13th June 2009

Saab 9-3 Viggen

posted in Car News Articles |

I’m currently wrapped in denial. Actually, avoidance might be closer to the mark, but either way I’m currently not in a good mental state. For the past two decades Saab has been my favorite automaker because it so enthusiastically embraced three of my favorite automotive attributes: an individualistic philosophy, the magic of¬†turbocharging, and characteristically hunchbacked profiles. The result? Magic, in the form of magnificently funky and atypically useful sporty cars like the Sonett, 99, 900, and 9000. Long-time readers¬†may remember that the 1986 Saab 900 SPG is my personal Car Lust high-water mark.

Now, of course, Saab’s future is in doubt. After two decades of generally benevolent General Motors ownership, Saab is up for sale. Over the last few months, I have been generally and perhaps unrealistically¬†optimistic that Saab would land on its feet, perhaps with an owner that would give it both ample funding and a license to regain its uniquely Swedish mojo. Now, though, I’m no longer as sanguine.

Saabs United is all over the story, and its reporting describes the three bidders currently in the running for Saab. From a car-development perspective, the best scenario is probably a purchase by Koenigsegg, the Swedish supercar manufacturer.¬†Based on the latest news, Koenigsegg and Norwegian investors are reportedly Saab’s “preferred candidate.” But it’s not as if Koenigsegg has an easy road ahead of it.¬†The other two parties are less-well-known, and regardless of who wins, what does it mean to Saab’s future if venture capitalists take over?

Anyway, this is where¬†my avoidance comes in.¬†While I am cautiously optimistic about the Koenigsegg group, that optimism does not prevent me from being¬†terrified that Saab will either disappear entirely or simply lose any semblance of relevance. The whole experience reminds me far too much of losing my¬†beloved¬†Seattle Supersonics last year, and I’m not sure my psyche could handle the slow, protracted loss of Saab as well.

So, in an attempt to sooth my jangled nerves while this story unfolds, I’d like to honor the impending end of Saab’s¬†stint as a GM subsidiary by featuring my favorite Saab made under the GM banner–the 9-3 Viggen.

It should surprise exactly nobody that the Saab 9-3 Viggen gets my blood boiling; after all, as the compact high-performance turbo hatch in Saab’s lineup,¬†it had all the elements of greatness.¬†It was fast, rare, and, most importantly, boasted the same lasciviously lumpy profile as its predecessors. While I prefer the less aerodynamic, more chiseled lines of the older Saabs, the 9-3′s smoothness and a tasteful aero package were compelling in their own right. The 9-3 Viggen was essentially¬†the spiritual successor to the 900 SPG, and that fact leaves me completely helpless to its charms.

Before¬†I get into the Viggen’s performance credentials, let’s keep in mind that¬†it came to market in 1999. As hard as it is to believe for old fogies like me, 1999 is now a decade in the past–and¬†the performance market back then was very different. This was before the recent¬†horsepower¬†boom, before Hyundai family sedans were available with 250 horsepower, and¬†before SUVs accelerated like exotics. At that time, cars that could make the 0-60 run¬†in the low 6-second¬†range and hit a 155-mph top speed were considered special, and¬†in putting up those numbers, the Viggen could nip at the feet of such brawny and expensive¬†high-performance stars as the BMW M3 and Audi S4. New Viggen buyers even received a two-day training course at Georgia’s excellent Road Atlanta road course.

Unfortunately, the¬†combination of high horsepower with front-wheel drive resulted in¬†major-league torque steer, a condition in which the steering wheel tries to twist to one side when the driver accelerates rapidly. This unfortunate characteristic marred the Viggen’s handling and prevented it from competing seriously with the M3 and S4. Even back in the late 1990s most major manufacturers had figured out how to infuse horsepower into front-wheel-drive cars without creating torque steer, but Saab chose a different path. Instead of getting the engineering right,¬†Saab tried a bald-faced marketing maneuver in which the carmaker claimed the torque steer was intentionally left in to pose a “challenge” for “advanced drivers.” Um, yeah … like kicking a marathoner repeatedly in the shins is a desirable “challenge” for “advanced runners.”

Nowadays a V-6 Nissan Altima can run in stride with the Viggen, but despite that and the torque steer I’d love to have a Viggen in my garage. After all, it’s fast, rare, and sports a bloated profile. It just doesn’t get much more authentically Saab than that, and heck,¬†its Viggen moniker was even borrowed from Saab’s background as a military jet fighter manufacturer.

It is impressive to me that the Viggen contains so much undiluted, earthy Saab¬†flavor despite being born during GM’s ownership. In fact, unlike many other Saab devotees, I haven’t especially minded Saab’s time under GM’s thumb. The 9-3 and 9-5 are still fast, interesting cars, with at least some residual 900 and 9000 flavor. The 9-2X was just a rebodied Subaru WRX, but as a turbocharged, AWD wagon with a rally flavor, it’s a car that I can at least imagine Saab producing. Obviously I prefer Saab as an independent company creating oddly compelling cars with strong character, but things could have¬†been much worse.

After all,¬†GM¬†could have¬†forced Saab to manufacture a SUV … say, a rebadged, generic, pointless version of the Chevy TrailBlazer.¬†Can you imagine how unbelievably soul-crushing¬†that would have been?

Sigh. Come on, Koenigsegg. For the sake of the small bits of hope remaining in the soup of my anguished psyche, please make it all better.

–Chris H.

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