1991 Saab 9000 Turbo Challenges the Sports Sedan Norm

From the February 1991 issue of Car and Driver.

The Saab 9000 Turbo is an old friend—long-legged, accommodating, intelligent, well built, and sexy. The sort of athletic child you’d expect from, say, the union of Erik Carlsson and Ingrid Bergman. How good is the 9000 Turbo? Since its United States introduction in 1985, it has landed on C/D‘s 10Best list four times.

Last year, however, the 9000 Turbo was not-so-gently nudged off its perch. The reason? As the sexy Swede’s price rocketed into the lofty $32,000 region, there was no correspondingly lofty increase in performance.

Now the 9000 Turbo has a dear shot at regaining its misplaced glory. Why? The answer is simple: a 21-percent increase in power.

Telling you that this 3170-pound five­-passenger sedan is fast is like telling you that David Lynch is a degree or two off­-center. Dump the clutch at only 2700 rpm and the Saab’s front tires do a reasonable impersonation of Chernobyl. Back off a couple of hundred rpm and this car will drag you to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds—and that includes two upshifts, as second gear carries the engine into its 6000-rev limiter at 59 mph.

That zero-to-60 time is quicker than any we’ve witnessed for a mass-produced five-passenger sedan, save the $60,000 BMW M5. Quicker than a Taurus SHO. Quicker than an Infiniti Q45. In fact, 6.4 seconds is the time it takes a Toyota MR2 Turbo to tackle 60 mph.

The 9000 Turbo’s newly pumped-up pees are the upshot of more displacement (2.3 liters rather than last year’s 2.0 liters) and an increase in turbo boost (14.5 psi, as opposed to 10.9 pounds in the last Turbo we tested). The iron block, as it happens, is entirely new, greatly strengthened in the crankshaft area and now equipped with counter­rotating balance shafts, which deal spectacularly with the not-so-subtle pulses of 90mm-wide pistons pumping up and down through a 90mm stroke.

Highs: Zooms to 60, cavernous cabin, amenities standard.

For 1991, this larger turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine produces 200 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 244 pound-feel of torque at an amazingly low 2000 rpm. That’s more torque than is produced by the V-8 in a Mercedes 420SEL.

In day-to-day driving, what zings you most is not so much the Saab’s zero-to-60-mph prowess—the power of Scruttock’s ale—but rather its off-the-line capability and its 50-to-70-mph passing potential.

Accelerating from rest is no longer characterized by that maddening one- or two-second bog as the turbo spools up—a trait that began to drive us berserk in last year’s Turbo. What you want when the traffic light snaps green is power that manifests shortly after you’ve let out the clutch in first gear—which, in this car, works out to about 1750 rpm. At those revs, the old engine could produce 162 pound-feet of torque; the new one has 221 pound-feet on tap. It’s the difference between having the national anthem sung by Roseanne Barr and Kate Smith. There’s no longer any need to slip the clutch to keep the revs and boost on the boil. In fact, there’s enough power here that, in the rain, you can spin the front tires through first, second, and third gears. (Okay, that’s an odd thing to want to do, but demonstrate it to your neighbor who owns a Mercedes 190E and you’ll remember the look on his face for the next six months.)

With no fancy footwork, you can tap full boost as low as 2000 rpm (rather than 3000 rpm in the old Turbo). From there until the power peak of 5000 rpm, this engine pulls like the heartiest husky in the Iditarod. Torque steer is evident in first gear only—a side-to-side skittishness that is not alarming but does encourage you to keep both hands on the wheel. On a two-lane road, when you’re lugging along in fourth gear at only 45 mph—stuck behind a diesel Chevette—there is still so much passing power that a downshift to third isn’t necessary. And a fifth-gear 50-to-70-mph sprint requires only 6.8 seconds—your exposure in the passing lane is briefer than a Toyota MR2 Turbo’s.

Lows: Rubbery shifter, input-resistant climate control.

Having wisely identified the hatchback 9000 Turbo as its dedicated performance sedan, Saab now adds as standard equipment a “sport chassis,” available only on this model. The package includes spiffy 6.5-by-16-inch three-spoke alloy wheels, 50-series Z-rated Pirelli P700 rubber, a lower ride height (0.8 inch lower at the nose, 0.4 inch lower at the tail), more aggressive struts and springs, and a marginally fatter front anti-roll bar.

With those tires and springs, the ride—as you might well predict—is harsher this year, yet the car’s ultimate 0.77-g grasp on the earth’s crust is no more tenacious than that of the 9000CD we tested last June. Mostly what you get out of the deal is less lateral roll and a steering system that responds more crisply to minor steering inputs. It’s a fair trade-off as long as you don’t live in Michigan, New York, or Pennsylvania, where the roads are something out of a Road Warrior remake.

For 1991, the Turbo looks more like a road warrior, too. The window frames, the door handles, and the rub-strip moldings are now all flat black. The bumpers are finally body-colored (but only on red, white, and black Turbos). And the rocker panels have been restyled to give the car the radically pinched waist of a Choi Kwang-Do instructor.

Having worked so diligently to improve the Turbo this year, we wish Saab had also massaged the manual shift linkage. The fiddly reverse-lockout collar is an anachronism, and the throws still feel unnecessarily rubbery. Part of what we’re feeling is the Playtex-pliable bushings that Saab has always used to isolate both the engine and the transmission. In practice, that isolation is nearly total; what you hear and feel of this engine is mostly a distant throb of cam chains. But when you suddenly lift from full-throttle stabs in first through third gears, you get two inches of annoying driveline lash.

Cockpits in luxury cars must pass our informal tactile test. Does the driver’s hand ever fall on a surface that feels cheesy or insubstantial? The 9000, with its acres of standard Bridge of Weir leather—including its new-for-1991 leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob, and shift boot—borders on tactile and olfactory overload. Even the inner linings of the A-pillars are covered in a plush, velvety fabric; it’s like rubbing the inside of a rabbit’ ear.

This year, the 9000 Turbo’s cockpit includes as standard equipment almost every option in the automotive universe: power windows and locks, eight-way power-adjustable front seats with memory, a steel (rather than glass) sunroof, heated mirrors and seats, a driver-side air bag, a burglar alarm, an eight-speaker Clarion AM/FM/cassette player with seven-band graphic equalizer, cruise control, the aforementioned leather, and…well, you get the drift. In fact, the only options are a $765 automatic transmission and $535 metallic paint.

What’s more important is that all Saab 9000 hatchbacks are a miracle of interior packaging. The back seat is on the northern side of capacious—the master bedroom in the Trump Princess comes to mind. Three adults back there will ride in more comfort than they would in either the Lexus LS400 or the lnfiniti Q45. What’s more, with the Saab’s rear seats folded flat and the parcel shelf removed, you’ve got 57 cubic feet of storage area to play with, all of it lined in silky black carpet. One afternoon, when, as usual, our technical director had confiscated our resident Ford pickup truck for use at his new house, our red Saab was pressed into U-Haul duty. It swallowed a Toro 105 Plus lawn mower, a dining-room chair, and six sacks of groceries. Why anyone would consider buying the angular, less practical 9000CD is—to us, at least—an unsolved mystery.

The only serious ergonomic flaw inside the 9000 is its obdurate automatic climate-control system, which, like Hal in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has its own quirky agenda. It selects whatever blower speed it considers appropriate (usually the Hurricane Hugo setting—a fine facsimile of the Lockheed wind tunnel during Winston Cup tests) and is extremely cumbersome to override. Moreover, the ten tiny ventilation and defroster buttons, positioned to the right of Hal, require more squinting and scrutiny than is altogether appropriate in a car capable of speeds that are more than twice the highest U.S. limit.

Mechanically, dynamically, and cosmetically, however, it is difficult to find much wrong with the Saab 9000 Turbo. The cockpit is so quiet that you can hold hushed conversations at 100 mph. This car is an accomplished long­-distance tourer from which you’ll emerge, after a 700-mile day, anxious to get back behind the wheel in order to search for a four-star restaurant. It is certainly quicker and roomier than the few luxury sports sedans with which it shares its market niche—such cars as the Alfa Romeo 164S, the 1990 Audi 200, the BMW 525i, the Mercedes 190E 2.6, and the Sterling 827SLi.

And yet, as is the case with the Lotus Esprit Turbo SE, there’s something unseemly about a four-cylinder engine in a car with a Rodeo Drive price tag. (Three editors noted that another three grand would put them behind the wheel of a V-8-powered Lexus LS400.) This, in Saab’s case, brings up a problem of perception. As any marketing guy worth his weight in focus groups will tell you, a Rolex and a Timex both keep perfect time, yet you’d clearly rather have one strapped to your wrist than the other. The Saab is quicker than the Lexus, but it doesn’t have those four additional cylinders so critically important to the luxury ­car crowd.

The Verdict: Quick, slick fun, but pricey for a four-cylinder.

Never mind. For 1991, we’ve come to think of the Saab 9000 Turbo as the grand limousine of sports sedans. Rolex, Timex, who cares? This car keeps perfectly good time. And it makes time even better.


Counterpoint

There seems to be a common misconception floating around the ozone concerning the Saab 9000 Turbo, and I’d like to aim a verbal Exocet at it right now. The 9000 Turbo’s sensible sheetmetal has a lot of folks thinking that Saabs are no longer quirky, ruggedly individualistic, fun, or whatever it was that once made them the darlings of the up-and-comers.

Think again, buckaroos. Do you know of any other $33,000 luxury sedan with the chutzpah to offer only a four-cylinder engine? Or any with a five-door hatchback body and a folding rear seat to encourage station­ wagon abuse? Or any other automobile this size with an interior anywhere near as cavernous? No way. Add in front-wheel drive and 200 of the most eager turbocharged horses on the planet and you’re way out there where the unconventional roam.

But you know what? This car really works. The 9000 Turbo is at once smooth and visceral, refined and very, very quick. And I really like it. Sure, there are more conventional ways of achieving the same results. But the 9000 Turbo is Saab’s one-of-a-kind answer. Call it anything you want—just don’t call it mainstream. —Rich Ceppos


The new 9000 Turbo is yet another Saab that’s probably too rational for its own good. Here’s a car that’s thirteen percent more roomy inside and ten percent trimmer outside than the justifiably successful Lexus LS400. It can out-accelerate a BMW 535i and deliver 27 percent better fuel economy. It comes equipped with a rich selection of creature comforts, yet it costs less than any other sedan of its capacity and speed.

Unfortunately, the automotive values of most buyers change as their sights move up the price scale. Luxury-car clients treasure engine smoothness more than parsimony. They will gladly sacrifice rear-seat comfort and cargo-carrying utility for the sake of exterior lines that fit in at the country club. And they don’t necessarily need to get the best value for every dollar they spend. For these buyers, rational decisions give way to personal styles and tastes.

I think the 9000 Turbo is terrific, but I value logic more than pretense or ostentation. Most luxury buyers, however, are unlikely to find much fulfillment in this Saab. —Csaba Csere

Los Angeles architecture and Japanese luxury-performance cars will, I believe, have charm in 50 years. Until then, however, elusive automotive personality will remain the domain of older marques.

The new 9000 Turbo has some terrific details, including clever dashboard air vents and an astounding engine. And it has some diabolical details, such as indecipherable climate controls that try to outsmart the driver. But personality comes that way. I don’t think it’s a surprise that Buick Riviera owners liked that car’s CRT screen and lamented its discontinuation and critics hated it.

Let’s face it: Ferraris have Fiat switches, Porsches have VW door handles, and although Lexus does not borrow Toyota components directly, its cars follow Toyota’s control philosophy exactly. This Saab has its own unique pieces and philosophy.

The Saab is a four-cylinder car that costs nearly as much as a V-8 Lexus. It is stiffer and louder than the Lexus LS400, too. But I wouldn’t have to ponder more than ten minutes which I would buy. Especially if Saab would move the ignition switch back to the floor where it belongs. —Phil Berg

Specifications

SPECIFICATIONS

1991 Saab 9000 Turbo

VEHICLE TYPE
front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback

PRICE AS TESTED
$33,412 (base price: $33,412)

ENGINE TYPE
turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection
Displacement 
140 in3, 2290 cm3
Power 
200 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque 
244 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm

TRANSMISSION
5-speed manual

CHASSIS
Suspension (F/R): struts/live axle
Brakes (F/R): 10.9-in vented disc/10.1-in disc
Tires: Pirelli P700, 205/50ZR-16

DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase: 105.2 in
Length: 183.7 in
Width: 69.4 in
Height: 55.9 in
Passenger volume: 101 ft3  
Cargo volume: 24 ft3  
Curb weight: 3170 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.4 sec
100 mph: 18.2 sec
120 mph: 30.5 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 9.5 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 6.8 sec
1/4 mile: 14.9 sec @ 93 mph
Top speed: 142 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 190 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g

C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 19 mpg

EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/city/highway: 21/19/25 mpg

C/D testing explained


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