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Our Favorite Saabs

Although never a truly mainstream marque, Saab has attracted a core of dedicated fans who, when the time came to update their car, would replace one Saab with another, again and again. In light of the Swedish automaker’s recent bankruptcy filing, here is a look back at some of the company’s most important models.

Saab 92

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The Swedish Airplane Corporation, or Svenska Aeroplan Aktie Bolaget (where the SAAB acronym comes from) diversified from making aircraft after World War, choosing to make a compact car that became the Saab 92. The aviation influence was still strong, endowing the 92 with a drag coefficient of 0.30, more aerodynamic than many modern Ferrari sports cars. By virtue of originating icily close to the Arctic Circle, the 92 had to deal with harsh winters, so it was made with front-wheel drive. As any snowbelt dweller can attest, having the weight of an engine over the driven wheels is much better for traction. Saab engineers also incorporated a protective cage for its occupants, making the 92 – which went into production in 1949 – one of the first cars developed with safety as a priority. These attributes set the template for future Saabs. Following the lead of Henry Ford and his black Model T, the 92 was available only in dark green (likely due to post-war surpluses of the camouflage color).

Saab GT750

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Although the 1955 93 model was the first Saab to be officially exported to the United States, it was the Gran Turismo 750 that was first made with the American market in mind, combining what passed for sportiness and luxury in those days. Unveiled at the 1958 New York Auto Show, its 50-horsepower engine enjoyed twin carburetors and the gearbox sported four ratios instead of the 92’s three. It was also the first car to have seat belts fitted as standard.

Saab 95

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The compact Saab 95, introduced in 1959 and continuing until 1978, was a 7-seater station wagon, but with only 2 passenger doors. While most engines with 4 cylinders deploy them in a straight line, this one had a V formation. It also had a downhill “freewheeling” feature that would save fuel, much like the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid has now. This vehicle no doubt helped Saab gain its reputation for being “quirky.” However, the company’s most referenced quirk of placing the ignition key by the handbrake instead of on the dash or the steering column makes perfect sense, and perhaps should have been copied by other manufacturers. In the event of a head-on collision, a driver’s knee is vulnerable to injury with the key placed higher. That’s not the case in a Saab.

Saab 99

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The Saab template evolved with the 99. A wraparound windshield with deep A-pillars (better for front three-quarter visibility) distinguished the look of this 1970s-era Saab. Under the “clamshell” hood was a turbocharged engine – a relative rarity for the times, but something that has carried on in Saabs ever since. The original 900, made from 1979 to 1994 and a direct successor to the 99, became a sought-after entry-level luxury car, and Saab began to be seen as an alternative to brasher German rivals. General Motors bought the firm in 1989.

Saab 900 Convertible

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Along with its successor, the 9-3 Convertible, the company remained true to its roots in safety and smart design, but added the element of top-down fun. The 1986 900 convertible was a popular 4-seater convertible, mixing with equivalent variants of the BMW 3 Series and Audi 80. But if anyone wanted to know the true meaning of “scuttle shake” or “body flex” they only needed to drive one of these over a bumpy road for a couple of miles. Not that customers were put off. The 900 was a best-seller, moving around a million examples, with 20 percent of those being convertibles.

2011 Saab 9-5

The General Motors years were not always happy times in Saab’s homebase in Trollhattan. The products retained Saab-like names (well, numbers), but were based on platforms shared with other GM models, diluting Saab’s beloved quirkiness. However, the all-new Saab 9-5, developed while still under the General’s wing, has been a critical success. Some reviewers have called it the best Saab in 20 years and a worthy rival to cars like the Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series. Translating that into sales success, though, is another matter.

It isn’t just the cars for which Saab should be praised – it’s the details. Throughout its history, the company has come up with many innovations that have been taken up by other automakers. Like brake circuits that are split diagonally, so if one half of the system fails, the other will still have control over a front and rear wheel. Then there are headlamp washers and wipers, heated front seats, ventilated front seats, pollen filters, CFC-free air conditioning, blind spot-eliminating mirrors, and electronic brake force distribution. The automotive world would be a poorer place without Saab, and we hope it will weather the current storm to carry on its quirky ways.

Colin Ryan
Colin Ryan specializes in writing about new cars. But he has also covered trucks, vans, 3-wheelers, even the occasional motorbike. That’s the kind of thing that happens while contributing to the Los Angeles Times, Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, Popular Mechanics, Variety, Mazda and Lexus customer magazines, as well as many enthusiast sites and publications. He was also a staff writer at BBC Top... Read More about Colin Ryan

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