1988 Saab 900 Turbo SPG Test Drive

By James Mackintosh, 10 March 2009

It's difficult to approach reviewing a vehicle objectively when it's been an object of desire for the majority of your adult life. Never the less, I'll do my best.  I had the chance to drive a 1988 Saab 900 Turbo SPG recently, and suffice to say it left quite an impression on me.

The Saab 900 was the darling of "yuppies" during most of the 80's, duking it out with the evergreen BMW 3-series as the ride of choice of the recently prosperous.  It wasn't hard to understand why: solid build, inherently safe structure, capable but safe handling, massive cargo capacity in a unique (read: not a wagon) body, and of course... turbo power.  The attributes that made investment bankers fall for the 900 Turbo at a cost of $17,000 and change in 1983, ironically enough, are the same ones that make people like  me - car buyers on a budget with a preference for something interesting - fall for it today.

1988 Saab 900 Turbo SPG

My obsession with all things Saab is clearly visible on this site as well as my own (check out all the things tagged under Saab here!).  It's a genetic problem; between my parents, there have been a total of 8 Saabs in the family.  Mum had a two-stroke Saab (an 850GT!  And it was her first car!) and a 96 V4 then two 99's; dad had a 96 V4, a Sonnett II V4, and an '04 9-3 Aero Covertible.  It's in my blood.

There were a whole lot of 900's in the 1980's.  They came in every variety from the stripped 5-door family wagon model, to the bright-red drop top with a turbo, to the stiffly-sprung three door hatchback with the "newfangled" 16 valve head.  But among all the numerous variants of the 900, the one for those who liked to drive had a simple name: SPG.

1988 Saab 900 Turbo SPG intercooler piping

The SPG combined all of the best components from various 900's: 16-valve head, turbocharging, APC (Automatic Performance Control, an active knock sensor that can adapt to any grade of fuel from 87-92), the revised 5-speed transmission from 1987, anti-roll bars, aerodynamic body addendum, etc.  The SPG (which stood for Special Performance Group) was the top-of-the-line 900, produced in limited numbers from 1985 to 1991 - just over 7,000 units reached American shores during the six year period, making it coveted and collectible.

Driving a Saab 900 is a unique experience, as it has a fairly unusual mechanical layout.  For one thing, it's front wheel drive - but the engine is mounted longitudinally (front-to-back).  Also, the engine is oriented  in the opposite direction you'd expect - power comes off the flywheel at the front of the engine, and is transferred to the transmission via chain-driven gears.  The gearbox is mounted transaxle style to the bottom of the engine to form the oil pan - although engine and transmission oil are kept separate (unlike the original Mini, which used a similar setup.)

1988 Saab 900 SPG engine

Suspension is via double wishbones in the front and a torsion beam in the rear, and the SPG came equipped with anti-roll bars on both ends.  Due to the powertrain arrangement, the 900 has a rather long front overhang, which give it such "unique" proportions.

Sitting in a 900, you notice a few things about the interior.  First of all, many things aren't where you'd expect them to be - they're where they should be.  Like all Saabs, the ignition is between the seats on the center console, behind the shifter.  This is nice because it means you don't have keys jangling against your knee when you drive - and reduces the risk of key-impaling-knee related injuries in a frontal collision.  Smart.

Saab 900 SPG interior

The controls are laid out in Saab's ergonomic aircraft cockpit-inspired manner - the IP tilts toward the driver so that all the controls are on the same plane of travel as the driver's arm.  Everything is larger than you'd think is necessary and visibly marked.  Window and sunroof controls are down on the center console as well.  The instrumentation is so very Saab - the tach is marked with "econ" and "red" zones, there's a cute little (non-calibrated) boost gauge, and an analogue clock.  Clear, legible, natural.  The car does date itself a bit with the yellow triangle marking at 55mph, indicating the nationwide 55mph speed limit from the 80's.

1988 Saab 900 SPG instruments

The interior is supremely comfortable.  Even after 135,000 miles and 21 years of wear and tear, the seats still coddle you like that creepy uncle you don't like to visit, everything falls easily to hand, and it just feels natural.  It's no wonder that Saab hardly changed the interior of the 900 in 1994 when it got a complete redesign - or again in 1998 when the 9³ superceded the 900.  Good design never goes out of style, and the 900's cabin still feels classy.

Of course, half the 900's appeal is that it's a small car with tons of room.  A three door coupe-hatchback, the rear seats fold flat giving you a massive amount of room - easily enough to sleep in or move a 2-seat couch with.

Turn the key (between the seats!) to turn over the engine, and the 2.0L 16v I4 cranks to life with a healthy sounding burble and a smooth idle.  This motor, equipped with a Garrett T3 with water and oil cooling, creates 175 horsepower and a meaty 201lb-ft (273nM).  The first thing you notice as you take off is - wow, this shifter is awful.

Saab 900 SPG with clamshell hood open

Well, every car has a weak spot, and the 900's is the transmission in general, and the shift linkage in particular.  It's ropey and vague, and takes a deliberate hand and some familiarization to shift smoothly.  Still, it's better than the three speed automatic.

The SPG has a charming warble to it's exhaust, not quite lopey and cammy sounding like an uncorked Subaru, but quite distinct.  Power is flat below about 3,000 rpm, although thanks to the 16v head's better flow properties as well as the higher 8.5:1 compression ratio the APC system allows, it's not nearly as lethargic as older Saab turbos.

Saab 900 SPG interior

Past 3,000 rpm, the "shift up" light comes on - and so does boost!  Oh yes, the SPG has 80's style turbo lag - but when it starts to come in, it's just smooth as butter.  A wave of torque pushes the SPG down the road at a rate you simply wouldn't expect for a car with this many birthdays under it's belt.  Since the curb weight is around 2900 lbs, those 175 horsepower don't have all that much heft to fight with.

The infamous Saab torque steer never reared it's head on my test drive - then again, it's not my car, so I wasn't laying heavily into boost at low speed.  The power steering is remarkably precise - just the right weighting, not a lot of steering fight, no bump steer.  The brakes leave nothing to be desired, either.

1988 Saab 900 SPG clamshell

What's most remarkable about the 900 driving experience today is that it probably feels exactly like it did in 1988.  There are no weird noises, no rattles, no scuttle shake and wobble, no clunking suspension, no whining differential or funny smells.  It still feels solid as a bank vault.

I just feel at home driving a 900 - can't really put my finger on why, but it's one of those cars that just "fits."

Which is why I'm buying it!  Stay tuned... you'll be seeing more of this 900 in the future.

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