The Road to Four Million: The Cars That Built the Saab Brand

Over more than half a century of commercial production, six core model lines have each played a role in building the Saab brand’s reputation for progressive design, innovative engineering, sporty driving and outstanding safety. They are the gene-carriers that have directed Saab’s evolution through four million iterations, from a manufacturer of a utilitarian ‘people’s car’ to premium global player.

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Saab 92, 93, 95, 96, 97 (1949-80)

Where it all began. More than 770,000 units of this family of cars were produced during a 30 year period. The first Saab 92 was designed by a team of aircraft engineers when Saab – the name stands for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, or Swedish Aircraft Company Limited – decided to move into commercial car production to supplement its aircraft business.


A two-door sedan with a detachable rear seat, the distinctive 92 shape evolved into the Saab 93, 95 and 96 models. The streamlined, curvaceous bodywork was unusual for a small production car in the early 1950’s and clearly demonstrated the company’s aeronautical roots; as did the use of a wind tunnel during the design process. The adoption of front-wheel drive for sure-footed handling, excellent road holding and efficient space utilization was also unconventional at the time – 10 years before it was popularized by the Austin/Morris Mini – and established a long-held Saab tradition.

Despite small, two-stroke engines giving only modest power, the effectiveness of Saab chassis design was subsequently demonstrated in the early 60’s by the rallying success of Erik Carlsson. At the wheel of his little Saab 96, Carlsson routinely performed a ‘David and Goliath’ act, humbling the efforts of much more powerful competitors. His exploits on the world rally scene brought the unconventional cars from Sweden to the attention of a wider, international audience.

Safety was, of course, an essential requirement of good aircraft design, so it was only natural that it should be given the same priority in the engineering of automotive products. This was reflected, for example, in the use of the windshield pillars and body panels on these early cars for crash impact protection, another uncommon feature at the time in the automotive sector.

The Saab 95 – a handsome, 3-door station wagon which included innovative features such as a third row of seats and a roof spoiler- arrived in 1959 and was followed the following year by the Saab 96, which had new rear bodywork. These two remained in production for almost 20 years and accounted for more than 500,000 units.


Two-stroke engines, although simple, reliable and well-suited to operating in cold Scandinavian winters, finally gave way to four-stroke, 1.5-liter V4 units in 1966. The V4-powered models were distinguished by more angular frontal styling and their improved power, acceleration and fuel consumption were important customer benefits.

The mid-60’s also saw the introduction of the 97 model, marketed as the ‘Sonett’ – a name derived from the Swedish expression for ‘how nice’. It was a small, stylish two-seater coupé aimed at sporty driving enthusiasts and conceived at the time of Erik Carlsson’s success in motor sport. Based on Saab 96 components and predominantly powered by a 1.7-liter V4 engine, the Sonett II and III series was an eye-catching sports car with nimble handling and a spiritual successor to Sonett 1. This was an open two-seater built in 1956 for competition use, which had features advanced for the time, such as an aluminum ‘monocoque’ chassis and GRP bodywork. In all, a total of 10,219 Sonetts II and III were built from 1966-74.

Innovative features:
· Robust, safety bodyshell with reinforced members (from 1949)
· Preheating of induction air to prevent icing in carburetor (from 1953)
· Automatic ‘Saxomat’ clutch offered for manual transmission (from 1957)
· Folding, rear-facing bench seat, 7-seat capacity for Saab 95 (from 1959)
· Through-flow interior ventilation with exhaust ducts on C-pillar (from 1960)
· Roof spoiler to keep rear window clear on Saab 95 (from 1961)
· Front seatbelts fitted as standard for Swedish market (from 1962)
· Diagonally split, dual circuit brakes (from 1963)
· Telescopic, collapsible steering column (from 1968)
· Adjustable fore/aft rear seat location for Saab 96 (from 1975)

Saab 99/900 (1968-93)

Saab moved upmarket in 1968 with the introduction of the all-new Saab 99, a second and much larger model line. This evolved 10 years later into the ‘classic’ 900 series. During a production cycle of 25 years, these two popular models together accounted for more than 1,500,000 units. They established the traditional Saab styling cues that are still evident today.

Initially launched as a spacious 2-door sedan, 4-door and 3/5-door variants of the 99 followed, the latter founding Saab’s reputation for designing sporty looking, hatchback cars with a versatile, load-carrying capability. A modern family of engines was also introduced, the 1.7-liter crossflow unit having an overhead camshaft and aluminum cylinder head. It was installed longitudinally, with the gearbox underneath, and canted to the right at 45º in order to allow a low hood line. A front-wheel drive was layout was, of course, retained.


The 99’s curved windscreen and front-hinged, ‘clamshell’ hood quickly became distinguishing ‘Saab’ design motifs. Inside, the most innovative feature was the central location of the ignition switch/key down between the front seats alongside the gear lever. For additional security, it also included a reverse gear lock. This unique ignition switch location – good for occupant crash protection and sound ergonomics – remains a distinctive feature of many current Saab models.

Front and rear ‘crumple’ zones and further safety and technical innovations (see below) were included, but the 99 is most notable for ushering in the Saab turbo era. First produced 1977, the 145 bhp Saab 99 Turbo, in black with ‘Inca’ alloy wheels, was to become a seminal motoring icon, unleashing vivid acceleration and establishing Saab as a leader in the use of turbocharging for regular production cars. By this time, the engines had also been enlarged to 1.85 and 2.0-liters and fuel injection added for the sportiest versions.

Saab took another major step forward in 1978 when the first Saab 900 went into production. A development of the 99, it included a longer wheelbase, wider front and rear tracks and new frontal styling. The changes allowed the installation of power steering and further enhanced handling and crash impact performance. The 99 was to stay in production until 1984, when the rear section of the 900 was added and it was renamed ’90’ for a further two years, in line with Saab’s new nomenclature. However, it was the 900 that served as a platform for a number of powertrain developments and innovative improvements in environmental performance (see below).


The 900 model was also the solid foundation for a startling new niche product that was to quickly become a mainstream success: the first Saab Convertible. Launched in 1986 as a robust, soft-top model for everyday use, it set new class standards for the time. The automatic, triple layer hood and four-seater layout gave customers an open top car that was practical to use all the year round.

Innovative features:
· Brake lines mounted inside door sills for greater protection (from 1968)
· Ignition switch cut-off for headlights (from 1969)
· Headlamp washers and wipers (from 1970)
· Self-repairing (up to 8 kph impacts) front and rear bumpers (1971)
· Electrically heated driver’s (1971)
· Side impact door beams (from 1972)
· Compressed fiberglass headlining for interior impact protection (from 1972)
· Emissions control with 3-way catalytic converter and Lambda-sensor (from 1976)
· Interior air filter for passenger compartment (from 1978)
· Automatic Performance Control (APC) to prevent engine ‘knocking’ (from 1981)
· Driver’s door mirror with split field to eliminate blind sport (from 1981)
· Asbestos-free brake linings for all Saab models (from 1982)
· Double overhead camshaft, 16-valve turbocharged engine (from 1984)

Saab 9000 (1984-1998)

The spacious Saab 9000 propelled the brand still further into the prestige car segment. Part of a collaboration with Fiat/Alfa/Lancia, its versatile hatchback design provided a wagon-like load carrying capability and it was rated as a ”large car” in USA. A 4-door sedan variant, the 9000CD, followed in 1988 and together these models accounted for more than 500,000 units before production ceased in 1998.

The retention of front-wheel drive contributed to the cavernous interior and the wraparound fascia design, with a central console angled towards the driver, was a further development of Saab’s driver-focused concept. The high-opening tailgate
gave access to a wide, flat cargo deck, easily enlarged by lowering the split-fold rear seats. This was a premium car that combined the solidity and refinement of a large sedan with the capabilities of a wagon, but without the traditional, boxy proportions.

To demonstrate the speed and strength of the new car, in 1986 three completely standard 9000 2.0 turbo models were taken to Talladega, the high-speed oval in the United States. Covering 100,000 kms non-stop – except for fuel, servicing and driver swaps – the cars established a series of speed records, the fastest averaging 213 kph.

In 1991, the 5-door 9000 was given a sporty new look with the introduction of the 9000CS. Lower, crisper frontal styling was balanced by a completely new tailgate and rear end design, introducing a more traditional, wedge-like profile. The changes were more than cosmetic and included patented side impact reinforcements and a stiffer rear body structure to improve handling and ride. The same frontal styling was later added to the 9000CD sedan.


Under the hood, the 9000 series featured a number of sophisticated engine control strategies (see below) and progressively more powerful turbocharged engines that maintained Saab’s leading position as masters of the art. Development culminated in the top-of-the-line Aero models with 225 bhp and even more impressive levels of torque, up to 350 Nm, that allowed it to accelerate from 80 to 120 kph in fifth gear faster than a Ferrari Testarossa!

Emissions control, becoming increasingly important in the 1990s, was just as impressive. An experiment, conducted in London traffic in 1992 by the UK government’s Warren Spring research establishment, showed that the tailpipe emissions from a standard Saab 9000CS 2.3t were actually cleaner than the air the engine was breathing.

Innovative features:
· First front-wheel drive car to offer ABS (from 1986)
· Direct Ignition (DI) eliminates distributor and other moving parts (from 1988)
· Saab Traction Control for improved stability in slippery conditions (from 1988)
· CFC-free air conditioning system (from 1991)
· Saab Trionic engine management with 32-bit microprocessor (from 1992)
· Ecopower concept introduced for all turbocharged engines (from 1996)

Saab 900/9-3 (1993-02)

The second generation Saab 900 model was based on a new platform that offered much more interior space, better packaging, greater comfort and improved running refinement. The new bodyshape incorporated a careful evolution of traditional styling cues from the first generation 900, echoing but not imitating its look. In production for 10 years, the 900/9-3 series totaled almost 600,000 units.

Inside, the layout of the driver-focused dashboard, including the rotary controls, was also clearly evolutionary. The now ‘Saab-signature’ central location of the ignition switch was, of course, retained. This, and the distinctive oval-shaped door handles, still remain as a Saab design feature.

All engines and transmissions were now transversely-mounted on a separate sub-frame and a 2.5-liter V6, the first six cylinder engine to be fitted to a Saab, was included in the line-up from launch. First produced as a 5-door, 3-door ‘coupé’ and convertible variants followed within a year.

Numerous structural details continued to improve crashworthiness and the new 900 featured the Saab Safeseat concept, giving all passengers a similar level of protection wherever they are seated. Cars for the Swedish market even included a small crash impulse recorder, similar the ‘black box’ used in aircraft, which assisted the work of Saab safety engineers investigating structural performance in real-life accidents.

A new 900 Convertible, part of the product program from the outset, was a particularly attractive addition. Its svelte lines, improved automatic hood operation and flat-folding tonneau cover helped reinforce Saab’s leadership of the segment.


To demonstrate the durability of Saab cars, six 900 models were taken to the high-speed Talladega oval in the United States in 1996, setting a series of endurance speed records for standard production cars. It was similar to a previous Talladega ‘Long Run’ staged 10 years earlier with the Saab 9000 model. This time, the fastest 900 turbo averaged an impressive 226 kph over 40,000 kms, stopping only for routine servicing, fuel and driver changes.

In spring 1998, the Saab 9-3 was launched, featuring new front and rear bodystyling and extensive engineering and chassis improvements. Industry-leading Saab Active Head Restraints (SAHR), as seen on the new 9-5, were fitted to the front seats, helping to prevent neck injury in rear-end collisions. This model also saw the introduction of Saab’s first diesel engine.

Innovative features:
· ‘Black Panel’ instrument illumination cut-off, reducing driver distraction at night (from 1993)
· Saab Sensonic manual gearbox with automatic clutch (from 1995)
· 3 x 3-point rear seat-belts (from 1993)
· Cross-member attached to folding rear seatbacks to anchor seatbelts (from 1993)
· Saab Active Head Restraints (SAHR) for front seats (from 1998)

Saab 9-5 (1997 – to present)

The 9-5 series strengthened Saab’s offer in the medium/large car premium segment by replacing the 9000 with two distinct bodystyles, a sedan and wagon. The sedan was launched in 1997 and the wagon – Saab’s first since the 95 model in 1959 – a year later. Both have been progressively refined and developed and are still in production today, with a total of almost 400,000 units produced.

The bold, dynamic styling adopted design cues from the second-generation 900 model. The rising, wedge-shaped waistline, the ‘hockey stick’ contour into the ‘C’-pillars, the shape of the front lights and the oval-shaped door handles were all key Saab identifiers. The 9-5 also included a ‘clamshell’ hood, last seen in the 99/900 series. The sedan’s coupé-like roof line and integrated boot-lid spoiler contributed to an excellent drag co-efficient of just 0.29, the lowest figure achieved a that time by Saab for a production car.

A marked improvement in ride quality and interior noise levels was gained by mounting the front and rear suspensions on isolated sub-frames and, for the first time, an independent, multi-link rear suspension layout was adopted. The body structure
included further developments in front crumple zone design and a ‘pendulum’ movement of the lower ‘B’-pillar for side impact protection. Saab Active Head Restraints were fitted to the front seats, helping to reduce the risk of neck injury in rear-end collisions.

Inside, the 9-5 featured an evolution of the 9000’s aircraft-inspired and driver-focused dashboard, as well as its wide-acclaimed seating comfort. The feel and shape of many of the controls also drew on Saab tradition. In common with previous sedan models, it retained a folding rear seat for added practicality.

The 9-5 wagon was designed in parallel with the sedan and featured unique styling from the B-pillar rearwards. The raked angle of the tailgate gave it a sporty appearance to complement its more functional, load-carrying capabilities. Design features included: ‘wraparound’ rear window glazing, aircraft-inspired cargo tracks in the rear floor for the safe stowage, a tailgate with integral down-lighting and an extremely strong roll-out floor section for easy loading.

At launch, the 9-5 engine line-up featured the world’s first asymmetrically-turbocharged engine, a 200 bhp V6 unit with a single turbo driven by just one bank of cylinders and feeding both. Other light pressure turbo engine were a 150 bhp 2.0-liter and a 170 bhp 2.3-liter, including balancer shafts for greater running refinement and low friction design details for improved fuel consumption.

In 2002, the model range benefited from a widescale enhancement program involving chassis, suspension and powertrain improvements, as well as subtle front and rear restyling. Two diesel engines, a 120 bhp four cylinder and all-new 176 bhp V6 were added to the range.

Over the years, the all-turbo engine choice has been restructured and now includes and a superb 250 bhp gasoline four cylinder unit for top-of-the-line Aero variants. The latest development is a 2.0-liter BioPower variant, capable of running on carbon-neutral ethanol (E85) or gasoline in any proportions.

Innovative features:
· Night Panel, instrument dimming in addition to illumination cut-off (from 1997)
· Compressed speedometer scale for accurate reading at lower speeds (from 1997)
· Chilled glovebox kept at 6°C for storage of cold drinks etc.(from 1997)
· Ventilated front seats using small electric fans for greater comfort (from 1997)
· Split-fold sun visors for more effective dazzle prevention (from 1997)
· Charcoal air filter to prevent odors entering cabin (from 1997)
· Saab Active Head Restraints (SAHR) for front seats (from 1997)
· Bi-xenon headlights for more powerful road illumination (from 2001)
· BioPower engine, running on ethanol (E85) or gasoline (from 2005)

Saab 9-3 (2002 – to present)

The current 9-3 range of Sport Sedan, SportCombi and Convertible models is part of the biggest new product development program in Saab’s history. Focused on raising Saab’s share of the growing, premium segment below 9-5, more than 230,000 units have so far been produced.

Launched in 2002, the all-new 9-3 Sport Sedan replaced the 3/5-door hatchback model, offering sporty, coupé-like looks backed by a chassis tuned for a more involving, ‘fun to drive’ experience. This includes a unique passive, rear-wheel steer characteristic, Saab ‘ReAxs’, and a bodyshell more than twice as stiff as its predecessor’s

In addition to wider front and rear tracks, a longer wheelbase gave improved rear seat accommodation. Noise refinement and ride quality are also improved by the adoption of a multi-link rear suspension and the use of isolated front and rear sub-frames.

The driver-focused interior retains traditional Saab design themes, such as the central location for the ignition switch, and includes new distinctive features, such as a disguised handbrake and ‘Profiler’ pre-programming for a wide range of interior functions. A sophisticated infotainment system offers one of first automotive applications of ‘Bluetooth’ wireless communication.

Under the hood, a new range of 2-liter, all aluminum turbocharged engines was supplemented by five and six-speed manual gearboxes, with Saab Sentronic manual gear selection for the five-speed automatic transmission.

The new 9-3 Convertible followed just a year later, reinforcing Saab’s leading position in the premium soft-top segment. The new model incorporated all the improved chassis dynamics of the sedan and added a more advanced automatic soft-top operation, including a flexible, space-saving stowage well. The front seats now had integrated seat-belt mountings for greater convenience and ‘pop-up’ rear roll-bars for enhanced rollover protection.

This year the new 9-3 line-up was completed by the launch of the 5-door SportCombi, offering wagon-like versatility with a sporty bodystyle echoing the first generation 900. Large rear light clusters, with frosted lenses, add a distinctive look to its bold, wedge-like profile. Aerodynamicists have been able to achieve zero lift forces, front and rear, giving the SportCombi excellent high-speed stability.

The model year 2006 9-3 range is led by Aero variants powered by a new 250 bhp, 2.8-liter V6 engine, making the 9-3 Aero Sport Sedan the fastest-accelerating Saab ever produced, achieving zero to 100 kph in just 6.7 seconds. The powertrain line-up also includes two common rail, multiple injection, diesel engines, rated at 150 and 120 bhp.

Innovative features:
· Saab ‘ReAxs’ passive rear-wheel steer for greater driver involvement (from 2002)
· Second-generation SAHR giving faster activation in rear-end impacts (from 2002)
· Extensive fiber-optic electronics for advanced infotainment systems (from 2002)
· ‘Pendulum’ engine installation for reduced noise and vibration (from 2002)
· Latest Saab Trionic 8 engine management system (from 2002)
· Space-saving ‘CargoSET’ flexible soft-top storage well (from 2003)
· ‘Hydroblox’ water-repellent textile upholstery for Convertible (from 2003)
· ‘DynaCage’ rollover protection for Convertible with belt-tensioning, pop-up bars (from 2003)
· Manual control of ACC heat settings with soft-top down (from 2003)
· Concealed under-floor storage compartment for SportCombi (from 2005)

Saab 9-2X and 9-7X (2004 – to present)

Developed for the US market, these models are the first Saabs to feature all-wheel drive and are a further step in Saab’s aggressive new product development program. More than 10,000 units have so far been produced

The 5-door 9-2X, launched last year, has taken the brand into an emerging, premium sport compact segment. Permanent all-wheel drive for improved handling, traction and versatility gives the 9-2X a ‘crossover’ capability and the 5-door bodystyle – featuring a raked rear screen first seen on the 9-5 wagon – combines load-carrying versatility with sporty good looks.

Developed in co-operation with Fuji Heavy Industries of Japan, the 9-2X is available with two engines: a 227 bhp, 2.0-liter flat-four turbo for the Aero model and a 165 bhp, 2.5-liter naturally-aspirated version in Linear specification.

This year Saab has continued its new product momentum with the US launch of the 9-7X, a large premium-class SUV model, offering customers in this fast-growing segment a Saab product for the first time. Developed in co-operation with General Motors North America, the 9-7X has smooth, uncluttered lines, without intrusive bumpers or wheel-arch cladding, and is engineered to give a sporty, on-road driving experience, as well as useful, off-road functionality.

Powered by a choice of 300 bhp, 5.7-liter V8 or 275 bhp, in-line 6 cylinder engines, the 9-7X features minimal body roll and electronically-controlled air suspension at the rear. The relatively low ride height gives it a sporty stance in contrast to more traditional, rugged SUV looks.

Innovative features:

· First all-wheel drive Saabs (from 2004)
· First Saab offer in SUV segment (from 2005)
· First flat-four/V8 engines fitted to a Saab (from 2004)

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