ride was superb. The seats were long distance comfortable and the engine was smooth and willing. I later sold it to a friend a Saab enthusiast and I believe it is still on the road.

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