Lamest Classics: The impeccably weird Saab 9000

It’s 3:18 p.m. on a Sunday and my son is sitting next to me at the breakfast bar in our kitchen, chopping foods and serving them to strange people and cats.

On his tablet. It’s a game. He’s not that weird.

But kids are weird.

The other day he asked me, “Papa, why yoo hab a funny mushroom penis?”

He’s 3. He doesn’t yet know about boundaries.

I relish his weirdness because I know, from his older sister, that kids eventually become more sensible and practical, and their understanding of the world becomes more complete. As they age, their observations and interests align better with social norms. Their questions and statements become less off-the-wall; less accidentally sophisticated, less accidentally crude.

Their behavior is something of a damped sine wave, where y=0 represents a well-adjusted adult.

But I don’t know if automaker Saab, through its 60-some years of existence, cars ever fully found “normal.” Maybe that was intentional. They were always a weird company, and though they became more and more a badge-engineered child of General Motors as they lost control at Trollhättan to the American behemoth, as of 1995 they were still very much playing their own Swedish cowhorn.

Which is why, this week, I’m talking about a classic that’s so bizarre it can’t fully qualify as lame — but is so unremarkable on the surface that it can’t qualify as not lame either.

Forever Old

Saab 9000 cutaway view

The Saab 9000 was — to use the most diplomatic language possible — a long-lasting platform. The small Swedish firm struggled to turn a profit for long portions of its history, which eventually led to the partial, then complete buyout by General Motors, and the later abandonment by that same brand when the whole world economy’s dependence on American mortgages turned upside down circa 2008.

Which is why, for the 1984 release of the 9000, they partnered with Fiat on developing a new “large” vehicle platform that would underpin this car, as well as the Busso-powered Alfa Romeo 164 — that was in its last year in the U.S. in ‘95 — and similar cars from Fiat and Lancia that weren’t sold stateside at all. It continued to be sold until 1998; a 14-year run for a high-end car is absurd unless you’re a relatively low-volume company banking on brand cachet to sell old technology.

Even the PT Cruiser didn’t last that long, and good god that thing felt like it was around forever.


The Saab 9000 was technically a large vehicle, based on interior volume. It was marketed to ascending-status suburban yuppies.

But some versions were a touch shorter overall than the company’s compact car Saab 900. (Don’t get me started on luxury car numbering conventions.) It was front-wheel drive, with the torque steer that turbo Saabs were known for. It was a hatchback, which I personally love, but I find it unlikely that most American car buyers in that price range could appreciate it. And though it was billed as a sports sedan, it had the same rear-axle technology as the Toyota Tercel.

Power came from the company’s own 2.3-liter 4-cylinder that, in high-spec Aero trim, rivaled the still-Japanese-market-only Subaru WRX. In low-boost versions it was touted as providing “eco-power.” Sound familiar?

Showing signs of the 50 percent stake that GM took in Saab in 1989, there was an available V6 engine for ’95. But even this mass-market anime couldn’t make the car totally normal: It was originally developed by GM Europe as a high-tech option for its Opel brand, and would later find a home in the notably awful Cadillac Catera. Most V6s have a bank angle of 60 degrees, but this one was 54 degrees. Ostensibly for packaging reasons.

Oh, and the price.

I mentioned that this is quite an expensive hatchback. How expensive? Let’s do the numbers.

A base model with the 170-horsepower turbo 4-cylinder came in at $29,845 in 1995. That’s a $51,000 car today.

To get that 210-horsepower V6, which was only available with a 4-speed automatic, you’d need to shell out $38,995 — or $66,600 in 2020 dollars. The V6 version was also the only way to get it in a normal sedan (pictured above), at least for ’95.

And for the top-dog Aero trim, with that turbo force-feeding the 4-cylinder to 225 horsepower? You’re looking at $41,750. That’s an astonishing $77,321 today.

I’ve looked at that number several times already and it still takes my breath away. Does this look like a 77-thousand-dollar car to you?

Thankfully, you can buy one for closer to $700 today.

Weirdest Classic

engine bay of a Saab 9000

I appreciate that the V6’s block is made of recycled iron, though that was probably just marketing chutzpah. It’s a nice touch that many of the plastic fluid reservoirs and other components are marked as recyclable. I’m intrigued by its early adoption of traction control, ABS brakes and variable-length intake manifolds. It managed to get high marks for handling in spite of its unsophisticated suspension layout and the fact that the entire engine hung far ahead of the front wheels.

I love that it’s a high-class hatchback in a world where the only other so-called “5-door” cars were for the least-affluent new-car buyers.

Seriously, I’m glad Saab kept it real and kept it weird for as long as they did. I’d honestly consider owning one as long as it doesn’t ask about my penis. I promise I won’t laugh out loud at the tiny wiper blades for its headlights. I wouldn’t want it growing up thinking there were something wrong with it.

We should all be allowed to love our own bodies — weird, lame, or otherwise.

The 1995 Saab 9000 scores a 3 out of 10 on the Lamestain Index.

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36 responses to “Lamest Classics: The impeccably weird Saab 9000”

  1. P161911 Avatar

    Ones of those if I win the lottery and have more money than I know what to do with and need something to occupy my time projects: Drop the Ferrari F40 V-8 in one of these. The Lancia Thema had the basic version of the same V-8. It should just drop in right? They share a chassis.

    1. crank_case Avatar

      Same platform alright, also shared with the Fiat Croma and Alfa 164. Not sure that means an engine swap would be straightforward though.

  2. paulz67 Avatar

    Having had four of these cars over the years (and still have one), the early ones look really nondescript, practically dainty today, while the Aeros look properly weird, in the correct Saab way. Ironically, many hard-core Saabistas back in the day shunned the 9000 for being too… ordinary. Why would one ever have the key located on the steering column and drive a transverse front-engined car? Lame, right? On paper, the specs weren’t all that impressive, but they can really haul… stuff and ass. They’re still a terrific road car. Now, there’s so few of them left because most got used up, including by the kids, who discovered that the four-cylinder motors are quite stout, and can easily tuned to fairly silly levels of power from a stock block and heads.

    1. Batshitbox Avatar

      One hundred percent. The 9000’s problem was that it wasn’t weird enough, which totally qualifies it for Lamest Classics (hey, maybe we’ll get a Citroen for the same reason in the next post.) If you were an iconoclast in the mid-90s you wanted the engine mounted not only in the wrong orientation, but with the clutch on the wrong end, and a clamshell hood, and an ignition switch on the floor that you couldn’t get the key out of unless the car was in reverse.
      The 9000 was none of that. It was a sharp looking Volvo and one step on the path towards the least iconoclastic thing ever, General Motors.

      1. paulz67 Avatar

        And before that, V4 96 drivers thought 99s and 900s were silly, and before that, owners of 2-stroke thought the Ford V-4 was heresy. 😉

        1. mdharrell Avatar

          You left out the 92 owners dismayed at the blasphemy of befouling the engine compartment with a third cylinder, but aside from that, yes.

        2. 0A5599 Avatar

          Don’t forget the jet pilots who literally look down on the land-based, piston-driven crowd.

      2. Sjalabais Avatar

        They even jumped on the Volvo print ad style, first with this one:

        …and later with the more famous “safe to crash with a Volvo in a SAAB”-ad.

        I really wish the company was still around, as much as I understand that there is no room for a super niche, expensive, odd brand like that. Especially given the way they went down, with the classically random GM badge engineering – of course they could neither attract new customers now hold on to their existing ones like that.

  3. 0A5599 Avatar

    That very well could be Hooniverse’s first article that introduces the car being reviewed by providing a child’s analysis of the appearance of the author’s penis.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Everyone’s a critic. Including my 3 year old.

    2. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
      dead_elvis, inc.

      And hopefully, it remains the only one to feature such a distinction.

    3. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      That could very well be the first article ANYWHERE introducing ANYTHING by providing such an analysis.

      1. Alan Cesar Avatar
        Alan Cesar

        I knew someday I’d be first at something.

  4. outback_ute Avatar

    Only weird from a US perspective really, as you mentioned it was very conventional by Saab standards; by most really, a fwd transverse four, McPherson strut

    There were many comparable cars in Europe – “large” (by their standards) hatchbacks. Renault, Citroen, Ford and Rover come to mind readily. I hear you might also find a couple of examples in the GM portfolio…

    Was the engine further ahead of the wheels than a typical fwd layout? This wouldn’t be the first or last car without independent rear suspension to be described as handling well, either.

  5. Turbobrick Avatar

    Uusikaupunki factory made a V8 out of Saab parts bin pieces for the 9000 back in 1989, but it got shot down because GM wanted to use that piece of junk Opel V6.

  6. MattC Avatar

    Back in the late 1990’s , I bought a Saab 9000 (2.3L NA/5speed) from a nondescript corner lot in PA. I was there initially looking to buy an 1986 Fiero 2M4 and after the test drive that I didn’t want that car and saw a Maroon Saab sitting near the back of the lot. I was really looking for a Saab but asked about it anyway and took a test drive through some delightful Southern PA back roads and was sold. I had the car for 2 years and did nothing other than basic maintenance. I inadvertently broke the driver’s light bracket and wedged a triangular piece of aluminum under the light that actually secured it and ironically perfectly aligned the light. (that piece stayed with the car when I sold it with full disclosure to the buyer. He found it hilarious). My view of that Saab is that there were many intangible reasons why I loved the car. It was a smooth and comfortable long trip cruiser, relatively easy to work on, quirky enough compared to its competition, and the hatch was cavernous. It also felt like a tank with solid thunk when the doors closed.

    Perhaps compared to the rival BMW/Mercedes, Saab wasn’t as sporty or luxurious. Volvo’s traded on the safety aspect. Therein lies the conundrum for Saab in the US. These were very well built, safe, quirky, sort of luxurious but really Saab was tailored to a specific buyer. That buyer appreciated the quality and safety and wasn’t as concerned with conspicuous consumption like the late 1980’s/early 1990’s German luxury buyers. Volvo’s were primarily rwd platforms at the time of the 9000’s launch, so Saab traded on all weather practicality. They pigeonholed themselves because Saab believed in their ethos. I love the Top Gear retrospective of Saab, that even during their badge engineered days, the engineers couldn’t help but improve the platforms foisted on them.

    1. Alff Avatar

      Even amongst the Saab faithful, perhaps especially amongst Saab faithful, the 9000 was an odd beast. Not sure why. Maybe it was too big, too angular and not tossable enough. My Saab friends at the time shunned it.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        My understanding from talking with club members who were paying attention at the time is that its shunworthiness arose from a combination of everything you said plus the perception that the company was trying too hard to go simultaneously mainstream and upmarket (or further mainstream and upmarket, depending on how reactionary one wishes to be).

        All of this was on top of the universal tendency for owners to think that their model is the last “real” one, which is a patently absurd position for anyone to take if they have a model newer than mine, anyway.

  7. Alff Avatar

    Alan’s Mushroom Penis is the name of my new ska band.

    1. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
      dead_elvis, inc.

      Incredibly, the notion of a new ska band is even more off-putting than your choice of band name.

    2. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
      dead_elvis, inc.

      Incredibly, the notion of a new ska band is even more off-putting than your choice of band name.

  8. Maymar Avatar

    For a Lame Classics article several years in the future, the 54-degree V6 was also used in the lame Saturn L-Series (being badge-engineered with the replacement Saab 9-5).

    Now, a V6 Saab sedan is definitely lame when there’s a turbo-4 hatch option available.

    1. Fuhrman16 Avatar

      The 54 degree V6 was also te sole engine for the Cadillac Catera.

  9. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    I guess I’m among those who think the 9000 isn’t weird enough. I want a Saab 900 Turbo with Toppola camper, to sit next my Citroen CX GTI wagon.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      Saab’s 900 might be the only FWD vehicle I’ve ever driven that I genuinely liked.

    2. mdharrell Avatar

      I’d have a hard time saying no to a Toppola but what I really want is a Saabo camper to pull behind my 96.

      1. 0A5599 Avatar
        1. mdharrell Avatar

          In that arrangement it’s true the lead vehicle was also for sleeping. Now that I no longer have that car I’ve installed a low-back dunebuggy seat in the formerly empty passenger side of the race car, in that I’ve found the racing seat to be not terribly comfortable for sleeping even by my arguably lax standards. The race car itself now has the trailer hitch from the former towing/sleeping car, so I’m still ready for the day a Saabo turns up for sale for cheap.

  10. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    i can’t not.

    1. I_Borgward Avatar

      That art car? The Danger Car! ’73 Ford Torino, 302! How do I know? My mechanical blood, sweat and tears are all over it, as it’s one of my friend’s herd. A short list of repairs I’ve done include a full brake job, timing chain replacement, carb rebuild, removal of the dead A/C system, and on and on and on. And on. And on. And on.

      Full disclosure: it’s a rusty, miserable thing to wrench, as I’ve found most early 70’s Fords to be. I actually banished it from my garage for a time for being such a big piece of crap, art work nonwithstanding.

      1. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
        dead_elvis, inc.

        That’s a generous use of the term “art”, even in light of most so-called art cars being beaters with piles of garbage attached. Danger Car does seem like a fairly accurate name, though.

      2. wunno sev Avatar
        wunno sev

        cool! is it trippy to see it on tv?

        i’m always tempted by old American cars because of how simple they seem to be, but i hear stories like yours and think twice. my usual cars – high-mileage Radwood-era Japanese and German things – are complex, but well-built. the poor quality of American cars in the ’70s and ’80s in particular is legendary, but they’re so damn simple i just have a hard time picturing them being hard to live with, yknow?

      3. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
        dead_elvis, inc.

        That’s a generous use of the term “art”, even in light of most so-called art cars being beaters with piles of garbage attached. Danger Car does seem like a fairly accurate name, though.

      4. I_Borgward Avatar

        Indeed! The Danger Car represents things that are dangerous and bad for you. Never mind “art”, think of a rolling audio/visual display with lights, sirens and a PA system playing sounds of dangerous things… buzz saws, raging wild boars, country songs about wrecking big rigs.

        While some folks in the artcar subculture take their art seriously, others don’t care for the term “artcar” at all. I can’t say I’m much of a fan, it brings too much cultural baggage and expectation into the room for my taste. But, no one has come up with a more widely accepted description, so it has its place when we want to do events or talk to the press.

  11. crank_case Avatar

    You’re really serious about this war with Sweden thing aren’t you?

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Hi. I was thinking of you.

      I just couldn’t ignore a $70,000 car with headlight wipers.