SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — My copilot, Jordan Melville, pokes at the pair of window switches between our seats as the heavily tinted windows slowly lower. They get down just in time for us to notice that the pair of police cruisers that snapped us into attention lack occupants. I suggest that there’s nothing like the local constabulary to motivate a little preventative maintenance, and he agrees. I’m driving his 1989 Saab 900 SPG and, despite the sun’s efforts to drag the temperature into the triple-digits, we keep the windows down.
The 900 SPG transitions smoothly from side to side, and the upgraded brakes scrub speed without any fuss when it’s necessary. A Bilstein suspension tightens things up, making the black hatchback even more of a canyon carver than it was when it rolled out of the factory at Trollhattan. The 900 makes all the right turbo noises, with turbo whistle and some flutter when I change gears. I drove a few of the cooking grade 900 Turbos just out of high school, so the SPG is a nice dose of turbo nostalgia. Roll on the throttle, spool, revel in the noise, clutch, choo-choo, repeat.
The turbocharger, a Swedish Dynamics Red Series T3/T4 hybrid, has lots of lag and a tendency to overboost on full throttle. We’re talking capital-L Lag. Even the bone stock 900 Turbos had a distinct difference between being on-boost and off-boost.
“You have to back off the throttle a little bit when it comes on boost,” I’m instructed, “since the turbo can produce a bit more boost than the stock APC [boost controller] can process.” It takes a few corners for me to find a rhythm the car is happy with. Hunting for gears is an exercise is patience as the shifter is more than a little bit vague. Since this wasn’t my first Swedish rodeo, things went pretty smoothly. Melville plans to install a Trionic 5 engine management system that was used on later 1994-1998 Saab turbo models. It’s not quite drop in, but it’ll handle the boost of the upgraded turbo and should eliminate the overboost issue.
You’d probably be surprised to learn that this car started out as a winter beater in 2011. Jordan’s uncle had always been a Saab guy, so when a classic 900 turned up he thought “why not?” It was pretty rough, with rusted fenders all the way around. It wasn’t until later that he learned he had something special. Jordan wants to get the car back to “stock plus” to see what it might have been like when it was new, then make some careful modifications. One of the most striking is the acid green wheels. They very nearly glow in person, and are the result of a three-part powder coating process. In addition to some serious repairs—Jordan found more than a bit of bondo—the wheels got a coat of black, a coat of clear, and a coat of green powder, which explains their luster.
As we wind up Big Cottonwood Canyon road, which leads to the Solitude Mountain Resort, I’m surprised to see that all of the electronics are still working, from the sunroof to the air conditioning. As a bit of a testament to the dependability of these cars, he noted that even though the body had succumbed to the elements, the accessories needed no reconditioning.
Often, when people think about a “classic Saab,” they think of this generation of the 900. The engine is oriented longitudinally, but “backwards,” with the flywheel connecting to the five-speed manual driving the front wheels at the front of the engine bay. Inside the cabin, the controls are laid out logically, with the main instrument panel angled towards the driver. The biggest curiosity is the location of the ignition cylinder, which is between the seats by the parking brake instead of on the steering column where it’s typically found. It makes sense once you get over the unfamiliarity of it. Too bad General Motors didn’t take that from Saab after it acquired the brand in 1990.
Jordan also owns a 2008 9-3 Turbo X Sport Combi, which is extra rare as the wagon made up less than half of the 600 units the U.S. market received. A limited-edition version of the 9-3, the Turbo X was powered by the 9-3 Aero’s 2.8-liter turbocharged V-6, but with the boost cranked the boost up from 8.7 psi to 11.6 psi and the addition of all-wheel drive via a Haldex unit. From the factory, the combination was good for 280 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque (up from the Aero’s 255 hp), but without a whiff of the torque steer the front-wheel drive Aero is known for. The Turbo X is also an homage to the original Saab 900 SPG, so it sports black paint and a set of three-arm alloy wheels.
The Turbo X Sport Combi is good, too. Really good. The Haldex system is an active one, so it consistently sends power to the rear wheels instead of reactively when traction is lost. It can also apportion torque side-to-side, which helps it to stay planted on nearly any road surface. On the softly winding corners of Big Cottonwood Canyon, I was surprised by not only the complete lack of torque steer, but how planted the stock wagon feels. It’s comfortable, and rides nicely, but there’s hardly any body motion. The weight transfers smoothly, and with the automatic the power comes in with a healthy push halfway through the powerband. It’s not the instant torque of modern direct-injected engines, but the Turbo X feels a lot like the old 900 SPG, just with the hard edges filed down. The Sport Combi is fast in a modern way, and the only thing hinting at its relative vintage is the green LCD display above the radio. Inside the cabin it’s all “classic” Saab, though, with the ignition between the seats, the instrument panel canted towards the driver just so, and a nice ergonomic layout. The wagon is as stock as they come, and Jordan plans to keep it that way.
We chatted a little bit about parts availability and maintenance on orphaned Saabs. The current state of affairs has left a dwindling number of NOS (New Old Stock) on the shelves of independents and parts shops, while a network of European repair shops continues to offer service where they can be found. In Salt Lake City Jordan tells me one of the local glass shops still has a mold for the Classic 900, meaning his SPG can still do daily duty on the often less than stellar roads. Some of the parts have been hard to find, he said, but thanks to the internet and a number of dedicated bulletin boards, it’s fairly easy to source parts. A lot of working on these cars falls to DIY type affairs, though Jordan suggests finding a reputable shop with experience in the quirky Swedes for more complex jobs.
One of the best parts about driving a Saab is the people. You get looks and thumbs-up from everyone, and whenever you stop to pump gas you’ll hear a few stories about how they had an uncle, or cousin, that had “one of those”. Good thing Jordan went from being one of those people whose uncle “had one” to proud owner keeping the love of the brand alive. If you want to get into something unique, with a great base of knowledge freely available, and a reasonable aftermarket, then a Saab turbo might be worth considering.