Say you’re in the market for a secondhand European hot hatchback, but seek something a little more interesting than a Golf GTI or a Ford Focus RS. Your options are scarce. Sure, you could try to import a Renault Clio V6 from France, but do you really want to get yourself into the hassle of importing a French car? And does the Clio V6 even exist outside of Gran Turismo?
What you want is something that was legally sold here in North America, a car you can normally register at your local DMV, get in, and drive. Turns out Saab may just have what you need.
You see, the Saab 9-3 Viggen was a Scandinavian, front-drive, fighter jet-inspired, torque-steering monster that was set to beat the BMW M3 at its own game and failed, but still ended up being fast as hell and seriously fun to drive.
Out of all the quintessentially weird cars that wore the Saab badge, this one has to be among the most eccentric. I took one out for a drive, a convertible one too, which technically makes it more of a hot coupe than a hot hatch. Plenty of Saabs came after this one, many with encroaching General Motors (and in one weird case, Subaru) parts, but this one was one of the last true great weird examples from the brand.
Driving it sadly reminded me why Saab kicked so much ass.
(Full disclosure: the opportunity to drive a Saab 9-3 Viggen convertible came from a Montréal-based Jalopnik reader who owns one and emailed me asking me if I’d like to review his car.)
What Is It?
Sold from 1999 to 2002, the Saab 9-3 Viggen was a spiritual successor to the iconic 900 Turbo, but was also Saab’s first real attempt at branching out its own performance division in the likes of BMW’s M or Mercedes-Benz’s AMG.
Except Saab didn’t turn to its racing experience to name its performance arm, it turned to what it did best: jets. This was largely a marketing thing, but it’s part of what made Saab so weird and cool for so long.
The word Viggen, which translates into “thunderbolt”, isn’t some Swedish diet plan, but refers to the Saab 37 Viggen fighter jet.
Available in both a three or five-door hardtop or two-door convertible, the Viggen boasted a turbocharged, 2.3-liter four that pumped out, according to Saab, 230 horsepower (225 HP during the first year of production) and 252 lb-ft of torque.
All that factory-tuned 20 psi of boost (that’s a lot for a factory setup) went straight to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. Other mechanical modifications over a standard turbocharged 9-3 included a higher capacity intercooler, a performance-tuned ECU, a higher flowing exhaust system, a performance clutch and pressure plate, stiffened and lowered suspension components as well as reinforced CV joints and driveshafts.
All Viggens wore redesigned front and rear bumpers and side skirts, a rear decklid spoiler, sports leather seats, 17-inch wheels and upgraded brakes. Yellow, construction site-style triangular Viggen logos were glued onto each side of the car to remind people it was the real deal.
Back in the day, Saab claimed a 0-60 acceleration time of roughly 6.5 seconds. That’s about the same as some current front-wheel-drive hot hatchbacks like the Ford Focus ST. But unlike the Ford, the Saab came with its own training program video hosted by a professional jet fighter pilot.
Why? Because it was “born from jets.” I’m telling you, they really milked this concept.
Why Does It Matter?
Believe it or not, Saab was actually on a mission to beat the Germans with the Viggen. The car was aimed directly at the Audi S4, BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG when it was new.
But although it was sold at a cheaper price than its rivals, the Viggen failed because, among other reasons, the 9-3 platform was essentially a revamped GM/Opel layout which dated back from the late ’80s. The Viggen felt old and less competent compared to its fresher, more established German opposition.
But the hot-rodded 9-3 remained a serious performance machine nevertheless. Car and Driver recorded a quarter-mile time of 15 seconds flat at 90 mph, just 0.4 seconds behind the E36 BMW M3.
Fundamentally, what makes this Viggen so special is that during Saab’s 67-year run of building quirky and unusual aircraft-derived automobiles, the Viggen stands out today as one of the fastest production Saabs ever built.
Turbo Lag, Torque Steer, So Much Saab
My first contact with the Scandinavian convertible was during a diluvian downpour. We often shoot in the rain, but it was the first time my shooter told me nothing could be done for photos. As we waited for the sky to hopefully clear up, I got familiar with the Saab.
The first thing you might think about a Viggen is that it has way too much power and torque for its chassis and basic design, that the car torque steers, pulling itself hither and yon under acceleration like a drunk, and has massive turbo lag. You’d be right!
In the rain, it’s quite a handful, but if you use the power well, you can have a lot of fun with it.
Getting inside a Saab reminded me how absolutely different these cars were from anything else in the late nineties and early 2000’s. The dashboard and windshield are as flat as a plank of wood, and the dash is high, filled with buttons and a large air vent, presumably to look like an airplane cockpit.
It kind of works? Oh, and the radio has a weather band. A weather band!
Starting a Saab is equally odd; the ignition switch is located between the seats. That’s because you lock the car’s transmission with it. And a manual Saab can only be started and turned off in reverse. It’s an old safety feature from way back when that made it onto modern cars.
Saab was so damn weird. It really was the best.
As I sat in the massively comfortable leather chairs, my head conveniently held in place thanks to Saab’s iconic active head restraints, gazing at the aircraft inspired gauge cluster and switch gear, all lit up in bright green, with thin yellow needles, I depressed the hard and too-tall clutch, grabbed first gear with a long and sloppy shifter, and got the car moving.
Off I went alongside a fellow Jalopnik reader in an overpowered Scandinavian front-wheel-drive convertible from the late 1990s under a Canadian thunderstorm.
What could possibly go wrong?
I was expecting the car to be more refined than it was, being European and all. But it isn’t. I mean, the materials are of good quality and the car is well put together, but as far as performance goes, the mechanical bits don’t seem to work in harmony with one another.
For example, the manual shifter isn’t particularly exciting to row around. It’s long and bulky, and doesn’t appreciate being rushed. It kind of reminded me of the one you’d find in a Cavalier Z24, and feels like it was glued to the drivetrain using Play-Doh.
Then there’s the way the power surges on and off depending on boost pressure. It’s not what you would call a linear delivery of power. Sure, when that massive turbo kicks in it’s a hell of a ride, but the throttle is jerky, making the car hard to accelerate smoothly.
You basically always want to hoon the Viggen. Maybe that was intentional?
Driving a 9-3 Viggen 17 years later feels like all the added performance was put there as an afterthought. The car feels like it was tuned by a 19-year old car bro who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
The Saab 9-3 was a comfortable, quiet and spacious automobile to begin with, and the Viggen is no different. Sure, the soft top does delete the original car’s hatchback practicality, but there’s still a usable trunk back there. The rear bench will also engulf decent-sized humans, and the car is okay on gas.
The problems related to daily driving this thing, or any Saab for that matter, is that, one, parts are starting to be hard to find, and two, the car’s aren’t all that reliable.
Michael, the owner, happens to know a thing or two about Saabs in general. He’s tech savvy and hangs around people and forums that know where to find spare parts. No, your local NAPA Auto Parts retailer won’t be able to give you a hand when that throttle body starts messing around. And it most probably will.
Also, roof issues are common on convertibles, so check the weather forecast before taking off in your ragtop Viggen, because if that fancy roof assembly isn’t properly maintained, it will likely leak or even jam up in the half-open/ half-closed position while you and your spouse sit there like idiots in the middle of a meteorological deluge.
Kind of like this:
But if you know what you’re getting into, and have a solid network of Saab contacts for repairs, then you should do well enough daily driving a 9-3 Viggen.
It’s fast! Especially once you hit third gear. That’s because torque output is electronically limited to 184 lb-ft in first gear, and 243 lb-ft in second. So you do feel that it pulls less in the lower gears, but the car’s hydraulically-assisted steering still tugs hard to the left during a hard launch.
Also, nothing really happens below 4,000 RPM. That’s when the insane boost pressure shoves you hard into the immensely comfortable seats and emits cool jet-like air swirl sounds along the way - pssssttttssshh - boost gauge all lit up and everything, quickly running out of puff at around 6,000 RPM.
It’s an unusual way to put down power, but it definitely works.
The Viggen’s brakes are also solid, gripping hard at the slightest touch of the pedal, and there’s a fun, nimble feel in the way the car reacts to your inputs and turns into a corner. You can drive it hard and you’ll go places fast.
Sadly though, the convertibles are plagued with noticeable chassis wobble. Sure, I’ve experienced worse from convertible Mustangs or Corvettes of that era, but as far as European cars go, the 9-3 Viggen feels like a fat banana when hitting a bend hard. That’s because the car’s only chassis bracing is underneath the windshield, like a giant horseshoe.
Michael had his slightly reinforced, with a six-point subframe brace, specifically built for the car. He also lowered and stiffened up the suspension through aftermarket struts and coilovers, and added a larger rear sway bar. But the poor thing still flexes a lot.
Saab engineers could have added a B-pillar brace, kind of like a roll bar, but that would have hindered the 9-3's good looks. And because Saab is Swedish, that would have been a travesty.
The 9-3 Viggen is rare as hell. During its four-year production run, just over 3,000 of these things were imported here in North America. The convertible is even more of a unicorn at just 1,330 sold in the U.S. and Canada combined.
Black and Silver cars are the most common. If you find a Laser Red example, and live in Canada, you have the only one in the entire country.
Because only one was sold. One.
Since the entire Saab brand no long exists and because parts are so hard to find, all Saabs are cheap now. The Viggen’s rarity and the fact that most people have no idea what the hell it is means its value hasn’t held up particularly high.
Our friend Michael here only paid $3,500 Canuk dollars for his. Clean, low mileage hardtop Viggens never typically exceed $10,000.
I say now’s the time to get your hands on a Saab Viggen before their value spikes back up. Because this car is, without a doubt, a future classic.
The Saab 9-3 Viggen may be a bit rough around the edges, and not particularly reliable, but for us enthusiasts looking for the ultimate unicorn, this car is a freakin’ dream come true. It’s weird and quirky in all the great ways a Saab ought to be, it sells for cheap, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to drive.
It will also give the current Golf GTI a run for its money in a drag race.
If you’ve got a bit of spare cash lying around in the bank and are looking to rescue a piece of automotive history, then please, go out and buy an old Saab Viggen and keep it forever. Flaws aside, this is one of the neatest and most interesting modern cars ever built. It deserves love and care.
Maybe someday Saabs will become so sought after that the brand will mysteriously spawn back to life. And what a glorious day that would be.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com.