Second-hand: Saab 93 Viggen, 95 Aero
The contrasts between the Swedish automaker Saab's two higher-performance models revealed the right and wrong ways to get some extra zip from a car in this hightech age.
Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away
The contrasts between the Swedish automaker Saab’s two higher-performance models revealed the right and wrong ways to get some extra zip from a car in this hightech age.
The old North American formula, exemplified in steroid-pumped V8 muscle cars, was to aim for the best numbers on a drag strip.
Try to open up one of these babies from the 1970s on a two-lane curve, or stomp on the brakes to prevent a crash, and, well, you had better be a good driver and be under the wing of a high-ranking guardian angel.
The steering, brakes and suspension never measured up to what was under the hood.
Then along came the Volkswagen GTI, followed by hotted-up Japanese makes all with front-wheel drive.
Dubbed hot hatches and pocket rockets, these little cars had peppier engines, mated to a competent chassis that didn’t compromise their drivers.
Europeans introduced higher-end sporty models in the late ’80s cars like Saab’s 900 SPG Turbo.
I was a fan of the old (pre1994) 900, one of the most thoughtfully designed mid-size cars of its day. There was a reason for every one of the quirky design and engineering details. It was a Volvo with style.
The SPG added more power and firmed up the suspension, but the car still felt balanced as easy to drive around town as on twisty back roads.
Then, brought under General Motors’ control, Saab introduced a new 900 for 1994.
The platform and optional V6 engine were borrowed from Opel, GM’s German arm, and the designers gave the styling a Saab look. These models were updated last year and renamed 93.
Year 2000 added a higher-performance Viggen series, complete with a Saab-issue 230 hp high-pressure turbo 2.3 L four that has a flat 258 lbft torque peak between 2,500 and 4,000 rpm.
My Lightning Blue tester, with its 17inch alloy wheels, low-profile performance tires and subtle bodyside cladding was an eyecatcher.
Sounds like a prelude to fun.
Here’s what the 93 Viggen brochure says: “Boosting power and torque is only part of the task. The real challenge is to make the engine and the entire car cope with the increase. Clutch, gearbox and chassis as well as suspension, steering and brakes. All have to be in tune to create a harmonious whole.”
No one else could have said that better.
One could call this the enthusiast’s credo.
But is this what Saab did with the Viggen?
Unlike most highend cars, the $49,900 Viggen ($51,525, as tested) does not have traction or stability control.
Stomp on the gas and the front wheels do a snake dance that demands a firm hand on the wheel. Try this on a wet road and, well, you may need that guardian angel again.
When combined with an abrupt clutch and clunky five-speed shift gate, the go-forward experience becomes decidedly retrograde.
And, unlike just about every other manual transmission car on the market, the 93 does not have a safety interlock for the clutch. Turn the ignition key with the car in gear (most likely Reverse) without pressing down on the clutch pedal, and the car will move, as I discovered when I hit a wall.
Once underway, the cross-scored disc brakes and responsive steering are up to the job, but the ride is harsh on Toronto’s poor pavement.
Amazingly comfortable front seats can’t make up for the narrow interior, but at least there’s plenty of cargo room.
I wondered if Saab’s engineers had been dismissed, until I spent some time behind the wheel of the brand’s other performance model, the 95 Aero.
The larger 95 series, introduced for 1999 to replace the 9000, is also based on an Opel platform, but Saab’s staff was given more time to make this car live up to the brand’s reputation for intelligent design.
The solid body structure and long suspension articulation mean the Aero, powered by the same highpotency four, can do a graceful ballet on demanding roads without rattling its driver or occupants.
The wide interior and comfortable back seat make this a true four-adult tourer and is only 176 mm longer than a 93.
Steering is just as precise and, best of all, when the driver stomps on the gas, the car moves forward, straight forward, with purpose and dignity.
Costing $3,400 more than the 93 Viggen, the 95 Aero four-door sedan justifies its high price with overall prowess. It is simply not good enough any more to offer a hot powerplant; a car needs the moves to go with it just like the brochure said.
Proving that Saab’s quality efforts are paying off, Consumer Reports magazine, in its April auto issue, notes that the Saab 95 earned a much-better-than-average repair history in its first year.
93 Viggen: $49,900/46
93 Viggen convertible: $63,500/53
95 Aero: $53,500/53
Air tax: $100
* Residual percentage for a 36month lease, as supplied by the current ALG Canadian Percentage Guide.