Used Car Reviews – 1996 Saab 900S Turbo Sensonic


This well-worn shifter belongs to a 1996 Saab 900S Turbo Sensonic. Ever heard of the system? Yes, it’s the very same as noted in Top Gear’s The Worst Car in the History special. But don’t let that hold it against it. The system works, somewhat.

Need some clarification? The Sensonic system is a clutch pedal-less manual. In the footwell are the pedals from an automatic Saab 900NG, but there’s a regular-looking shifter. There’s a micro switch in the gearshift that uses the clutch for you, so you just drive with your left foot on the footrest and shift normally as you go along. The system was originally deemed good enough for Saab to hastily introduce a retrofit pedal setup for Sensonic refugees to get back into regular shifting action, as the system often ground to a halt with warning lights a-popping and the shifter immovable. Yeah, it’s not exactly hall of fame material. But what would it feel like, first hand?

Today, I took the pictured Sensonic 900 for a spin round the neighbourhood. It’s for sale in my town, so it’s a good Sensonic introduction.


Outside, especially in winter trim, there’s nothing noteworthy about the Saab. It’s the same inoffensive forest green as the non-turbo 2.0 900NG I drove before buying the BMW; this is an original Finnish car and not a German import. There’s a set of studded tires under the Saab, and the hubcaps are thrift-store ones. I hate them.


And yeah, there is a tow bar. That’s actually the reason why the previous owner traded the Sensonic in; he wanted to tow a big-ass caravan but noted the “clutchless” system wasn’t ideal for manoeuvring a caravan hooked up to the back. The owner was apparently a Saab club person, which does lend the car some credibility, maintenance-wise.



So, what does it feel like to drive? It’s weird. It’s definitely weird. I got a short instruction pep talk by the dealer, before jumping in the car. Starting it up (in reverse, Saab style, mind), was slightly disconcerting as I didn’t really know in which direction the car would jump into when I turned the console-mounted key, without a clutch to depress for safety’s sake. The brake pedal, then, needed to be pressed when starting.

The car doesn’t creep, forwards or rearwards. It does roll, however, as there is no torque converter hill-hold. Reversing out of the garage, it needed decisive throttle input so I could get out of there and on my test drive. But, I needed to think like an automatic driver so my left foot wouldn’t do any ghost clutching.


Driving it walking speed out of the dealership’s grounds, getting to the nearest crossroads was easy enough. I left the car in 1st, and held it in place with the brake, as one would do with an automatic.

*DING* DISENGAGE GEAR, said the SID display atop the stereo, familiar to Saab drivers. Alright then, I remembered this from a Saab club post I had read, as I had done my homework before engaging in Senconicity. The car doesn’t like you heating up the clutch, so it’s a better idea to shift into neutral.

Then, I accidentally selected fourth instead of second as I neared a roundabout. *DING* SHIFT DOWN. Looks like the car likes to keep track of your actions. All well and good, and you probably wouldn’t get any of these info bulletins if you used the system the way it prefers to be used.

I then turned to the highway leading out of town. The weather wasn’t really turbo weather, as the road surface was covered in ice and snow and any turbo action (when the engine had heated up) just made the front wander sideways. It’s fun to slide around in the gutless BMW, but a punchy turbo front-driver loses its trump card when the surface won’t play ball. Nevertheless, I could fathom the engine had its wits about it. It would take a dry road surface with studless tires to extract the car’s abilities, but the car definitely felt more eager to move than the totally uninspired naturally aspirated German import 900.

The Sensonic system felt better on higher gears. On lower ones, the gearshift resisted quite a bit, even if I came off the throttle to ease it. One particularly heatening moment was when I turned back to the highway after snapping a few photos off the main road. I looked left, noted there was a flock of 4pm commuters heading my way but I could well merge onto the road, since I would have plenty of time to get up to speed. So I turned. Accelerated in first – and the shifter didn’t want to move, for me to get it into second. Shit. Hnngh. There. Third? Nah ah. Firmer try: there. I don’t know if it was the subzero weather, or whether the caravanning experiments of the previous owner had affected the system. As I said, higher gears felt slick, and the lower ones didn’t always feel resistant. But, I couldn’t really count on the system, as I’d hate to get a semitrailer up my derriere just because the Sensonic wasn’t in its senses.

The gearshift itself isn’t usually Saabs’ forte, either. On manual 9000s, it’s set too low, compared to the mountainous dash and feels rubbery, cabley, unsatisfying to use, and it’s not super enjoyable in the 900, either. Comparing it to the ULTIMATE DRIVING MACHINE that is my entry-level budget BMW is unfair, but the E34’s shifter position and action is way more driver-oriented. It has to be said that the shifter on my 233 000 km BMW has some slack, and first and second do not quite gel when it’s cold outside, so having the shifter resist you isn’t totally unique to the Sensonic. I’d probably better schedule a gearbox oil change in the future.

But, I’d say this. On the non-Sensonic 900, the thing I hated most was the stiff clutch pedal, and using it meant I scraped my shoe on the loosely hanging dash bottom plastic the whole time. While a good turbo car should be enjoyably shifted manually, getting up to speed, you can often rely on torque instead and just leave it in a suitable gear. One of the things I like about a manual transmission is the constant left-foot, right-foot action you do, while rowing through gears to extract power. It’s just not something that’s natural to the ’90s Saabs; the first-gen 9-3 got rid of the stiff clutch but lost the iconic Saab 900 Turbo name as well. So, the Saab I’d get might just as well be a Sensonic.


I returned the green Sensonic and talked with the dealer for a while. He didn’t rate my Sapporo too high (I’m considering selling the thing, to free funds and parking space), and trading the BMW wouldn’t really make too much sense either. What I’d rather do would be buying an another advertised Turbo Sensonic, a red one, with cash; that one simply looks better, especially with the three-spoke alloys. And since the red one currently for sale in Eastern Finland is cheaper, I’d have funds ready to rectify any oncoming Sensonic problems. The green one had a service book, but not a Saab official dealer one, and it only started at 221 000 km. Not too reassuring, as the steering wheel rim in my opinion was quite worn for 251k – or then it’s a material quality issue. At least there wasn’t any real rust to be seen.

So, is the Sensonic the worst gearshift system in the world? Nope. For example, I hated Volvo’s nonchalant Geartronic tiptronic in the V50 T5 a lot more. At least the Saab works when you want it to and show it a firm grip to drive your point across. The Volvo box was more like a careless waiter, as it’ll serve you when it has the time. I didn’t attempt any uphill parallel parking in the Saab, like Top Gear did; simply because I’m not able to buy the cars parked next to it, BBC budget style, just in case I pulled a James and reversed the Saab into the front grille of the car behind me. Getting the Sensonic in a parallel parking spot in a hill is apparently the system’s Achilles heel. Good job there aren’t too many hills where I reside.

In closing, I remain a fan of the Saab 900NG, for reasons not totally clear to me. I also like the 185hp turbo engine, and I’m not ruling out the Sensonic. A GM partsbin hatch as nondescript as the 900NG needs a true drawback to become the real underdog, a fatal flaw to turn it into a unique car. Besides, all good high-pressure turbo 900OG:s cost twice or thrice the money of a clean New Generation car, and an eventually cashed-out Sapporo can only stretch so far.

[Images: Copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Antti Kautonen]

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26 responses to “Used Car Reviews – 1996 Saab 900S Turbo Sensonic”

  1. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    As you say, it sounds like your cash is much netter spent on an high pressure OG with a manual. I hate to think what would be necessary when the Sensonic system malfunctions, and what it might cost to get your shifter back.
    I've never heard of the Sensonic shifter, so thanks for educating us on this nugget. I have very unhappy memories of a friend's Karmann-Ghia with Autostick. SAAB seems to have been rather ambitious with this early and abbreviated experiment in DSG shifting.

    1. Perc Avatar

      Sensonic has nothing to do with DSG at all. It's just a robotized clutch in an otherwise manually shifted transmission. </anorak>
      The difference between Sensonic and VW's Autostick (and Porsche's similar Sportomatic) is that the Sensonic brain is clever enough to be able to slip the clutch for smooth starts. When Autostick was concieved, technology wasn't quite there so they had to put in a torque converter for smooth starts, AND a clutch that disengaged during gearchanges. So an Autostick has slush, a Sensonic hasn't.

      1. wunno sev Avatar
        wunno sev

        also MBZ's Hydrak

      2. Van_Sarockin Avatar

        Which is why I said it was early and experimental. I'm fully aware that they are rather dissimilar. However, they (S + DSG) are not fully auto, don't have torque converters and dispense with the clutch.

  2. Rover1 Avatar

    Even the Japanese couldn't get these 'cluchless' transmissions to work properly. On a high mileage Euro, even a Saab, I can't imagine the trouble you'll have- or expense. You could prepare yourself for the expense by practicing. My suggestion for practicing would be by making small piles of 100 Euro notes and setting fire to them. : )

    1. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
      Dean Bigglesworth

      It's still a regular manual, just instead of a pedal you have an electric or vacuum operated actuator and a few switches and sensors.

      1. Rover1 Avatar

        Switches and sensors supplied by the lowest bidder to a GM subsidiary, then exposed to harsh weather conditions and salt for years. GM Isuzu couldn't get it to work. Maybe it will be fine, it is just a risk calculation. I wouldn't take it and I own 80s Citroens ,Lancias ,Renaults and Rovers.

        1. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
          Dean Bigglesworth

          What i was trying to say is that it's pretty basic stuff, if/when something does go wrong you don't need to replace 3000€ ECUs or hydraulic pumps. And converting it to a regular manual should not be too hard, either.
          I don't know exactly how the Sensoic system works and the internet does not proved that much information, but the method involving the least amount of electronics would probably be to use the intake vacuum for the clutch actuator. Floor it and the clutch would engage pretty much instantly, step on it slower and the clutch would engage more smoothly. Then add a simple circuit that disengages the clutch when the gas is not pressed and the speed is below, say, 10kph.

  3. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
    Dean Bigglesworth

    These(and sportomatic porsches) are pretty much the only manual cars i could drive without an expensive aftermarket hand-operated clutch similar to this one… and i've seriously considered installing one of them on my next car so i could drive a manual.
    As for the Saab, these are pretty nice cars but i think i'd rather have a V6 Vectra wagon from the same era.

  4. mdharrell Avatar

    The earlier Saxomat/Saxomatic automatic clutch wasn't all that popular in SAABs, either. It uses the combination of a centrifugal clutch for disengagement at idle and a vacuum-operated conventional clutch for shifting. I'm still waiting to see my first one.

  5. Alff Avatar

    "Turbo Sensonic" sounds like it would be more appropriate motivating a Vulva.

  6. P161911 Avatar

    So how much is it to just toss the 3rd pedal down there? Just figure on that instead of repairing this Rube Goldberg contraption. Sort of like dropping in a Chevy V-8 instead of repairing a Jaguar V-12.

  7. Mad_Hungarian Avatar

    The VW Automatic Stickshift includes a torque converter, so you can leave it in gear at a stop and it will creep and hold a slight hill just like a "regular" automatic. Sounds like the Sensonic has no slush whatsoever between the engine and the gearbox, just the automatic clutch. Hence the need to shift into neutral at a stop (or at least rest your hand on the shifter which will disengage the clutch). OK, I get that. But how does it work on moving off from a stop? Whe you shift into first at rest, does it delay engaging the clutch until you step on the gas? Seems like it would have to or you will either stall or slip the clutch like mad.

  8. ThirdPedalGirl Avatar

    I own a 900NG turbo, in this same inoffensive forest green, even. I cannot quite imagine the car without a third pedal… sounds rather nightmarish, honestly.
    As Rover1 said above, I would be quite worried about the expense once things begin to go wrong.
    (I wonder; is the heaviness of Saab's clutches due to the cabled clutch? I never have thought of the clutch as heavy until I drove a stick shift Dodge Dart recently; that clutch operated seemingly by blinking at it.)

    1. mr. mzs zsm msz esq Avatar
      mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      Possibly, with a hydraulic setup you can vary piston diameters. With a cable system… pedal length?

  9. dieseldude Avatar

    Packard did this with in the late forties with no torque converter. I ran across the excerpt in the factory service manual on the interwebs one day while drinking….I mean researching Packard stuff. The system seemed fairly straight-forward, and engaged the clutch depending on throttle position. Nothing new under the sun I suppose.

  10. joedunlap Avatar

    Ha! These are mere tinkertoys compared to the electronically shifted and clutched Renault R10. How did they do it you ask? (whew, I thought you would NEVER ask 🙂 ) Well, they started with the old 3 speed manual box from the Dauphine, removed the normal shift fork housing assembly and fitted one with a pair of servo motors. Then to decouple it (or couple it as the case may be) the normal clutch was removed and in its place went a (how do I describe this abortion?). A housing with one end connected to the crank and the other to the transmission input shaft, and in between it was filled with IRON FILINGS. Inside was a rather powerful electromagnet that when energized would cause the filings to solidify, thereby creating a semi-solid to completely solid connection from the engine to the trans, depending on how much current was applied to the magnet. All of this was controlled by a push button shifter (think Dodge Dart, Edsel, etc.) which inputtted to an analog computer that took up the entire passenger side of the dash and effectivly eliminated the already tiny glove box and the tray under the dash. The "computer" controlled the outputs to the shift servo motors, as well as a govenor throttle below the carburetor to keep the engine from overrevving during upshifts. Honest! I couldnt make this up, could I?

  11. joedunlap Avatar

    P.S. The only thing weirder than the system was the huge test box of switches and blinking lights we had to use to diagnose it when it failed. Which was often.

    1. johnh Avatar

      Never saw the auto. I miss both my 10s though, especially the round light '66.

  12. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    I actually enjoy these systems. When I'm in any two-pedal car I habitually use one foot per pedal, go-kart style. With a 'clutchless' manual I'm still free to shift gears, enthusiast style. My only reservation is that, in every marque I've driven thus equipped, I never feel that I can drive at ten-tenths without potentially confusing Mr Clutch.
    I think I'd still go full auto in a cruiser but row-your-own for superfunhappy times.

  13. labcoatguy Avatar

    I'm baffled by the near-universal dislike of the manual shifter on the 9000. I can only assume that it was updated during the facelift, because the setup on my '95 Aero is perfectly serviceable even when hustling. There may be an element of personal bias here, as I've only owned manual cars with cable-operated shifters, but even avowed Miataphile Blake Rong didn't object to the shifter when he fell in love with my Saab mere moments after the turbo kicked in.

    1. Van_Sarockin Avatar

      The 9000's shifter is vague and notchy. Earlier version is theoretically the more precise of the twp styles.

  14. Johnny Avatar

    What Porsche with their Sport-O-Matic, or even better, an 80's Ferrari with the Valeo system, moving the stick across that open gate while your fake leg rides in the trunk…

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