Used Saab 900 review: 1993-1998
January 29, 2009
Saab, the quirky Swede, has always been in Volvo’s shadow, which was perhaps a good thing when Volvo was the laughing stock of the road. Saab being stuck behind Volvo's shadow meant that few car buyers took a serious look at the cars from Trollhatten when it would have been worth their while to consider one alongside other prestige cars from BMW, Audi, Honda and the like.
Saabs are still relatively invisible to most motorists even though the company builds cars with sporty performance, comfort aplenty and commendable reliability.
The 900 is just such a car. Built from 1993 to 1998 it was a well built, smartly styled car with enviable reliability that is worth a look if you’re in the market for a used prestige car that will give solid reliable service for many years to come. It’s also a safe, solid car worth considering as a first car for the rookie driver in the family.
The 900 was initially offered only as a sleek five-door hatch, with two different versions, the S and SE. The five-door configuration was popular as it doubled as a stylish sedan and a useful part-time wagon when the extra carrying space was needed. A few months later a three-door hatch, a two-door coupe, and a convertible joined the five-door.
There were plenty of choices when it came to engines. The most popular engine was the 110 kW 2.3-litre fuel-injected DOHC four, but there was also a 98 kW 2.0-litre version offered which wasn’t terribly popular, and a 125 kW 2.5-litre DOHC 240-valve V6 which was a product of General Motor’s involvement in the company.
For a real blast Saab also offered a 2.0-litre turbocharged four, which boasted 136 kW. It could only be described as brutal in the days before Subaru redefined the term with its WRX, but it also suffered from chronic torque steer when you nailed your right foot, which made it much less appealing.
The narrow-vee V6 was the first six-cylinder engine ever fitted to a Saab, and was the same engine that was more familiar under the bonnet of the Calibra sports coupe Holden briefly sold here.
There was a choice of transmissions, a five-speed manual or a four-speed Asian-Warner electronic auto, and drive was through the front wheels. A clutchless manual gearbox, called Sensonic, was offered as an option on the Turbo in 1995.
Novel at the time the Sensonic gearbox simply did away with the clutch pedal, the clutch was actuated by a mechanical system triggered by electronics. To shift you lifted off the throttle, shifted the lever to the gear you wanted, and stepped on the gas again. Quirky yes; necessary, no!
The suspension was MacPherson Strut at the front and a semi-rigid axle at the rear, with gas shocks front and back, and an anti-roll bar at the front. Steering was power-assisted rack and pinion.
Brakes were disc front and rear with ABS standard on all models.
Facelifts in 1996 and 1997 brought more refinement. In 1996 there was Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD), alarm, immobiliser, lumbar adjustment for the driver’s seat, and some minor cosmetics, while 1997 brought a smoother gear shift, and the V6 was only available as an auto. There were also special ‘Talladega’ models in honour of the successful record breaking blitz of a 900 Turbo in the US.
All 900s were well equipped, even in base form. A long list of features included driver’s airbag, air-conditioning, central locking, fog lights, heated front seats, power mirrors, power windows, and four-speaker sound. A passenger’s airbag was also standard from September 1995.
IN THE SHOP
Mechanically the 900 is pretty well bullet proof, particularly the 2.3-litre engine that is good for many hundreds of thousands of kilometres providing it’s well serviced. The good thing is that the camshafts are chain driven which means there isn’t a belt that regularly requires changing. The same can’t be said for the V6, which does have a cam drive belt and Saab specifies it should be changed at every major service, which come up every 40,000 km.
Brakes tend to be a high cost maintenance item with pads and rotors needing replacement at intervals of 50,000 km or less. Heavy front brake wear can be seen from the build-up of brake dust on the front wheels, it’s a consequence of the brake set-up used on most modern cars which use the front brakes quite heavily.
Check convertibles carefully. Saab changed from hydraulics to electrics for the roof on the new 900 and then switched back to hydraulics for the next model. Get the message. Make sure the hood operates, up and down, smoothly as it can be expensive to fix a problem roof.
While you’re at it check the roof for tears, or areas of high wear which can occur because of the movement in the hood as it goes up and down. Tears can mean water leaks and high wear areas can mean a replacement hood will be needed.
Convertible interiors are usually subjected to high sun exposure, which can lead to cracking of trim components. They can fade and become brittle with time if left in the sun too much. It’s also a fact of life that convertible interiors can get wet if you’re caught in a sudden downpour, it’s not a huge problem if the trim and carpets are allowed to dry properly before being left in a garage. If it smells mouldy, walk away!
Convertible side window seals can leak if they’re not adjusted properly
Stuart Stone commends the performance, ride, comfort and roominess of his 1995 V6 five-door. He rates the build quality as excellent, but says the cost of Saab servicing and spare parts is too high.
David Batrouney has owned his 1996 Saab 900 SE V6 since new and says it’s been a pleasure to own. It is comfortable and economical on long trips and has never broken down, although he says he would like more powerful headlamps, and the suspension is harsh on road imperfections.
Alan Mackew bought his 1994 Saab 900 S 2.3-litre five-door two years ago. It had done 70,000 km, came with a full service history, and cost about the same as a base Corolla at the time. Alan wanted something different which was economical, built to last and good for long distance driving, and bought the Saab after looking at similarly priced Mercedes-Benz and BMWs. The Saab stood out with its high level of standard equipment, useful five-door body configuration, and implications of durability and safety associated with Swedish cars. He’s found it to be a very relaxing and reassuring long distance car that returns very good fuel economy, and would look at a new Saab next time he buys.
Accountant Evan Evangelou bought his 1995 900 convertible two years ago with just 30,000 km on the odo. Overall he’s happy, and would buy another Saab, but says the steering is vague and the convertible body shakes. He also says Saab servicing is expensive and has taken it to a non-factory specialist.
Walter de Gregorio reckons that if his 1993 900 convertible had a little more punch on take off, and a smoother gearshift, it would be perfect.
• Forget the 2.0-litre engine, the high maintenance V6, and the turbo; go for the reliable and economical 2.3-litre engine.
• Gearboxes are generally reliable, although the manual shift is notchy. Forget the Sensonic clutchless manual, it’s a gimmick.
• Build quality is high, and there is little problem with rust although one owner reported a less than satisfactory experience with Saab over rust in his car.
• Convertible is an affordable and pleasant driving soft top, but beware of cars that have been left exposed in the sun and rain with the top down. Also know that Saab convertibles shake like crazy.
• Brake wear is high so be prepared for regular replacement of pads and rotors.
• Front-wheel drive 900s suffer from torque steer on takeoff, the Turbo is chronic.