It’s been a little while since I’ve published one of these comparison pieces. The idea is to have Saab drivers have a go in other makes and comment on the experience and then think about what makes their Saab such an enjoyable car to own. The journos often don’t get it, so it’s up to enthusiasts in a lot of cases.
This piece is from Adam, a Viggen owner. It’s a long one, so sit back and relax.
Adam’s also gone one step futher and included a bit of an editorial at the conclusion. I’ll say right now that these are his thoughts and I think he understands that I don’t necessarily concur with all of them, an issue that can be taken up in comments, I guess.
We agree to disagree, but regardless I’d like to thank Adam for what is an extraordinary amount of work here.
Hi, I’m Adam. I’m a car guy and a Saab guy, and in the last couple of years I’ve driven a fair number of cars. I’m a regular reader of TrollhattanSaab.Net and I’ve noticed that the comparison articles are very popular. Therefore, I’ve put together my own and, believe it or not, this is the shortened version. The cars are more or less in the order in which I drove them. I’ve put my Viggen first because it allows me to describe why I like it so much before comparing others to it.
If you follow the comments of this website closely you may already know my perspective on Saab’s present and future. I’m not one who thinks that Saab is or should be going after BMW, Mercedes, or the higher Audis. I believe that Saab should remain attainable and practical, so that guys like me can afford them. I believe that this is Saab’s historical place and its best place. I think Saab does and should continue to compete with Acura, VW, Subaru, and Volvo, and to some degree Audi, Infiniti, and Mazda.
Now, some notes on the list. During the first couple on the list, I was driving for fun. Some were incidental, cars I had the opportunity to drive for some other reason. Lately, I’ve been test driving cars because I’ve been considering trading in my Viggen, and here’s why…
I bought it in August of 2003 with 71k mi. Starting at around 110k, I started to have problems which haven’t stopped. The things that have gone wrong in the last year and a half alone are:
Mass air flow sensor, head gasket, rusted out exhaust flex pipe, 3 bent wheels, transmission bearings, transmission leak, rear shocks, evaporative purge valve, front bumper falling off, headlight wiper motor, fog light falling out, coolant temp sensor, water pump, and crank sensor.
It has literally run me out of money, and I didn’t have much disposable income to start. It’s really irritating because I take care of it and I don’t really drive it hard. I need a car that is going to get me to work in the morning, and I’ve come to dislike the suspense of going out to my car and wondering if any new problems are going to appear that day. My previous car, a Toyota, was older with more mileage when I sold it and the only thing I ever replaced was the clutch master cylinder; my father’s Japanese cars didn’t have anything like these problems either.
One final note, not all cars on here are direct comparisons to anything Saab competes with. For those cars I’ll deal with them quickly and add any notes on how they might relate to Saab’s future.
Saab Viggen (‘00)
The day I got my black 5-door Viggen was one of the happiest in my life. Growing up, I was the only one I knew who liked the 900s of the ‘80s. Before buying the Viggen, I drove my Corolla and looked forward to someday getting a Saab. The test drive was a blast I instantly knew it was the car for me. I like the looks and I like the rarity. I like the practicality of the hatch, I’ve put my kitchen table with chairs in there. I love the seat, it is perfectly shaped for my body. I love the visibility from the upright driving position and the upright windshield. I like how the controls are up high and the instruments are clear. I love the key between the seats, where the other keys don’t dangle and hit my knee. I think it is intelligently designed and an awesome blend of performance and practicality. I just wish it wasn’t making me broke. There are weak points, for instance the ride is so rubbery that when I go over a bump I get the same sensation through my butt as I get though my hands when I hit a hockey puck with a slap shot, and the shifter may be the worst I’ve experienced.
Saab 9-5 V-6t (‘99)
This was the first Saab I ever drove. I liked it a lot. Nice size, power, great interior. I think I might like the interior in this era 9-5 better than any other car I’ve driven.
Saab 9-3 2.0t (‘03)
I went and drove the new 9-3 as soon as it came out. I drove the 175hp version with the auto. It didn’t really make much of an impression on me. The biggest thing I came away with was the interior was so inferior to the 9-5 in quality, even if it had the cool cupholder.
VW Jetta VR6 (‘03)
My dad bought this with a 5-speed. Very nice interior, drove great all around, very solid, looked very nice. He had problem after problem with it and got rid of it pretty quickly and went back to Japanese.
Audi TT 1.8T (‘03)
This car gets my vote for the best looking car, ever. The interior is similarly beautiful, but not too functional. Driving it was less interesting because it is not as sporty as you’d think from looking at it. The styling got in the way, too. Every time I would check the blind spot to change lanes I’d hit my head on the curving roof. I would be interested to see Saab compete with this but I don’t see that happening directly. A “black turbo” coupe would be nice but they’d have to rework the interior.
Audi A4 1.8T (‘03)
I liked the size of the car and the traction was sure in curves. The interior was very well done, and I like the exterior styling a lot as well. About the only weakness in this car was with this engine it needed a bit more power. I haven’t driven the V-6.
VW Passat W-8
My uncle works at a VW/Audi/Porsche dealer and so as you can see I have access to those cars. The W-8 had a very nice interior, but it drove rather heavy. Definitely not any kind of sports sedan, but comfortable and nice. I think VW would be better off to not go upscale like this and the Phaeton. I think they’d be better off to have Audi have sporty and not sporty models, the same way Lexus has the IS and GS vs the ES and LS. I fear that the next 9-5 will get big and heavy trying to go after cars it shouldn’t as VW did here. Keep Saab light and sporty, let our cousins at Caddy compete up there.
Porsche Boxster (‘03)
Outstanding handling. A decent (front) trunk, considering. Weird color/texture choices in the interior, and the gauges are too cute for a sporting machine.
BMW 325i (‘04)
BMWs are supposed to steer great, and this one certainly did. The engine was smooth, not very powerful in this model though. It shifted very well also. The interior is a grade below Audi or the 9-5 (above), and something about the interior layout didn’t feel right, but I’m not sure what. The console between the seats was too high or something. The biggest problem with BMWs are the prices. Sure, they’re great to drive but they cost a lot for the amount of equipment you get. They must have some pretty nice profit margins.
This car handles like the Boxster and has more space. If you want some fun, borrow one of these and run through the tight curves. It was great to drive, and faster than you might think considering the lack of torque. I can only imagine how fast it would have been if the salesman along on the test drive hadn’t been a 300+ pounder. I also liked the layout of the interior, and the quality seemed pretty good too. The digital speedo inside the analog tach made a lot of sense to me. The trunk opening was small and if you get the spare tire it blocks the opening. They should have made it a hatchback.
The size was right, and the interior was nice if a bit modern for my taste. It drove pretty well but needed more power down low. The 2.4L may be fine for the European Accord but for the US Acura version they should have made a ~3.0L V-6 standard. I think this car is a very strong competitor at about the same size, drive layout, and price as the 9-3. Especially when you consider the reliability issue.
Wow. I liked the 9-5 but overall this car blows it away. Great power, great shifting, fairly large, handles very well. Its shifting is very light and smooth for a car this powerful. When I got back in the Viggen I though my car must be broken the way it vibrated and clunked through the gears. Like the TSX it has a modern interior, but well executed with good materials. At the price, it’s a class leading value. About the only thing I didn’t like, and this applies to about every Honda product I’ve driven, is that the steep windshields come in really tight at my forehead. I sit very upright and have fairly short legs so this is a common issue for me.
I certainly liked the body style of this car but I couldn’t sit up. The interior is well laid-out. It has the high pod for the radio and climate control like the 9-3 and I liked that a lot. The instruments were clear but I wasn’t thrilled with the white faced gauges. It had very little torque and I’m not a fan of these Honda engines that you have to crank to 7000 rpm to get power. The ride felt like a cheaper car which is not surprising because it is based on the Civic.
This car didn’t make much of an impression on me. I thought the interior would be nicer in a Caddy but it was plasticy and the plastic wasn’t even that nice. The layout of the interior was about as Saab-ish as you’ll find outside of Saab, even down to the vents. When the BLS came out I just thought, oh well, having driven the CTS that actually doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.
I had this car as a rental loaner when the Viggen was in the shop one of those times. It does handle well, but it has almost no storage space. It’s not going to be your only car. I’d like to see Saab do a new Sonett based on the Saturn Sky turbo, but it would have to be a hardtop and have a decent trunk. Hey, wouldn’t it be easy to make the 9-X from that platform? Oh, sorry, just daydreaming about what GM would do if it actually gave a damn about Saab.
Subaru Legacy GT
I wanted to look at the GT (turbo 4) in a wagon, but apparently they don’t make that, or didn’t at the time I went looking. However, I was not disappointed when I got in it and drove it. Subaru’s interiors have really come along. It was very well done and modern, but not in the same way as the Acuras and I liked it a lot. Its modernity is almost…Scandinavian. The seat was flat and hard, not very nice coming from a Saab. It drove very well too. It hangs in turns nicely and that all wheel drive definitely helps. I love that turbo, too. I prefer the turbos that are 100hp/L or better, more than the light pressure turbos that are more transparent. To me, the Legacy is what the 9-3 should have been from ‘03: reasonably priced, nice interior, reliable, and modern, with available turbo and awd. Look at the attributes and pricing. This is the real competition, not the BMW 3-series.
Volvo V50T AWD
This is definitely a head-on 9-3 competitor. I liked the cargo area the best. Okay, the seats were good too. But it was nothing special to drive. Even with the turbo the engine ran out of breath too early. That floating console is interesting, but crowding all of the buttons into the middle pretty much cancels any ergonomic advantage you gained by it. Like the 9-3 and CTS, there was a lot of plastic and the quality of it didn’t impress me at all. And if I remember correctly, the gauges were white on gray, which was pretty dumb for a company that is supposed to be about safety. Anyway, I’d say if you’re into Volvos get an S60 (which has a much nicer interior) or wait for the C30 which should have better handling and power to go with the useful cargo space.
Mini Cooper S (‘05)
They’re not kidding when they say go-cart handling. It rides hard and the dash is pretty lame, but it is mostly a very attractive car. You’ll read a lot that the seats are shapeless. If so, I guess my butt is too because they fit me nicely. I like the upright windshield and dash. The back seat is pretty much fake, but flip them down and you have a big cubic cargo space. For someone like me (that is, single) it makes a lot of sense because you get the great handling like a 2 door sports car, with the practicality of a wagon. I’m wondering, are there any other European auto companies that could do a cool, front drive, forced induction, practical but sporty, unusual but handsome, small hatchback within their existing image? Sorry, daydreaming again.
Saabaru Aero (‘06)
This is a great car to drive. And if you were going to choose a car to masquerade as a Saab it wasn’t a bad choice. The size is right, it sits similarly, it’s got the turbo and it has that little bit of outsider attitude. I was most disappointed that the interior wasn’t nicer against my Viggen, but if you look at it side by side with the new 9-3 I’d say it might even compare favorably. For $5000+ rebate I probably should have bought it considering how the Viggen started to literally fall apart soon after. I still think this is a prime example of GM’s astonishingly bad management of Saab. They could have leveraged the Subaru connection to make both brands better. As far as two brands go Saab and Subaru could complement each other extremely well. GM could have spent an extra year and given the car a real Saab interior and it would have been an absolutely fantastic product. But of course they took the cheapest route between two points and put a new nose on it instead of doing the whole job and the car flopped in two years. So GM, did taking the short, cheap road help your earnings in the long run, or even at all? Okay, enough commentary. Moving on…
From here on out I am driving cars because I’m seriously considering getting rid of the Viggen. This car is all about the engine. It looks nice and the interior was surprisingly nice too. But wow, that’s the kind of wild turbo power I love. At one point on the test drive there was a straight on-ramp that was wide and flat for about 1/3 of a mile and the salesman told me to go for it. I was doing 100 before I looked down and I still had some road. I think the speed limit was 55. Ooops. It had a rakish windshield that I don’t like. In that type of car the pillars take up so much of your vision and you get more glare too, if I’m not imagining things. The price was pretty nice when you considered they had something like $3500 rebates on it. After doing some research on this car, it looks like everyone who has one is having problems with the drivetrain.
VW Jetta GLI
This is the version with the new 2.0T. It’s about as good and smooth a 4 cylinder turbo as you’ll find. The interior is nice, but I don’t think it improves too much on the previous. I do like the orientation of the controls to the driver. The gauges were way over-styled, to the point of being annoying. Simpler is better, be clear! I remember liking the steering wheel, it felt right. The dash has a vertical strip about an inch or more high where it meets the windshield. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it looks ridiculous. It would be understandable if it allowed some kind of cool styling on the outside, but its looks are about as mundane as you’ll find. It was nice and smooth to drive, in handling and ride. VW and BMW are now using turn signals that don’t click into the up or down position, so if you want one flash to change lanes you end up flashing three times and then getting one flash back the other way as you try to cancel it out and contain yourself from ripping the stalk off and throwing it out the window.
This was my most recent rental loaner when the Viggen was in the shop again. Very impressive. It looked good, that 300+ hp is great, the interior was nicely done. It steered accurately and handled well but the steering was a little lacking in feedback. The dash layout didn’t thrill me. The gauges looked like they came off a cheaper car but at least they were clear. It wasn’t that big inside considering the size of the outside. But overall, impressive, as I said. When I drove it, I thought that there is no reason anyone needs any more car than this. If you buy a more expensive car you’re just wasting money. I’d say that the next generation 9-5 could go after this car, but would have to be much different to maintain the Saab heritage if that means anything anymore. It would have to be turbo horsepower and more space efficient.
Lexus IS300 (‘03)
From here out, I’m very seriously looking to replace the Viggen, as in bringing my checkbook when I go to do the test drive. I thought the IS300 would be sportier. It looks good, I liked the interior (except for those stupid chronograph gauges), and power was reasonable. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a more smooth engine than this Lexus I-6, and it had a cool turbine sound. I liked the car but at the price it was being offered for I didn’t feel compelled to take it. At some point, I’d like to drive the current version.
Saabaru 2.5i (‘05)
When dollars really count, it can change your perspective. I found a very low mileage Saabaru 2.5i manual at a small Ford dealer for a great price. They had no idea what it was. Quote from the salesman, reading the manual on the test drive and trying to see what he could come up with to tell me: “Hmm, US/Canadian parts content 0, Japanese 100%. I thought Saabs were Swedish?” Like the Aero, it drove very nicely although I’d describe the power in this version as merely adequate. This one was black, and I liked that a lot. For the price they were offering the interior looked good to me, especially since I could afford it and the Imprezas have a great reliability record. Stupidly, I tried to negotiate them down and someone came and bought it the Friday afternoon before I was going to come in Saturday morning to buy it at their price, or I’d be driving it right now.
Honda Civic Si (‘03)
This car was impressive where I thought it would be weak and weak where I thought it would be impressive. The handling was nothing special. Turn in was really loose and vague, which surprised me. I thought the Si especially among Hondas would handle better. I didn’t expect to like the interior, but I did. It was a Honda I could sit in and I liked the dash layout. The instruments were large and clear. I really liked that it was a two door hatchback and the versatility that goes along with that. It was very roomy for its size. What killed this car for me was the bolstering on the seats. Instead of only having it down low at my belly as in the Viggen, it also had bolstering at the shoulders. Every time I would shift I would bump my triceps on it and that became annoying fast.
Mazda Mazda3 S
A 2.3L Mazda3 hatchback is my father’s newest car. It handles surprisingly well. As opposed to the Si, turn-in is very sharp. Saab would be in much more trouble if the S40 handled as well as its cousin on the same platform. The 5-door body style provides nice interior space and a lot of cargo space if you fold the seats down. The interior is nice too, but like all Mazdas it has red interior lighting, which is really dumb and juvenile. If everything is red, are you going to notice a warning light? I haven’t driven the Mazdaspeed3, but if you look at the specs it’s basically a reincarnation of the Viggen. One article I read even pointed that out.
Saab 9-3 SE ‘02
I was caught off guard by how different from my Viggen this was. The clutch and shifter were much lighter, and throttle response was a lot different with the smaller engine. The one I drove had low mileage but it was in pretty lousy shape. Somebody really beat it up considering it was two years newer and a quarter of the mileage of my car. Anyone out there who has one of these, how long did it take before you opened up the dash and pulled out the shift-up light?
Saab 9-3 2.0T (‘07)
I’m going to be brutally honest here, so if you’re going to be offended then skip ahead. Let’s just say there’s a reason there are $3000 plus in incentives on this car. In addition to the $3000 rebate, they were offering another $1000 to Saab owners plus a few years of maintenance. That puts the overall price in the low $20ks rather than the sticker in the high $20ks. To me that’s a reflection that Saab realizes, even if they won’t acknowledge it, that the car is not competitive with the cars they would compare it to. It’s definitely competitive in the low $20ks, but not in the upper $20ks against cars like the Legacy GT and even Jetta GLI.
Yes, my mother was along again. I let her talk to the salespeople while I concentrate on the driving. When we arrived at the dealership, she started telling the guy about how I was a big Saab fan and had been to the factory in Sweden. He said “oh, well, we don’t want to lose him to Volvo!” I replied “Volvo isn’t your problem, Subaru is.” He said in a fairly condescending tone “We don’t consider them competition.” I had to restrain myself from snapping back “Yeah, that’s part of your problem.”
I did drive it and I was disappointed that it wasn’t appreciably better than other cars in that price range I had driven. I had just gotten out of the ‘02 and I didn’t think it was a huge improvement and in some ways a step backwards. The dash material looked not much better than in the Chevy Cobalt rental car I had. The silver outline on the gauge pod reflected in the windshield near where you look through. What a dumb design choice for a company that should pride itself in being logical. Saab has also fallen victim to this epidemic of over-styling the gauges. The center console and buttons are a step backward. The forward visibility has suffered.
Compared to its sticker price competition, it wasn’t smoother or faster and it didn’t ride better; it wasn’t even more comfortable, or better designed. Now, if you look at it versus a car like the Mazda3 then it is at least competitive. Since this is supposed to be a comparative piece, let me give a few examples. I’d say it is pretty even against the S40 overall, with handling to the Saab and interior quality to the Volvo. Versus the Jetta, it has looks and power but I don’t think the power delivery was as smooth. Compared to the Mazda3 it has power, but the real competitor would be the ‘speed3. Because of my preference for upright seating, I’d say it sits better than the Mazda6. Versus the Legacy GT, the only thing better is the seats. In my opinion, the 9-3 falls short in those areas I did not mention, with the interior materials quality being the biggest weak point.
What it comes down to is, in such a competitive marketplace, I just don’t think it is an attractive choice. For instance, I would not rather have it than the Saabaru Aero. Then there are the reliability issues. They wouldn’t have put the long warranty on it if it didn’t need it. For gosh sakes, it’s on the Consumer Reports list of cars to avoid.
Subaru Legacy 2.5i
I drove the base 2.5L manual wagon. I really liked the way it drove but a car that size with awd needs more power. Even in this base model the interior quality was better than the 9-3; my whole family had come along that day, and all agreed. My dad, who had considered Subarus a joke, said it changed his whole attitude about them.
Subaru Impreza WRX
Nothing much different here than the Saabarus. Maybe I only noticed it here after driving the Legacy, but the steering was too light. Overall I thought it was a nice package though. The next generation will be a hatchback from what I read.
The situation is dire for Saab. The chronic underinvestment has put it behind the competition. I’m surprised that Saab is still in business, considering how it was already struggling.
There should have been a new 9-5 this year. It’s an embarrassment that it will be 10 years between new 9-5 models. There would have been a 9-1 and 9-4 five years ago if GM was serious about the brand. As for the 9-3 the ‘07 interior was a step back and I don’t see the ‘08 changes doing enough to address the core weaknesses.
Sale of the interest in Subaru also cost Saab another avenue for shared-cost development. Cooperation with GM globally is only going to help if GM invests in itself globally, and I don’t see that happening. As with the current 9-3 what we continue to see with them is when fielded their products are reasonably competitive, but are quickly surpassed.
GM needs to either invest heavily in Saab or divest itself of the brand. And that goes whether they are going upmarket to take on the big guys or staying reasonably priced. That decision has to be made quickly, and the strategic vision for the brand adhered to. As we’ve debated on this website, What Is Saab? We know that under GM they’ve been on a quest for more sales and moved to the middle, but I’m a firm believer that 1) everyone moving to the middle makes more room on the outside and 2) if you’re not offering anything different then you’re not offering anything at all.
If you’re still reading there’s no surprise here, but I think Subaru is the new Saab. They’re independent outsiders, they have the rally heritage, they make a product toward the sporty side of the spectrum at a good price. Their crash test results are excellent. And of course, they believe in turbo. To keep the company competitive, they have to turn out excellent core products; GM faced with the same situation puts its money elsewhere because Saab isn’t going to make or break it for them.
So finally, what’s the answer for Saab? It doesn’t look to me like GM is a good fit for Saab. It’s never going to be more than an afterthought within a company that large. There aren’t many places to go though. Subaru would be a good fit, product-wise, but I don’t think they have enough size to absorb Saab even if GM pays money to give it away like MB did with Chrysler. Speaking of MB, Saab could be a more manageable size and slot in below MB if Daimler still has the stomach for such things. Recently I’ve read that BMW needs more out of the Mini brand so perhaps Saab could fill the gap between Mini and BMW. I don’t see Renault or Peugeot-Citroën having interest, and the big Japanese companies already have their own brands. But one thing is for certain: if Saab remains in GM then it’s already dead. I firmly believe that.
Oh, by the way, there is some good news. I’m still driving the Viggen. The more cars I drove the more I just wanted my car to work. It has the best combination of attributes I’ve seen. After some searching, I found a German-Swedish shop that will do some of the work for less than I had been quoted elsewhere. I’m going to take my chances with the transmission and hope it doesn’t leave me by the side of the road somewhere because I literally can’t afford to fix it right now. Hopefully all you other Viggen owners out there are having a better time than I am.
I’ll be happy to discuss further in the comments. Thanks for reading.