Viggens are high flyers-on wings or on wheels.

by Bob Storck

Saab is known for durability, performance and above all quirkiness: features that made Saab famous on speedways, highways, and skyways, and some places in between (Road Atlanta, Georgia, and Pikes Peak, Colorado).

Saab Scania makes a wonderful airplane known as the Viggen, a multi-role delta winged fighter-bomber. With an emphasis on maneuverability and capable of operating from small, unprepared locations, Viggen can both defend the skies of Sweden as well as deliver a substantial ordnance load.

The same kind of versatility went into the design of Saab's 9-3 Viggen coupes and convertibles. The result is a lightweight 230 hp 'fighter' of a car with an impressive cargo and passenger capacity. The name-Swedish for "thunderbolt"-is an appropriate link to the Saab 37 Viggen jet fighter.

Always different

When most cars were rear wheel drive, Saab was front-wheel drive. They were the only major producer of two-cycle engines to sell their cars in the U.S.. If that wasn't enough, the cars looked funny. Saab aficionados have been worried that GM will undermine their toy, but the designers have kept the key in the console to reaffirm their uniqueness.

When Saab finally went to four-cycle engines in the 70's, they were among the first to adapt turbo-charging to passenger cars. Saab racers could outperform anything in their class. The combination of a powerful engine, a stiff frame, and generous tires and brakes often placed it in the winner's circle in competition with foreign and domestic sports cars.

The styling is distinctively Saab, and shares ideas from both the 9-3 and 9-5 designs. The 9-3 has a new grille with a wing-shaped center profile. While strengthening the family tie with the Saab 9-5, the new grille also emphasizes Saab's origins as an aircraft manufacturer. The platform has been well proven, as it is the same as the Opel Calibra/Vectra from GM Europe.

The Viggen adopts a more purposeful and flattened stance, combining an integrated deep front air dam, contoured side sills, deep wraparound rear bumper and rear spoiler to produce an aggressively sporting appearance. This change is part of a finely tuned aerodynamic package that improves road holding while delivering confidence inspiring levels of high-speed stability. Lift forces are reduced by more than 50 percent while the drag coefficient is also better.

Force-fed engine sips fuel

Saab's Viggen features a potent 2.3-liter high-output turbocharged engine that produces 230 hp. The engine has an impressive maximum torque of 258 lb-ft available from 2,500 rpm all the way through 4,500 rpm. This highly modified power plant is controlled by Saab's Trionic T7 engine management system and is matched to a 5-speed manual transmission.

A turbocharged engine provides power when needed, and still affords decent fuel economy. The Viggen can return an estimated 20 city and 29 highway MPG. Not bad considering this a car that can do 0-60 in well under seven seconds!

Saab worked at reducing the effects of torque steer by changing the steering rack bushings. According to Viggen chassis engineer Sven Wernst’hl, they elected to keep some torque steer in to "allow the driver to gauge exactly what is happening at the front wheels-it's important for the driver to feel the challenge of the power." Mission accomplished.

The Viggen also sports impressive disk brakes. The ABS system provided fade-free stops in successive simulated panic stops from 60 MPH. The slotted disks peer out of polished 17" wheels shod with 215/45-series Dunlop SPort 2000s.

Loaded with features and quirkiness

The Viggen adds to the standard comfort and convenience features found on the 9-3: like a power glass sunroof and automatic climate control, a Rocky black leather interior with textured deep blue leather inserts, front power sport seats with supportive side bolsters and driver's seat memory, and a leather shift knob and boot. The Viggen also has a superb leather-wrapped steering wheel that incorporates audio system controls, a safety feature that should be on all cars. Viggen is the only car in its class with a hatchback, which provides outstanding loading flexibility and cargo capacity.

The interior of the Viggen resonates with Saab quirkiness. The Saab traits start with the center console ignition lock, and include what appears to be a funky faux granite dash panel with some of the best air vents around. The controls are very logical and easy to use in keeping with Saab's history of functional aircraft ergonomics. The instrument panel has selective dimming, with the ability to display only the speedometer at night. If some other gauge needs attention, it will be illuminated. The steering wheel telescopes, but does not tilt. All the usual Saab weather protection features return, including demisting for all windows and special coating on the glass to reduce heat transfer.

The 9-3 has built on the corporate reputation of durability and driveability. Features like heated seats and mirrors, and a weatherproof convertible top moved Saabs into many suburban garages. This has been an extremely long life for one body style. The 9-3s have a framework approximating a NASCAR type roll cage built into the body. The integrated structure reinforces a large rear opening, and the four door hatchback is extra rigid. Of course, the 9-3 Viggen upholds Saab's tradition of providing a high level of standard safety features. It offers driver- and passenger-side airbags, side-impact airbags (head and torso type, front seats), Saab Active Head Restraint system (SAHR) in the front seats, four channel ABS with Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD) and 3-point safety belts for all occupants.

The Viggen Convertible continues to offer generous room for four occupants, as well as four-season comfort, sports car performance and a comprehensive list of standard features for exceptional value. The double insulated, power-operated soft top is now operated by hydraulics instead of the electric motors, and is quieter and more reliable. The top latches are secured to the windshield header with a single centrally located handle.

While the retracted top takes up some space in the trunk, there is still plenty of room for weekend luggage for two. The multiple structural members in the convertible add to the chassis stiffness as well as the safety. Saab stops short of claiming that the beefy windshield frame can be used as a roll bar, but it is surely stout. General Motors now entirely owns Saab. The 9-3 was the first result of that collaboration, and the best features of both organizations are evident in the car. One of the obvious benefits is that GM's excellent On-Star system is available in Saab models.

Viggen at home on the track, too

Viggen's base price includes enrollment in the Viggen Flight Academy - an exclusive two-day intensive driving training session held at Road Atlanta. The Viggen Flight Academy is conducted by professional race-car drivers and is designed to teach Viggen owners the best techniques for driving a front-wheel drive performance car.

A few years ago a group of international journalists drove completely standard variations of the predecessor 900 at the high-banked Talladega NASCAR track. The cars easily exceeded all existing records, maintaining average speeds of between 140 and 150 mph for almost a month. Remarkably, the cars were faster the longer they ran. This is a solid affirmation of solid engine and suspension.

Only 1000 Saab 9-3 Viggens will be imported into the U.S. each model year. Initially they were all a unique Lightning Blue but that was followed by yellow, black and silver-look for other colors.

Viggens are showing up in curious places. Their current rally ace, Per Eklund just set a class record and only missed being the fastest car overall by four seconds at the grueling Pikes Peak Hillclimb. While on a press trip with the other Swedish car company in northern Finnish winter, we were huddled at a small remote airstrip when a sleek jet made a high speed pass at tree top height down the runway.

Sure enough, it was a Viggen!

2000 Saab 9-3 Viggen

Base Price: $37,995
Engine: turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder, 230 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual
Wheelbase: 102.6 in
Length: 182.3 in
Weight: 3094 lb
Fuel economy: 20 city/ 29 hwy
Major standard equipment:
Air conditioning
Power locks and windows
Power sunroof
Automatic climate control
Side airbags

© 2000 The Car Connection

 

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