If you're looking for a car that does almost everything, with a boat load of character, this one might be right up your alley. This buyer's guide has been floating around my head for a while now, but with the recent demise of Saab, it seems especially timely. There are a lot of things to love about the 9000 Aero, surprisingly few things to worry about, and there's a depth to this big-hearted 5 door hatchback you might not know about. Let's dive in and take a look.
History and Genealogy
The 9000 was Saab's first true foray into the premium segment, pitched against cars like the 5-series and E-class when it launched in the mid 80's. Saab then, like now, was a cash-challenged company, and didn't have the capital to develop a full-sized luxury car by themselves. Saab co-developed the "Type Four" chassis with Fiat. This explains the similarity in appearance between the 9000, Fiat Croma, and Lancia Thema - although the Alfa Romeo 164 used the same chassis, the bodywork was substantially different. Unusual for a luxury car in the 'states, the 9000 was originally available only as a 5-door hatchback. The transverse mounting of the engine made it much more space-efficient than Saab's long standing 900; while it was shorter overall, it had a longer wheelbase and considerably more interior room.
Early (first-generation) 9000's can be distinguished by their more squared-off front ends and taller headlights, prior to the facelift with the introduction of the "CD" 4-door sedan in 1988. These early 9000's were powered by the same B202 2.0L 16v four in the 900, with 175bhp in turbo form. Period road tests praised the 9000's pace (faster 0-60 than a 535i or a 300E, actually) and interior space and quality, but the styling never seemed to sit well with reviewers. Perhaps it was a bit too square and generic, but still a handsome car.
The facelift (which was gradually rolled out over the 9000 lineup) made the 9000 a much more attractive car, casting a mean squinty-eyed profile. The biggest change came in 1990, with the replacement of the B202 with the B234. This 2.3L engine made a good chunk more power (150 plays 130 in non-turbo form), was more refined, and had more low-end power. A turbo version of the B234 came around in 1990, with a round 200bhp. Right quick car back then.
This buyer's guide concerns the Aero models, available from 1993-1997. They featured a special version of the B234 with more power and torque, upgraded suspension, a body kit, Recaro seats, and a bevy of other detail changes.
Why do I want one?
Jaguar's MO has always been "Grace, space and pace." They've always been long on the first, short on the second, and adequate on the third. The Saab 9000 Aero hits all of those. It's a good looking, understated car - with nice proportions uncluttered by requirements like pedestrian crash safety, etc. People who recognize it will give you a knowing nod, it'll fly under the radar of everyone else.
The manual Aero is a lovely car to drive. I 've had the pleasure of driving two, both owned by a friend of mine. One was mostly stock, the other not so much. The 2.3L I4 is quite smooth, even with poly motor mounts. But it's the way it delivers power that's remarkable. Sure, from a stop on a cold/greasy road, 1st gear is mostly wheelspin if you get in it hard, and sometimes second gear - but like all Turbo Saabs, this is a highway car par excellence. A pull from third gear at 50mph shoves you back in your seat. On a tune for 28psi, it rather slams you in it. The 9000 Aero has a broad spread of torque - so much in fact that Saab advertised the 9000 Aero as being faster from 50-75 than a Porsche 911 Carrera 4 or Ferrari Testarossa. The way it pushes the speedometer in gear, it's believable. This is a heavily boosted motor - nearly 15psi stock - and feels like it, with a gentle gathering of breath before the wave of power. It's old-school turbo tech, always letting you know there's a spinny muffler under the hood, not trying to mask it. Officially, the B234R in the Aero is rated at 225 horsepower and 258lb-ft, but they've been known to put more than that to the wheels on stock boost.
So yes, it's fast. Even by today's lofty standards, once you have enough road speed to get traction, it hauls ass, and is capable of showing tail lights to plenty of "sports cars." And that's not even touching the aftermarket potential (further down.) But when you're out of boost, it's a 2.3L I4 with a 5-speed. They'll get 34-35mpg on the highway with a careful foot.
Beyond the impressive powertrain (Volvo's T5 is finally making more power than the B234R), the interior is fantastic. The seats are one of the best reasons to get an Aero. They're designed by Recaro, 8-way adjustable and heated - literally the most comfortable production seat of any car I've ever been in. The interior is typical Saab, odd but in useful ways. There's no console-mounted ignition, but other Saab oddities are here - console window switches, huge hatchback with folding rear seats (bottom forward/top down for a flat floor), egg-crate air vents, buttons everywhere, etc. Plenty of features, too: auto climate control, multi-function trip computer, cabin air filter, great stereo, sunroof, etc.
They're great cars on the highway. Long gearing and tons of mid-range torque means no downshifts out of fifth are needed to overtake traffic, and the cabin is nicely isolated. The great big leather Recaros keep your backside comfortable for longer trips, although the A/C output is a weak spot - typical of Swedish cars. The heater will blast your eyeballs dry, though.
The Aero has some Swedish oddities and charm, tempered with modern luxuries and pure performance. Plus, it's not a pain in the ass to run, and they're affordable. Read on for what to look for, what to avoid, and what you can do with it after you get one.
What Should I Look For? What Should I Avoid?
The Aero was sold from 1993-1997 in manual and automatic forms. First off the bat: probably best to leave the Aero automatic on that dealer's lot and keep looking for one with the correct number of pedals. The manual Aeros used the B234R, which was equipped with a Mitsubishi TDO4HL-15g turbo. They made 225bhp/258lb-ft torque (342nM). Automatics were stuck with the B234L, which had a smaller turbocharger (Garret T25) and made less power - 200bhp and 217lb-ft. The ZF 4-speed automatic is not a particularly reliable gearbox, and the loss of a gear and 25 horses with the addition of a fluid coupling doesn't do great things for the fun-to-drive quotient. Saab did this to preserve the life of the automatic, which wasn't really up to all that power.
If you're familiar with classic 900's (like my old '88 900 SPG), at this point you're wondering "So how often does the transmission explode in a grenade-like fashion?" Good question! Answer: infrequently. The Saab 5-speed on the 9k Aero is a robust unit, and failures are unusual. The clutch itself will sometimes give in to the strain of all that torque, but it's entirely dependent on how good the previous owner was at driving and maintaining it.
One thing to avoid in particular are 1992-1993 cars, because they have traction control (TCS.) "So what" you might think, "everything has traction control." It's a major failure point and pain-in-the-ass on 9000's, and there's a reason it was discontinued partway through 1994. For one thing, it's a non-defeatable system - so if you like rampant turbo-induced wheelspin, a TCS car is no fun. They have electronic throttle bodies (this is how the system modulated power), and a failure of any number of components in the system will put the car into a "limp home" mode, from which it can't be tricked or resuscitated until new parts are fitted. These TCS-related parts are rare, out of production, and expensive if you can find them. Converting a TCS to non-TCS is no straightforward task either; they use different throttle bodies and wiring harnesses. Best advice: find one without it. TCS was optional on '94 and '95 cars before being discontinued as well, so be sure to check for it.
In theory, '95 would be the ideal year to own. There's no TCS, and it's still OBD-1, so you have a lot more room to play without setting off a check engine light (CEL) and failing your inspection. Like many early OBD-2 cars, it's easy enough to fool a 96+ Aero into thinking it has a catalytic converter, but with a 95 you don't have to worry about it - it doesn't have a post-cat 02 sensor anyway.
The B234's all came with a set of counter-rotating balance shafts, driven via chain, which is one reason why the motor is so smooth. That's the good: the bad is that if the chain that drives them goes bad, it can wreck the timing chain, which can then wreck the cylinder head and damage piston surfaces. Like all timing chain motors, there's no specified replacement or service interval for the chain; it's a "lifetime" part. Still, listen for noise - especially at just above idle - that might indicate worn tensioners. Keeping the oil level topped up can preserve the life of the tensioner system if it's not already worn, but since this is a Saab that can be easier said than done. Still, even if you have an oil leak, buying oil is a lot cheaper than paying for a tensioner rebuild, or paying for a new cylinder head. Don't miss the forest for the trees.
The turbo itself on the Aero is robust and replacements/upgrades are easy to find. Hell, it's a Mitsubishi TD04: the general replacement in OEM land for the Garrett T3 when it started to get long in the tooth. The center cartridge is oil-and-water cooled, so no cool down procedure is necessary, but it doesn't hurt. If the car builds boost very slowly, or makes a loud whining noise, or blows oil smoke under hard acceleration, it could be a sign of a worm center housing on the turbo. My experience: these 15g's are stout. The aforementioned friend's "toy" Aero, which has run 28psi of boost for the last 50k miles, has no issues. And pulls like a train, that's being pulled by another train.
The automatic climate control system is a nice feature, but can be finicky and expensive to repair. Oddly enough, it includes a built-in diagnostic system which will show you how many errors are present. There's a great DIY on Townsend Import's site here showing how to do it, but basically if you hold the "Auto" and "<===>" (Vent) buttons down simultaneously, the display with show "0" while it runs diagnostics. If it does this then switches back to the current temp, there's no issues. If it shows a number, that's how many faults there are. Older 9000 ACC systems would actually display codes for the faults, but by the time the Aero debuted they had switched to a newer one. You can pinpoint issues with the process of elimination or a specialist diagnostic tool. Also check that the HVAC blower motor functions in all it's speeds, and that the heater core isn't leaking. It's apparently a right bitch to get to.
The basic body itself is sound; all 9000's had some form of rust-proofing, so corrosion shouldn't be an issue. Make sure to check the door edges and fenders, as well as any metal that's covered by rubber - which can trap moisture in. Also make sure that the drain channels for the sunroof aren't blocked; this can cause a big mess and rust issues if they're not taken care of in time. The biggest thing to check: the rear strut mounts, which if they corrode enough the shock can pop through. But the 9K is a recent enough car that structural integrity from rust isn't a huge issue. A good hint would be to check the car's history and get one that didn't come fro a rust-prone area. Also of note: the 9000 was, and is, one of the safest cars on the road, being designed to dissipate the force of an impact around the passenger cabin. So while it can keep you safe in a wreck, make sure to check alignment and straightness of body panels for a sign of botched previous repairs, as well as paint consistency.
Other basic stuff to check, which isn't really specific to the 9000 but cars in general: look for oil contamination in the coolant or vice versa, which will appear like chocolate mayonnaise, smell awful and is a sign of a blown head gasket. Make sure the brake and clutch pedals maintain pressure while driving; either going soft could be an issue with a master/slave cylinder, a leaking line, etc. Check for oil leaks: the line to the turbo, the valve cover gasket, inside the spark plug tubes, crankshaft seals, etc. Perversely, a car that's driven frequently and has followed a warm-up and cool-down procedure most of it's lifetime is less likely to spring a leak, so again try to get a feel for the previous owner's habits. The B234R takes synthetic oil, and premium gas is required, but a five-quart jug will do and it's pretty easy on gas unless you're getting on it all the time. Also check the condition of the motor mounts: they get a pretty sound thrashing, and the stock ones are fairly soft, so movement vertically of the shifter on and off throttle could be a sign they've gone bad. Check struts, make sure the car doesn't pull to one side under braking, the normal used car stuff. It pays to check these cars over well before purchase: you could end up saving a lot of money in the long term by passing on one that looks nice, but has issues.
What Can I Do With It?
Glad you asked. The 9000 Aero has a fairly strong aftermarket and a lot of potential, if you know where to look.
The engine itself is a gem - it has a forged crank and rods from the factory (before GM "revised" it into the B235, with cheaper connecting rods that like to bend under pressure and a terrible PCV system) and can take a lot of stress before needing a bottom end upgrade. The engine management system (Trionic 5) is very capable and tuneable. And the Mitsubishi TD04HLT-15t turbo is the same type used in T5 Volvos, Evos, SRT-4's, etc - so finding a replacement or upgraded unit is simple. A popular upgrade is to use a larger 18t or 19t compressor housing, which creates more airflow and greater power without significantly increasing spool time. Frequently you can have your TD04 rebuilt with a new center housing and larger compressor side for less than the cost of a new turbo.
Like most fuel injected turbo cars, software is where the biggest gains will found. The Trionic system used on the Aero is very capable, integrating fuel injection and boost control - and the groundwork for tuning has already been laid. A basic software upgrade will yield 40-50 extra horsepower just by changing maximum boost and fuel trims, basically. Beyond that, you're looking at basic turbo car upgrades: larger intercooler and charge piping, higher-flow fuel injectors, a different MAP sensor, de-catted downpipe and exhaust/intake mods, and other little stuff. Multiple companies make software for the 9000: JZW Tuning sells staged software upgrades and hardware, as does MapTun and Nordic Tuning. All are somewhat similar (as is usually the case for software) but figure a maximum of about 330 horsepower at the crank on the stock 15t turbo - or around 290whp before you need something bigger.
If you want more though, you're going to need more turbo. The 18t/19t Hybrids are a good way to go without sacrificing too much driveability, but if you want to go big, there's a simple (relatively speaking) way to do it. The older 2.0L 9000's used Garrett T3 turbochargers - and the exhaust manifold bolts right up to the 2.3L. The Garrett T3 uses the same flange pattern as the Holset HX35/40, which was the massive stock turbocharger used on Dodge Cummins turbodiesels. So older manifold, spacer plate, Holset with a reclocked compressor housing, custom piping and you're ready for some huge numbers. In fact this car put 422 horsepower to the wheels with a fairly simple setup. While a Holset isn't as sexy as a more modern big turbo (like a GT35), it's rebuildable and it's a lot cheaper - like 150-200 in a junkyard cheap. Keep in mind that this much airflow requires supporting modifications - a high-flue fuel pump and larger injectors for starters.
Once you're making almost 500whp, you want the car to handle better. Good news: the 9000 is a better platform to start with if you want to modify a Saab than a newer 900 or 9-3. It's surprisingly light for it's size, and doesn't have the violent torque steer that those cars do because the steering rack's bolted to the subframe, not the firewall. So no "Viggen Rescue Kit" needed as a first step. Bilstein makes HD struts for the 9000, and you can get lowering springs from Abbott, SAS, B&G, Vogtland and Jamex. Thicker sway bars are good as well: SAS sells upgrade 1" bars too.
Most 9000's have a lot of miles on them at this point, and it's worth replacing some bushings and mounts that see heavy wear. In particular, the torque mounts lead a hard life, and replacing it with a poly one can improve throttle response and shift quality. Control arm bushes, trailing arm bushes, sway bar mounts... spend a weekend replacing them and you'll thank yourself later.
Where Do I Get One?
Ahh, that's the tricky bit isn't it. The Aero was a limited production car, and a good chunk of them were automatics, so finding one that's near you, priced reasonably, and straight is the hardest part of the whole process. At the time of writing, there were a total of 6 Saab 9000's listed on AutoTrader nationally in the US. None of them were Aeros. No luck on Cars.com either. A few show up on a global search of Craigslist through Google, but the best way to find one are Saab forums. SaabCentral has a fairly busy classified section - check it out here with 9000 Aero's ranging from $1000-$5000 depending on condition. Another great one: The Saabnet.com classifieds section, which are broken up by model.
This guide has been a long time in the working, and I would like to personally thank Chris C for his input and providing some of the links for this buyer's guide. Did I miss something? Do you have more questions? Leave them in the comments section below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy buying!