1997 Saab 900

In 1986, Saab ran a trio of 9000 sedans at the Talladega

trioval superspeedway in Alabama for nearly three weeks

straight, in the process setting a series of endurance records.

A Swedish car, in the heart of NASCAR territory? You bet. The

Swedes had so much fun they repeated the process last fall with

a troika of the smaller 900 model.

They have now launched a commemorative edition, called the

Talladega Sport package. If I'm reading the order guide right,

it's available on the two or four-door hatchback 900s in both S

and uplevel SE trim, but only on the 900 SE convertible.

Package content varies depending on which model and trim level

you start with, but it's essentially a dress-up deal: polished

seven-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels, 205/50ZR16 Michelin tires,

color-keyed front and rear spoilers, Talladega script across the

back — that sort of thing.

In my test car, it was bolted to an SE two-door hatch. This

variant is offered only with the 2.0 litre twin-cam 16-valve

turbocharged four.

(You also must check the order guide carefully when looking at

engines in the 900 family: a 2.3 litre naturally aspirated four,

with 150 horsepower, and a 2.5 litre V6, with 170 horses, are

the other possibilities, but not all are available in each body

style/trim level permutation.)

The new-generation Saab 900 may be based on a European General

Motors Opel Vectra platform, a result of the GM takeover of Saab

a few years ago. But it is still, unmistakably, a Saab. To

aficionados, that means character, style, logic. To others, it

means weird.

Start with styling. Saabs have always been inspired by

aerodynamics — SAAB stands for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget,

i.e. Swedish Airplane Company Limited. They began building

aircraft in the '30s, and cars in the '40s. Wings and propellers

apart, not much changed.

Today, Saabs are still shaped like aerofoils, with low front

ends, bulging middles and tapered backs. All styling is a

personal taste thing. I like it, at least one employee of GM of

Canada thinks it's ugly. But even she must admit the 900 has a

reason for looking like this.

Typically, only Saab builds upscale hatchbacks these days.

This body style makes huge amounts of sense, but for some reason

most North American upscalers don't want to be perceived as

being practical.

Even getting into the 900 shows unique thinking: the door

handles are solid bars, not flaps, which let you get a proper

grip. Saab refers to this as a safety feature, since it makes it

easier for crash rescuers to wrench open the doors.

Inside, the first thing that may surprise you is the location

of the ignition switch on the floor, behind the gearshift.

This is another Saab tradition, as is a locking mechanism that

prevents the key from being removed unless the shifter is in

reverse. (This tidbit is in the post-graduate course for parking

lot valets.)

The 900 interior is very narrow, but has gobs of room in all

other directions. The seats leather-covered in my test car

are supremely comfortable and heated front and rear, although

there appears to be only one setting.

The back seat is among the most habitable in the industry, and

offers a three-point belt even for the middle occupant. It's

anchored to a substantial crosscar beam, which folds when the

seat back is folded (the headrestraints need not be removed to

do this, by the way). The left third of the seat can be stowed

separately, if the pass-through into the trunk is not big enough

to carry everybody's skis.

I was surprised to see a plank of wood across the 900

Talladega's dash. This hardly fits Saab's "do it by the

engineer's book" philosophy; you let marketing guys into the

product planning meetings, and this is what you get.

The colorful and legible analogue gauges look Saab-normal,

until you push a button labelled Black Panel. The needles on all

the gauges except the speedo drop to zero, and the corresponding

dash lights go out. Saab says it's aircraft practice to only

show necessary information, so as not to distract the driver. If

any gauge falls out of limits, the needle pops back up again.

Cute, but it seems a bit over the top to me.

The air/con system has enough buttons to run a nuclear

reactor. Make a big pot of tea and sit down with the owner's

manual. Even with the fan set to high, I couldn't get it to

develop much force.

The location of the cup holder, in the console well behind the

driver's right elbow, suggests they really don't want the driver

to use it.

The electric adjustment mechanism for the outside mirrors

appears based around the convex glass used in Europe. With the

flat left-side glass legislated here, they can't be adjusted far

enough out to cover adequately the rear view. Otherwise,

visibility is good.

The turbo engine has virtually no grunt below 3500 r.p.m..

Once the boost gauge swings up into the orange, the car starts

to move. It's not the neck-snapping lurch of some turbos, but a

strong, steady urge. It doesn't ever feel completely linear, as

if it's being slightly choked. Strange.

The gearbox is, sadly, another Saab tradition: it's really

clunky to use, no tactile pleasure at all. I even ground the

gears a couple of times. With the engine's narrow power band and

the odd gearbox, the Saab 900 is a difficult car to drive

smoothly in town. It's at its best on the open road.

Saab believes in steady understeer as the basic handling

characteristic. Turnin isn't as crisp as some sports sedan

enthusiasts will prefer. The tall seating position exacerbates

the car's body roll. Cornering power is high, but it may take

some time to get a feel for the car's limits.

The ride is firm, bordering on hard on some types of pavement.

Bigger bumps are swallowed handily; it's on the coarser surfaces

where it gets a bit harsh.

The solid-feeling construction is reflected in Saab's

outstanding crash protection results — proof a car doesn't need

tonnes of roadhugging weight to be safe. Generally good fit and

finish were marred in my tester by the padded horn boss, which

sat about a quarter of an inch proud of the wheel itself, and by

a buzz in the dash that was energized by loud bass notes from

the sound system.

The Saab 900 experience starts at just under $30,000. My 900

Talladega hatch represents just about the other end of the

spectrum. An SE Turbo three-door hatch is $37,500. The Talladega

package adds $1,600. Toss in the $1,275 power sunroof and you're

well into the low 40s competitive with the bland Lexus ES300,

the mainstream BMW 328 and GM's other interesting European, the

Cadillac Catera.

The Saab 900 any Saab is a difficult car for a reviewer to

recommend, or to reject. Even if you love cars with personality,

it doesn't necessarily mean you like this car's personality.

I guess it is, as Saab's advertising slogan says, a matter of

finding your own road. Then finding out whether there's a Saab

on it.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at 4 p.m.

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