With Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne eying SAAB, and SAAB denying it, and others reporting China’s Geely being interested, it seemed appropriate to explore the history of this famous but slow-selling marque. SAAB, or Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolaget, is currently just another GM nameplate to shill their other cars through (mostly derived from Opel and Chevy platforms, at the moment). When formed in the late 1940s, however, SAAB was one of the most unique and innovative automakers in the world. Having been primarily an airplane manufacturer, they brought an outsider perspective to a landscape of conservative auto manufacturing with such wild features as front-wheel-drive and a two-stroke engine (which is small and makes a lot of power at the expense of emissions and noise). It was also much smaller than the aircraft-carrier-sized Buicks most Americans were used to.
Needless to say, as a small, bizarre foreign car, most folks in this country just ignored the little SAABs. That’s a shame. The original SAAB, the 92, was an amazing little car. It was so aerodynamic that it matches one of the fastest cars in the world today, the Koenigsegg CCX, at 0.30 CD. (That’s also kind of a biased comparison, because with computers, even a modern Honda Accord can get a 0.30 CD. But for 1949, that was at least twice as good as most cars on the market.) It was designed by a bunch of aeronautical engineers who’d never made a car before, and as mentioned before was a virtual test-bed of new ideas. The front-mounted, transverse (across the car, rather than placed on the centerline) engine powering the front wheels allowed for amazing traction, allowing the little underpowered car to win rally races on snow and dirt despite being up against bigger, faster opponents. This started a performance and rally-winning heritage that lasted for quite a while.
The car was gradually upgraded, with the 93 and later cars getting different engines and slightly different engineering. These were the cars that made motorsports history. In 1962 and 1963, Erik Carlsson won the Monte Carlo Rally in a SAAB 96, an outright victory, beating out the Mini Coopers in their early rally outings.
Eventually, the cars went to a longitudinally-mounted (along the centerline) setup but with front wheel drive, which was a layout that only one other automaker, Audi, adopted. This setup eliminated the problems of torque-steer by using equal-length driveshafts to the front wheels, a significant advantage when the output of the engines increased with turbocharging in the 1970s.
Take the SAAB 99 Turbo. At the time of its introduction, turbocharging was pretty exotic, used mainly on Formula 1 cars and the high-performance Porsche 930. Pulling 135 HP out of a 2.0L engine doesn’t seem like much today, but it was a marked improvement over the stock 110 HP – and more importantly, torque was MASSIVELY increased to 160 ft-lbs. Sure, the 0-60 times were nothing to write home about, at about 9.5 seconds, but this was also the late 70s, where finding any car worth driving was pretty difficult. It was ahead of its time and has an enthusiastic following today.
With the definitive 900 replacing the 99, SAAB became one of the only enthusiast-oriented front wheel drive cars on the planet. So what happened? SAAB began its long, slow tailspin with the arrival of the 9000, which was co-engineered with Fiat, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia. It was entirely different than the 900, not just an evolution of its design, and it lost a lot of the character that the 900 had. SAAB was purchased by GM shortly after this in 1990, and the 9000 was replaced by the 9-5, which was built on a GM chassis that was designed for the SAAB and its soon-to-be brother, the Opel Vectra. This led the 900 to be replaced by the 9-3, which was also built on the Vectra platform.
If you’ve followed the story so far, you’d realize that at this point, GM had both of the SAABs they were selling on non-SAAB, GM platforms. And they were the same platform! Basically, you could get small GM or larger GM. That is what SAABs were by this point. And then they proceeded to sell the exact same cars until pretty much now. The 9-5 has been on sale, virtually unchanged, since 1997.
To be perfectly fair, SAAB did try to rectify the situation in 1999 with the release of the 9-3 Viggen. Named after one of the jet-powered fighter aircraft that SAAB created (note the aerospace SAAB is completely unrelated to the automotive division, which
is was 100% owned by GM), the Viggen’s turbocharged 2.3L mill produced 222 HP and hit 60 mph in the low 6-second range. Produced most notably in a bright blue color, the Viggen seemed like a true Swedish sportscar in many respects: powerful turbo engine, quirky details, no all-wheel-drive despite a snowy native climate. However, the biggest fault with the car (due to its transverse engine) was torque steer. Get into the turbo’s boost, and the steering wheel would thrash about as the wheels clamored for traction and your arms were pulled from their sockets. SAAB had lost the script for what they were supposed to do. It had become a wayward company, lost in a blizzard of GM’s corporate parentage.
That’s clearly not how you market an automaker who is supposed to be fundamentally different as its primary selling point. In our opinion SAAB stopped living up to its own modus operandi when the 900 died. Without unique cars to sell, it’s just another GM brand, and that’s why its upcoming demise or sale to an unknown party is not terribly troubling. It’s just sad.
[Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia]