We’re big fans of Saabs here at Autos Cheat Sheet. Despite some fits and starts, it looks like the company is really, truly, dead as a doornail now. Lucky for us, in its eight-decade run, Saab built some of the most unique, forward-thinking cars on the planet, and ended up developing a small but loyal cult of fans who felt the Swedish company could do no wrong.
Picture this: It’s the end of World War II, and an aerospace company with no automotive experience wants to design a car. Instead of hiring outsiders, it puts its engineers to designing and building a car that can handle the brutal winters and rough roads of Sweden. The result is a compact, front-wheel drive car with a focus on aerodynamics, comfort, safety, and a little performance. Now don’t stray far from that until well into the next century – even if it means financial hardship – and you’ve got Saab.
What’s more, by the late ’60s, the company had found a design language that would inform every model it would build after. Because of all that, Saab was the ultimate anti-establishment car company, willing to question the automotive status quo again and again to try something different, even if it didn’t ultimately work out. While we aren’t likely to see another carmaker like it again anytime soon, here’s a look at 10 Saabs that made the company the iconoclast it was.
Saab only built four examples of its first car, but it set the template followed by every other Saab for nearly 70 years. The Ursaab (or, Original Saab) was designed and built by a team of Saab’s aerospace engineers, and was a compact, front-wheel drive, aerodynamic car that eschewed the status quo for efficiency, comfort, and practicality. The teardrop-shaped Ursaab would eventually lead to the 92, the company’s first production vehicle, but today it looks like a beautiful, mid-century vision of the future.
2. 1960-1980 Saab 96
Released in 1949, the 92 was a major success in Scandinavia, but it quickly evolved as Saab continued to tinker with the car. It became the 93 in 1955, and the 96 in 1960. The 96 was the first Saab to really have a global footprint; and with its front-wheel drive layout (very uncommon for the era), two-stroke engine, and other curiosities like a radiator mounted behind the engine, free-wheeling clutch, and flat floor, the 96 developed a small but fervent cult following around the world. Plus, the car’s light weight and great handling made it one of the most formidable rally cars of the era. In 1967, it would get disc brakes and a Ford-based V4 engine. Astonishingly, it would remain in production for the Swedish market until 1980.
3. 1966-1974 Sonett
While most of Saab’s history is evolutionary, the Sonett is a fascinating dead end. Based on the 96, the Sonett was a fiberglass-bodied sports car that made a splash with American buyers looking for some affordable fun. Tiny and nimble, the Sonett earned a reputation as a competent racer in SCCA competitions. The Ford V4 replaced the 96’s old two-stroke engine in 1967, and in 1970, the odd, TVR-like design was ditched for a more modern, wedge-shaped look and renamed the Sonett III. Unable to meet new federal safety and emissions standards, production ended in 1974.
4. 1978-1984 Saab 99 Turbo
If the Ursaab created the engineering template for the company, the 99 would go on to set the design language for the next 40 years. While the 96 could directly trace its roots back to the 1940s, the 99 was both thoroughly modern and still undeniably unorthodox. Introduced in 1968, the 99 was front-wheel drive, had its gearbox mounted ahead of its Triumph-based inline-four engine (and the radiator behind it), an ignition switch on the transmission tunnel, and a slippery, wind-cheating shape.
The car went largely unchanged during its 16-year production run, but it really made a splash with enthusiasts with the introduction of the 1978 Turbo model, one of the first mass-market cars with a turbocharged engine. The 2.0-liter made 145 horsepower, and cemented the 99’s status as one of the era’s greatest rally cars. Today, it’s considered a pioneer of affordable, practical, turbocharged performance vehicles.
5. 1984-1991 Saab 900 SPG
By 1978, the 99 had already evolved into the 900, but astonishingly, the ever-practical Saab would produce the 92, 99, and 900 simultaneously for two model years. With its fully-independent suspension, the 900 was bigger, more comfortable, and more powerful than the 99, and would go on to become arguably the most well-known model in the company’s history.
Over its 15-year run, the 900 was available as a three-door or five-door hatch and convertible, with either a naturally-aspirated or turbocharged engine. The most exciting of the bunch was the SPG or “Sports Package” 900. With its 162-horsepower 16-valve four mated to a five-speed manual, the SPG was one of the best driver’s cars of its era. Today, it’s one of the most desirable models Saab ever built, with just over 7,600 making it to the U.S.
6. 1984- 1997 Saab 9000
From 1982 to 1986, Saab was the fastest-growing European automaker in the U.S., and as its reputation grew, the company decided to make a move upmarket. The 9000 bowed in 1984 as part of a joint development program with Fiat that also resulted in the Alfa Romeo 164 and Lancia Thema.
In the U.S., the 9000 did make a splash, with its comfortable interior and longer wheelbase. In 1993, the Aero model was introduced, and with its 225-horsepower turbocharged 2.3-liter four, became the most powerful production Saab ever built to that point.
7. 1998-2003 Saab 9-3 Viggen
After Saab was taken over by GM in 1990, the brand began to struggle under the rigid structure of its new parent company. A redesigned 900 gave way to the 9-3 in 1998. To die-hard Saab fans, the car was a travesty, sharing its architecture with Opel and Saturn models. But the ’98 to ’03 Viggen (Swedish for “thunderbolt”) was named after one of the company’s fighter jets, and was a fantastic driver’s car. With its 230-horsepower turbocharged 2.3-liter engine, aggressive aero kit, and a host of other performance upgrades, buyers were even offered two days of track training with their new cars. Just 4,600 were built, and today, the Viggen is fast becoming a collectible.
8. 2004-2005 Saab 9-2X
By the end of its run, many felt that GM had taken away a lot of what made Saab unique. The 9-2X wasn’t a “real” Saab either – it was a redesigned Subaru Impreza – but it showed that the small company could still build quirky, unique cars with help from the right partner. More Subaru than Saab, the car was sold as Saab was fading and Subaru was at low ebb; today it’s mostly remembered as an interesting automotive curiosity.
9. 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 99 Turbo, Saab released the Turbo X, an all-wheel drive, black-clad performance version of the 9-3. Unlike earlier go-fast Saabs, the Turbo X didn’t suffer from understeer, thanks to the 280 horses from its 2.8-liter six being evenly sent to all four wheels. Just 600 of Saab’s last great performance cars were sold in the U.S.
10. 2010-2012 Saab 9-5
The 9-5 replaced the 9000 back in 1998, but the growing lack of interest from GM caused the car to wither on the vine for most of its life. Its brief burst of glory came 2010, when the second-generation model debuted just weeks before The General unloaded the company, ultimately dooming it. But for two brief years, the handsome, quirky Saab was the best-looking car to come from the brand since Detroit began meddling in things in the early ’90s. Unfortunately, production ended in mid-2011 after just over 38,400 cars were built, but the final 9-5s are a good way to remember Saab: unique, quirky, unorthodox, and great driver’s cars.