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FWD Champions: The Saab 900

September 12, 2011 by Matt

Saab 900

I had originally dismissed this one as a pretender…until I took a closer look at its mechanicals. It has something of a cult following, too, and I’d like to believe at least part of the enthusiasm is based on some degree of dynamic ability. I can’t think of another FWD car that enjoys the Saab 900’s level of devotion without a fair amount of fun-to-drive factor. A test drive would elucidate the issue, to be sure; I should track down an owner’s club in the area. Hmm.

Saab 900 mechanical cutaway

To clarify, the car under consideration today is the ’78-’93 “true Saab” car, not the GM-ized ’94-’98 platform-sharing jellybean. The former had mechanical uniqueness to match its looks; the second-generation 900 was built on an Opel Vectra chassis and was depressingly conventional. A couple of under-the-sheetmetal features set the first-generation car apart: Double wishbone front suspension (the best configuration for handling) and a unique powertrain orientation that enabled much of the engine to sit behind the front axle line for better weight distribution. In the case of the second mechanical quirk, the engine is turned 180°, with the transaxle underneath and drawing power from the front of the engine. It doesn’t allow the powertrain to be located fully behind the front axle line, but it’s certainly superior to, say, Audi’s practice of hanging the entire engine out over the front axle. The rear suspension, for its part, is a simple beam axle of the type that has served VW’s hot hatches well over the years.

Saab 900 Interior

All that said, I’d never buy one for the dynamics alone. I can’t imagine that the car really offers a fundamentally different feel than a standard front-driver. However, other factors, including a very tunable turbo engine and general quirkiness and uniqueness, deepen its appeal considerably. The cockpit is businesslike and cool and the styling, while it wouldn’t win a beauty contest, is at least consistently unique. You certainly can’t examine its contours and conclude the designers chickened out anywhere—they were determined to create something that looked like nothing else on the road, and they succeeded. It’s weird, but it’s all weird, and it works—a statement that could apply equally well to its engineering, and for that, I give the whole package props.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: FWD Champions, Saab, Technical

6 comments

  1. John D says:

    See, this is where you and I part ways. I am definitely a gearhead, but this is a car that most people like me would never appreciate (must not be as ‘refined’ and educated and all that). I always enjoy having my horizons broadened and learning new things, though…so good show. I guess. ;)

    • Matt says:

      I don’t claim it’s a car that you have to be “refined and educated” to appreciate. I just like interesting engineering, and wanted to share some discoveries about a car I had overlooked out of hat for a long time simply because it was FWD. That and up until their takeover by GM, Saab always struck me as an automaker who had a unique way of putting their cars together. As a fellow rotorhead, I’d think you could appreciate that. :)

  2. John D says:

    It *is* interesting that their powertrain configuration and engine placement are superior to that of the more known and appreciated Audi. Never would have guessed it.

    • Matt says:

      Well, it is and it isn’t. The Saab configuration does give the car a lower polar moment of inertia, but stacking the engine and transmission does raise the CG considerably. Maybe Audi considered the latter to be a greater disadvantage than the former for rally racing, which is why they did what they did. Who knows.

  3. Arthur says:

    Just wanted to mention as I have owned several Saabs.. including a much hated GM one.

    While it would seem that stacking the engine would lead to a high CG.. that is not really the case. If you look carefully, the engine is canted over at 45 degrees towards the right side of the car, enabling it’s lower hood line. Also the transmission’s case is also the oilpan for the engine (they do not share lubricants) so in all reality, I would say the mass of the engine is maybe 6 inches higher than a typical car. not really that substanial.

    Having just disassembled a dead 91 for parts.. the engineering in these cars is definatly substantial. They were not designed to just look different, they were designed to be superior. The wrap around windsheild and teardropesque shape are very aeromotive. The engine and trans in the front driving the front wheels is done for traction. And the interior is designed for maximum ergonomics.

    Saab, when they were really just saab, did all the things they did for reason.. and styling was low on that list. The dashboard for instance, all the controls are ordered from top to bottom.. with the most used controls up top and within the driver’s sight. This is why the radio is so high, but the amplifyer/qualizer is in the console.

    • Matt says:

      I appreciate the insight! I have great respect for automakers who have a philosophy and stick to it, and it definitely seems like that’s the case with Saab (or was the case, before the GM buyout).

      Makes sense they would use FWD primarily for the traction benefits. I’d always wondered why their big Scandinavian competitor, Volvo, stuck with RWD for as long as they did up in great snowy Sweden. But I suppose a lot of it comes down to knowing how to drive the car in snow—the disadvantages of RWD are mitigated somewhat if you know what you’re doing being the wheel.

      You’re making me want one!

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