Cars

The Saab 900 Turbo Was the First Modern Hot Hatch

When the original Volkswagen GTI helped start the front-wheel-drive hot hatch segment, very few production vehicles had turbos. Only high-performance cars, or rally homologation specials, could afford to house them. Today, though, turbocharging is basically a hot hatch requirement. The Fiat 500 Abarth, Hyundai Veloster N, Civic Type R, and VW GTI all have turbocharged engines. And they have one car, in particular, to thank for popularizing it: the Saab 900 Turbo.

The Saab 900 Turbo was a rather quirky hot hatch

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Before its mismanagement by GM, Saab was known for building quirky, but extremely solid and reliable cars. Saab, along with Volvo, didn’t just crash-test their vehicles into barriers, Petrolicious reports. They also ensured their cars could withstand hitting a 1,000-lb moose. It was a former Saab engineer that helped develop the first seat-belt.

1978 Saab 99 Turbo
1978 Saab 99 Turbo | Bring a Trailer

It was also Saab, Classic & Sports Car reports, that helped turbocharging go mainstream with the 99 sedan. However, by the end of the 70s, the 99 Turbo was showing its age. Thus, for the 1979 model year, the Swedish automaker revealed the Saab 900 Turbo. But the turbocharger was actually, in many ways, the least interesting part of the car.

1991 Saab 900 Turbo SPG interior
1991 Saab 900 Turbo SPG interior | Bring a Trailer

The gauges and switches, Bring a Trailer reports, was laid out so the driver could use them without moving in their seat. The ignition, Automobile reports, is actually between the front seats. The engine’s mounted at the front, but it’s tilted at a 45° angle. And the crankshaft exits out the front, meaning additional gears need to send power backward to the transmission. Which is built into the oil pan. Why? Because it’s a Saab.

What’s the Saab 900 Turbo like to drive?

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Speaking of the engine, the first Saab 900 Turbo came with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which made 143 hp and 173 lb-ft. The 1985 model boosted that, Road & Track reports, to 160 hp and 188 lb-ft. The Turbo 16 trim gave another 15 hp. But the most-desirable model was the Saab 900 Turbo Aero, known in North America as the SPG, Jalopnik reports.

1991 Saab 900 Turbo SPG
1991 Saab 900 Turbo SPG | Bring a Trailer

The SPG got the 175-hp Turbo 16’s engine, with 195 lb-ft. It also got anti-roll bars, stiffer suspension, different bumpers, and a more aerodynamic rear wing. A 5-speed manual was the only transmission available. Top speed rose to 130 mph, and 0-60 came in about 8 seconds. It’s not that fast today, but that matched the contemporary GTI. The Renault Clio Williams was only slightly quicker.

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The Saab 900 Turbo SPG, Jalopnik reports, does suffer from turbo lag. And the transmission is somewhat sloppy, even for a late-80s car. However, the seats are extremely comfortable. And despite the SPG being lower than the standard car, Popular Mechanics reports, it still rides reasonably well.

Pricing and availability

1991 Saab 900 Turbo SPG engine bay
1991 Saab 900 Turbo SPG engine bay | Bring a Trailer

Although the Saab 900 was built from 1979-1998, the 1994-1998 models were built on a GM platform. As a result, they aren’t as desirable, or as good. The SPG was only sold from 1985-1991, and a few minor special editions until 1993. However, despite their relative rarity, these cars are actually fairly affordable.

A decent condition Saab 900 Turbo SPG goes for about $10,000 on BaT. After 1985, some of the SPG’s modifications, specifically the anti-roll bars, made it to ‘lesser’ Turbo models. And these are even cheaper. As of this writing, there’s a 1988 model listed at $4800 on BaT.

True, a more-modern Volkswagen GTI can be had for about $10,000. But is it Swedish moose-proof?

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