BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Saab's much loved old-shape 900 was in production for decades. By the time it was replaced in 1993, there was a huge and intensely loyal group of buyers awaiting the new car with interest. What they got was a re-bodied and re-engineered Vauxhall Cavalier with typically eccentric Saab touches, like the ignition switch on the floor. After a slow start, sales of this new 900 gained momentum and its reputation is fast approaching that of the original. These cars are strong, safe, responsive and feel like they'll last forever. They also hold their values well too, so if a 900 interests you, you're making a sensible, if ever-so-slightly unusual decision.
Models Covered: 3 & 5dr hatchback, convertible: 2.0i, 2.0 turbo, 2.3i, 2.5 V6 [base, S, Talladega, XS, SE, Sensonic S]
A choice of three body styles was the limit to the range; three-door hatch (usually known as a Coupe), five-door hatch and convertible. Only the five-door was available at the October 1993 launch. Engines were either 2.0 or 2.3-litre four cylinders (and a 2.0-litre turbo version) or the Vauxhall-made 2.5-litre V6. The turbo four was powerful (more so than the V6) and smooth, due to Saab's special engine balance shafts. The three-door arrived in February 1994, followed by the convertible in September. There was a small upgrade for base model cars in February 1995 when colour-coded bumpers were added. The range stayed much the same since launch - trim levels were base, S or SE. A further variant called Sensonic S became available in May 1995. No longer in production, it differed from the standard car by having a manual transmission without a clutch pedal - you simply changed gear as normal and a computer operated the clutch for you. One to keep an eye out for, it was also available in the convertible model. To boost sales, a better-equipped version of the lower-order 900 2.0 five-door was introduced in 1996 - the 900 2.0i XS - while a 2.3i XS five-door model was added in 1997. Other 1997 improvements included larger, more supportive front seats with velour upholstery, a more precise gearchange, larger brake discs and heat-reflecting glass. Every version above 2.0-litres got a rear reflective panel inserted between the rear light clusters, and engine size badging. Saab celebrated the 900's successful attack on the world endurance record with a new trim level called Talladega. The super-fast speedway in Talladega, Alabama was the site for Saab's non-stop lapping of a banked circuit in early 1997. Cars so named gained a host of luxury equipment and special badging. The 1998 year-model cars began to appear in time for the R-plate changeover, with the main change the dropping of the V6 engine. A heavily modified range appeared in March 1998, renamed '9-3', with changes centred on chassis modifications as well as a mild facelift.
What You Get
Typically Saab features; whether that's your cup of tea or not, only you can decide. These cars are built for freezing Swedish winters and North American summers - Saab's two big markets. So you can expect the cars to have been designed to cope with almost anything you can throw at them. Build quality, safety and crash-worthiness are priorities for the Swedes and the 900 excels in all three categories. Turbos and V6s are fast but not too furious, while the normal 2.0-litre cars are honest and dependable transport, if not exactly capital-F fun machines. Equipment is good on all models; standard spec consists of ABS, electrically heated and powered mirrors, electric windows and driver's airbag. The SEs add air conditioning, alloy wheels and cruise control.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Avoid high-mileage models, not least because they will probably be in need of work for which parts and servicing can be expensive. Insurance won't be cheap either, particularly if you opt for a turbo. On convertibles, watch for any stains that might indicate leaks around the door and window seals. Also, look out for electrical problems and, on turbos, damage to the turbocharger itself - oil smoke is a dead give-away. You may also notice worn front tyres on these versions.
Based on an M-reg 2.3 S, a clutch assembly is around £160 and an exhaust system should be about £100. The catalytic converter is a bit on the pricey side at nearly £550 but routine items such as front brake pads are a more wallet-friendly at around £40. Alternators aren't cheap, varying from £195 to £400. (All prices are ex-Vat.)
On the Road
These are cars you need to get used to driving. They may be based on the mass-market Cavalier/Calibra chassis, but Saab's clever engineers have managed to disguise that well. Throw a 900 into a series of twisty bends and the lean is noticeable but the handling is good, nevertheless. Road-holding is consistent. A turbo or V6 will have you grinning on a challenging road but neither's a car you'd get up early on a Sunday just to drive.
The later 900 is far more conventional than most people realise. Is it a cynically marketed Cavalier with old-style Saab touches? Not a bit. A real Saab it is and one that has deservedly brought the company many new fans.