The marque once known as Svenska Aeroplan AB is dead. After looking at the seven cars that killed the brand, let's take a moment to appreciate what Trollhättan gave the world. Long live the freewheeling clutch!
Saab, flawed or not, we're gonna miss ya. Rest in peace.
Production Years: 1949 - 1956
Basic Specs: 764cc I-2, 25 - 28 hp. Front-wheel drive.
Why It Was Great: The first-ever Saab. Designed by a bunch of underemployed aeronautical engineers in the years following World War II. Had a two-stroke, two-cylinder engine between its front wheels. Set the template for several decades of rally success.
What It Drives Like: 92s are rarer than hen's teeth, and we don't know anyone who's driven one. By all accounts, however, they're slow and handle well. Build quality is reportedly impressive.
Quirky Swedish Quirk: Prior to 1953, you couldn't buy a 92 in a color other than green. Also, the spare wheel on early cars was stored in an externally accessible floor compartment that could be locked from the interior. This compartment was not the trunk. The early 92 had no trunk.
Production Years: 1960 – 1980
Basic Specs: 750 or 841cc I-3, 38 - 57 hp; 1.5 or 1.7-liter V-4, 55 - 65 hp. Front-wheel drive.
Why It Was Great: The 96 was little more than an updated 93, which was essentially a much-updated, three-cylinder version of the 92 (a Ford-sourced V-4 replaced the three in 1967). It offered more trunk space, more glass, and a few technological advancements over its predecessors. Swedish rally star Erik Carlsson — a.k.a. "Mr. Saab" — got his start in a 93, but he used a 96 to string up a seemingly endless series of wins in the early 1960s. These wins put Saab on the map.
What It Drives Like: A weirder, sportier, more charming Volkswagen Beetle. (Obscure and Tangential Reference Department: We've been told this is what a lot of DKWs feel like.) V-4 96s are rougher than two-stroke models and nowhere near as goofy. Lack of engine braking (see below) can be spooky at first.
Quirky Swedish Quirk: Like every Saab before it, the 96 had a column-shifted manual with a freewheeling clutch; when you let off the throttle, the engine was disconnected from the wheels. In 1949, this was a little odd. In 1980, it was just cool.
Model: 97, a.k.a. Sonett II/Sonett V4/Sonett III
Production Years: 1966 - 1974
Basic Specs: 841cc I-3, 60 hp; 1.5 or 1.7-liter V-4, 55 - 65 hp. Front-wheel drive.
Why It Was Great: The Sonett was Saab's one and only foray into purpose-built sports cars. Three variations were built, with the first (Sonett I) being hand-built, mid-engine prototypes and the rest mass-produced, two-door coupes. All sported a fiberglass body and a steel frame. Early cars used the company's two-stroke three-cylinder, but post-'67 models got the 95/96's V-4. The Sonett was proof that Saab's engineers, though wacky, were versatile.
What It Drives Like: We've never had the pleasure (?) of climbing behind a Sonett II's wheel, but the Sonett III is . . . interesting. The V-4 is torquey but coarse, and the entire package reeks of kit car. At the same time, there's no denying the appeal — the III is nimble, has gobs of traction, and essentially ends two inches behind your ass. If that experience is anything to go by, the earlier, lighter Sonetts are probably a riot.
Quirky Swedish Quirk: Sonett IIs had a column-mounted shift lever. Really.
Production Years: 1968 - 1984
Basic Specs: 1.75 - 2.0-liter I-4, 86 - 135 hp. Front-wheel drive.
Why It Was Great: The 99 was the first Saab to be offered in turbocharged form, not to mention one of the first practical uses of that technology on an automobile. It was also the last car designed by Sixten Sason, the Swedish engineer responsible for most of Saab's postwar output and the first Hasselblad camera. A 99 was the first turbocharged car to win a WRC event; fittingly, it was also the last Saab that the factory took rallying.
What It Drives Like: The love child of a Volkswagen Rabbit and a Volvo 142. Funky, stout, and fun to flog. Will take more abuse than you think.
Quirky Swedish Quirk: Locking the floor-mounted ignition switch on a manual-transmission 99 also locked the shift lever in place.
Production Years: 1978 – 1993
Basic Specs: 2.0- or 2.1-liter I-4, 99 - 185 hp. Front-wheel drive.
Why It Was Great: The first-generation 900 cemented Saab's reputation as a producer of solid, quick, and relatively entertaining cars. It was so likable that it gave the marque what was often claimed to be two decades' worth of brand equity and unkillable public goodwill. (You'll note that we are coming up on the twenty-year anniversary of the end of 900 production. Thanks, GM.)
What It Drives Like: A small, roadgoing Cessna, or perhaps a BMW 3-series extruded through a jar of lingonberries. Base models amble down the road in a distinct, and not entirely unpleasant, trundle. Turbocharged SPG/Aero models feel like evil's polite, midrangey cousin.
Quirky Swedish Quirk: The 900 isn't a paragon of reliability, but you can change a clutch on one in less time than it takes to change a water pump, and you'll get less dirty in the process. How's that for logic?