From the Dec. 2006 issue
Posted in Buyer's Guides
The original Saab 900 Turbo’s 111 mph top speed may not seem so fast today, but when the car was released nearly 30 years ago that figure was impressive. As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s and eventually the ’90s, the 900 Turbo kept pace with the times and remained a favorite. The cars have aged well, making them a great option for experiencing one of Europe’s finest machines for mere pennies on the dollar.
The classic shape of an old-school Saab 900 Turbo is still unmistakable. When the car was first introduced, its long nose, curved windshield and sloping hatchback shape even made the often-jaded journalists of the time call the car sexy. Not since the days of the Italian-penned Sonett III could Saab claim to have something so stunning to look at.
Unlike the Sonett, whose diminutive two-seat frame didn’t prove practical for most buyers, the 1979-’93 900 Turbo offered those sexy looks with railcar-like utility, battle-ready ruggedness, and a pressure-boosted turbo engine that gave its passengers a swift kick in the butt. However, the 900 Turbo was still somewhat odd looking compared to its contemporaries.
Saabs have always been quirky cars—what’s true today was true back then. Since the introduction of their 92 model back in 1950, Saab cars have been known more by their odd styling and practicality than for any sporting car nature.
The happenings during the end of the 1970s changed that general opinion. The Saab 99, a car known for hauling people while keeping them safe, eventually gained a turbocharged engine option in time for the 1978 model year.
Just a year later, Saab debuted the 900 model line. The high point was the 900 Turbo. The look of the first Saab 900 Turbo was an evolution of the 99 Turbo; from the A-pillar back, the two cars were almost identical. In producing the 900, Saab added 2 inches to the wheelbase and almost 9 inches to the overall length, measures that helped to better offset the stubby look that the 99 model adopted in its later years. This lengthening also provided more room in the engine bay, which had suffered from a lack of space since the turbo was added.
The additional inches allowed for revised looks, and the 900 Turbo was available in four body styles during its model run. The three- and five-door hatchback versions were sold from 1979 to 1980. In 1981, a new, more conventional four-door sedan replaced the five-door hatchback and stayed in the Turbo lineup through 1985.
A convertible first saw U.S. shores in late 1986, sold incredibly well and, in fact, continued into the 1994 model year after the new generation GM-platform 900 was released.
Despite all of these options, by far the most popular body was the classic three-door hatchback; it was sold every year that the car was offered.
Taking a Closer Look
Under the front-hinged hood of the 900 Turbo sat Saab’s workhorse engine, an inline four-cylinder that featured a 45-degree slant toward the passenger side of the car. Three basic variations of this 1985cc powerplant were offered, the first being the original 99-sourced B engine, which saw duty in the 1979 through 1981 model years. For the 1982 model year, Saab introduced the eight-valve H-spec engine. A twin-cam, 16-valve version of the H engine became standard across the Turbo line in late 1985.
Turbo engine compression ratios were juggled throughout the model years. Both the B and eight-valve H engines featured a low 7.2:1 ratio that was compatible with the low octane fuel available in the U.S. at the time. The 16-valve H engines benefitted from better fuel and boost management systems and incorporated a compression ratio of 8.5:1. This move dramatically improved off-boost performance and drivability.
Two different fuel injection systems were used on the 900 Turbo, with eight-valve cars incorporating the Bosch Continuous Injection system, while the later 16-valve cars used Bosch’s LH-Jetronic system. Starting in 1982, Saab began using their Automatic Performance Control system for managing turbo boost levels.
APC was an advanced boost control system at the time, continuously sensing detonation and knock and adjusting the level of peak turbo boost during acceleration. If poor fuel was used and the system detected detonation, peak boost levels were lowered to a safe limit. At the same time, if high-grade fuel was used, APC would allow for higher turbo boost levels, thus increasing engine performance.
Regardless of fuel and turbo management systems, a 4-into-1, cast-iron exhaust manifold was connected directly to the turbocharger. B and early H engines used a simple pressure regulator to limit peak boost to 7.1 psi, while APC cars had basic boost set from 8.7 to 10.8 psi, depending on the year. The APC pressure-actuating switch was set at 13.8 psi.
With so many changes to basic engine components, it’s no wonder that power ratings were juggled throughout the years. Early B- and H-engine cars were rated at 135 horsepower and 160 lb.-ft. of torque. The APC system didn’t change the maximum horsepower numbers, but torque figures ranged from 160 to 170 lb.-ft. depending on the fuel used.
The later 16-valve engines saw a nice jump in power, with outputs reaching 160 horsepower and 188 lb.-ft. of torque. Thanks to their revised SPG modules, the limited-production SPG models made as much as 175 horsepower. And finally, when the Commemorative Edition 900 Turbo was introduced for 1993, power was again increased, this time to 185 horsepower.
Like the preceding Saab 99 model, the Saab 900’s transmission was placed underneath the engine. The clutch was mounted at the front and the differential mounted at the rear. Unlike similar arrangements used on the original Mini and Lamborghini Miura, the Saab’s transmission and engine used their own unique oil supplies, eliminating the problem of one unit receiving contamination from the other unit in case of failure.
Three transmissions were offered in 900 Turbos, starting with the original four-speed 99 units. For 1981, a revised five-speed was brought in. Strangely, acceleration suffered with the new five-speed unit, as the shorter and closer gearing didn’t allow the car to remain in the mid-range boost. In addition to the manual transmissions, a three-speed automatic was offered in the Turbo, and remained unchanged throughout the life of the vehicle. This was perhaps the 900 Turbo’s worst option, as the automatic greatly sapped performance.
Underneath 900 Turbos was an independent front suspension that used pressed steel upper and lower A-arms. The lower A-arms incorporated a pivoting lower spring perch that was designed to eliminate any binding of the coil spring during compression. Both A-arms were mounted with large cast-aluminum brackets with rubber bushings, and thin shims were used for adjusting alignment, including camber and caster.
A rigid axle was used in the back, and was located with upper and lower longitudinal links. A transverse-mounted Panhard bar was used to locate the axle side-to-side. Unlike the front, however, there were no provisions for adjusting the rear suspension’s alignment.
While the Saab 900 Turbo stayed true to its safety roots throughout its lifetime, Saab engineers designed something with a little more go for the 1985-’91 model years. The 900 SPG—known as the Aero in Europe—was based on the 900 Turbo three-door body, but it looked a little different thanks to its aerodynamic body cladding.
Three-spoke aluminum wheels were found at all four corners, while a leather three-spoke steering wheel set the tone inside. To keep up with its sporting looks, a 160-horsepower engine lived under the hood. By 1987, that number was bumped up by five, and another 10 horsepower were added for 1990 thanks to a new Mitsubishi-sourced TE05 turbocharger. Underneath, the SPG rolled along with revised anti-roll bars, springs and shock absorbers.
Saab’s last hurrah for the original 900 Turbo was the 1993 Commemorative Edition. This was the car’s last year before the introduction of the new GM-based 900 model, and the company put together a little something special: Engine output was up to 185 horsepower, while the interior was set off with tan leather seats and a wood dash. A lower and stiffer suspension was also fitted. For fans of the stout Swede, this marked the end of the line for the classic 900 Turbo. Only 325 examples were produced.
And a Strong Seller, Too
Production numbers for the 900 model line peaked in 1984, when Saab produced 88,188 of the cars, many of them Turbos. While 1984 proved to be the best year for the 900, more than 900,000 examples rolled off the assembly line, making the car Saab’s most popular model for the time.