The eighties were good to Saab. The airplane maker turned car company introduced the seminal 900 just before in 1979 to an audience of yuppies fed up with the old guard's fleet of BMW and Mercedes-Benz products. The 900 was the ugly duckling of the premium car market, but its iconoclastic character endeared it to a generation of up-and-coming professionals that appreciated its practicality and performance.
Famous for its optional turbocharger, the 900 became a strong seller. Its design lacked the elegance of its BMW and Benz competitors, but the shape was unique and lauded for its functionality. Commonly ordered as a hatchback, the front-wheel-drive 900 offered the spacious cargo hold and winter traction that other premium makes lacked. It quickly became an exclusive cult classis, and was 007's car of choice in John Gardner's first James Bond novel.
Of course, the 900 wasn't perfect. Though front-wheel-drive, its engine was mounted longitudinally. This necessitated a longer hood that reduced available passenger space. Its oddly shaped windshield offered poor visibility from some angles. Sharing many components with the older Saab 99, the 900 couldn't offer all of the comforts and features of the most technologically sophisticated cars of its time. The 900 was Saab's only model for several years, and though it was offered with many different bodies, Saab wanted a new model to increase production volume to a more profitable level and introduce the Saab brand to new customers.
For all of these reasons, Saab expanded its model range to two distinctly different vehicles with the introduction of the 9000 in 1985. The 9000 was a brand new car complete with major technological advances. Its transversely mounted engine gave the interior so much space that the EPA classified it as a large car even though it was slightly shorter than the 900. A more conventional view out the windshield made more drivers comfortable inside. The 9000 was an impressive and thoughtfully designed car, with none of the faults and most of the character of the 900.
Though its appearance was signature Saab and its turbocharged four-cylinder was familiar, the 9000 was underpinned by a platform that had been influenced more by Italy than by Saab's native Sweden. Saab was a tiny company in the mid-eighties, and it lacked the resources to develop a car as advanced as the 9000 on its own. Thus, the 9000 platform was developed jointly by Saab, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, and Fiat. The latter three companies were Italian mainstays that helped shoulder development costs.
The partnership resulted in four all-new cars sharing a common platform. The Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma, and Lancia Thema were the new models from Italy that were created under the joint venture that saw the birth of the Saab 9000. When the 9000 arrived, it was a more modern and competitive car than it ever could have been had Saab tried to take on the entire project independently.
Unveiled at a Swedish zoo on May 24, 1984, the Saab 9000 was a whole different animal from the 900. It was made available to the public for the 1985 model year and at first was offered only as a 5-door hatchback. Motivation came from a 2.0-liter turbo four, making 175hp. That was more power than the standard 900 Turbo, reinforcing the 9000's image as a more upscale Saab. Automatic and manual transmissions were offered.
The interior of the 9000 was a huge improvement over the 900. Though the styling and basic layout of the two cabins were similar, the 9000's inside had a modern look and feel that the 900 lacked. During the eighties, buttons equated to luxury in high-end cars. With that said, the 9000 and its myriad display of little black buttons may have been a bit too luxurious for its own good. Most of the controls were arranged logically, though, and the wraparound dash at least placed the tiny buttons within easy reach. As soon as owners figured out how to operate all of the car's features, the ergonomically shaped dash allowed easy access to primary features like the radio and climate control. It's worth noting that the 9000 had its ignition switch mounted in the conventional steering column location instead of between the front seats as on the 900.
Thanks to the transversely mounted engine, the interior was cavernous. Some of the most comfortable and supportive seats in the auto industry made long drives painless, and the hatch could swallow enough luggage for a lengthy family vacation. Furthering the 9000's family car capabilities were its focus on safety and the good gas mileage it was able to get through the use of small engines that used turbocharging to efficiently produce the power of a much larger engine. The Saab 9000 was a flexible car that could be used as a family's getaway vehicle, as a luxurious but fuel-sipping commuter, or as anything in between.
The 9000 sold well enough for Saab to continue its development for 13 years until it was discontinued after 1998. For the 1988 model year, a sedan was introduced. Called the 9000 CD, it offered formal styling to please picky buyers who viewed the outward appearance of a hatchback as looking too cheap. The 9000 was designed by Björn Envall and the Italian Giorgetto Giugiaro, the latter arguably the most prolific car designer that ever walked the planet. Their hatchback lines were crisp and tidy, with an attractive European flair. The design was undeniably a good one, but demand remained for a more conventional 4-door sedan so the 9000 CD was introduced and continued in production until 1995.
The entire series was redesigned in 1993. The redesigned models looked sleeker, with a lower nose and much less evident hatchback. In profile, the 5-door models resembled a sedan with a very short rear deck, resulting in the dropping demand and eventual discontinuation of the 9000 sedan. When it was updated for 1993, the 9000 series received a new set of names. The base model hatchback became the 9000 CS, with the 9000 CSE slotted a trim level above the CS. Likewise, the 9000 CD sedan became a base model with the 9000 CDE trim line ranked above it and featuring more equipment.
Though turbo fours remained the most popular propulsion devices in the redesigned 9000, a V6 was offered for a few years. A 24-valve, quad-cam unit of 3.0-liters, the V6 was a great engine but marketed poorly. The V6-powered cars sold only in small numbers. A more powerful 2.3-liter turbo four was offered in the high-performance 9000 Aero. With 225hp at 5,500rpm and 252lb-ft of torque available at an impressively low 1,800rpm, the Aero brought BMW M3 levels of performance to the Swedish brand. The Aero was discontinued after 1997, but the high output four cylinder lasted through until the end of the 9000 series in the 1998 9000 CSE.
The 9000 was the last production Saab developed before GM took control of half the company in 1990. It was succeeded by the 9-5, a great car but one that was too conventional to wear the Saab name as naturally as the 9000 had. The 9000 and 900 names were both phased out after 1998, ushering in a new breed of Saab that had been diluted by GM influence. The imagination that created such endearing vehicles as the 9000 had gone, but the durable and long lasting cars would remain common sights on the road for many years after.Sources:
Emge, Ryan. 'The Saab 9000 CS: 1993-1998.' Saab History Web.4 Aug 2009. http://www.saabhistory.com/2008/12/01/the-saab-9000-cs-1993-1998/.
'The Saab 9000.' Saab Central Web.4 Aug 2009. http://saabcentral.com/features/9000_index.php.By Evan Acuña