The Saab 900 Turbo SPG may in fact be the most underrated performance hatchback in history. While most believe the Volkswagen GTI to be the grandfather of the hot hatch, truth is, while VW was still relying on a measly 1.8-liter four to generate power, Saab was dishing out fire-breathing, front-wheel-drive turbo compacts ravenous enough to gobble up two GTIs in a single bite.
It was a most unusual, torque-steering factory-boosted machine from Sweden that resembled Darth Vader’s helmet on wheels. Personally, I still firmly believe that the 9-3 Viggen is the best performance Saab out there. But purists say the SPG is the holy grail.
To set the record straight, I took an SPG out for a drive, a very modified one. It turned out to be the most bonkers, yet oddly entertaining driving experiences I’ve ever had.
(Full disclosure: the opportunity to drive a Saab SPG came from a Canadian Jalopnik reader who emailed us the moment he saw our Saab 9-3 Viggen review. According to him, the SPG is the all-time best fast Saab.)
SPG stands for Special Performance Group. This car appeared sometime in 1984 as a performance variant to the already quick Saab 900 Turbo.
Because of some weird trademark conflict with General Motors, the SPG was actually called the Aero in Europe. The ones that made it to North America were mostly black or silver. If you ever find a red one, please save it. It’s rarer than the invisible pink unicorn.
Modifications over a standard 900 Turbo included a state-of-the-art (back then) knock and boost controller Saab called an APC box, more commonly known as the “red box”. This bit of tech significantly increased turbo boost over a standard 900. Stiffer dampers and springs, larger sway bars, a wind tunnel tested “whale tail” rear wing, sportier front and rear bumpers, and batshit awesome three-spoke “propeller” wheels completed the go-faster package.
First-generation SPGs got their mojo from a dual overhead cam, 2.0-liter turbo four that, according to Saab, pumped out 160 horsepower and 188 lb-ft of twist, about 90 horsepower more than a Rabbit GTI at the time.
The model you see here is a 1990 car which was the SPG’s final iteration before it was killed off in 1991 (special edition models continued until 1993). It sported a revised version of the same engine rated at 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque.
All SPG’s were front-wheel-drive, and like all old Saabs, their engines were mounted longitudinally and at an angle. Who even does shit like that?
Saab did. That’s who.
The only transmission available was a good old five-speed manual gearbox. Back then, 0-60 mph was achieved in a claimed 8.4 seconds. Although a modern economy car would undoubtedly leave this thing in the dust, back in the ’80s the SPG was a legitimately quick car.
Today, overpowered, turbocharged front-wheel-drive hatchbacks are quite common. Think Ford Focus ST, Golf GTI and the all new Honda Civic Type R. But back in the early ’80s, turbocharging was still in its infancy. Very few carmakers had the balls to fiddle with the tech for reliability reasons, but since Saab was above all an aircraft manufacturer, it was among one of the first to drop these little turbines in front-engine, front-wheel-drive production cars.
In many ways, the Saab 900 SPG is the ancestor to the modern turbo hot hatchback as we know it. I’ll go a step further by saying that Saab is regarded today as one of the pioneering mainstream brands to have paved the way for turbocharging, period.
My first contact with this Vadered-out SPG was on a very rainy Saturday morning in Québec’s remote Saguenay region.
Upon my arrival, as I waited for the owner, Félix, parked in front of his house, the entire scene appeared a little fishy. Félix had told me about how his SPG was in pristine shape, but from where I was sitting, all I could spot was the slopping rear end of an old car camping in an alleyway underneath a Tempo car shelter.
Had I come here for nothing?
Wooosshhhh! - Braaaap - Woootsshhhh! - Braaaaap.
“What the hell was that?” - I thought.
I peaked at my rearview mirror, and spotted a heavily modified, silver Saab 9-5 Aero ripping down the street, heading my way as if the driver had just robbed a bank, Xenon headlights blinding my weak morning eyes. It was Félix. And that monster was his daily driver.
“Hey man! Go meet me in that parking lot over there, I’ll bring her down,” Félix commanded.
I was still not convinced I’d find anything worth covering for Jalopnik here, but I obeyed the man’s orders and drove down to the lot.
As I waited there under a diluvian downpour, the black beast from three decades ago could be heard a mile away, wastegate and backfire sounds resonating across the friendly neighborhood like some sort of demon that had just teleported from hell - Swooothchee - pop! - braaaap - Tutututu. All the good noises.
When my eyes locked onto the thing, my brain didn’t quite know which emotion to trigger. The car looked so weird, yet so menacing, with its flat windshield and enormous tinted side windows, long rear end dragging behind the thing, whale tail spoiler on point, the entire car sitting inches off the ground.
The old Scania was spewing black smoke as Félix gave her hell. The entire car was squirming as it hunted for grip on the wet tarmac. What an unusual-looking machine.
In this form, with the blacked-out wheels and logos, Félix’s SPG, which is obviously not stock, looks like something straight out of a Mad Max movie. This thing belongs in a world of flames and death. It also sounds like a pissed off Norse god.
To me, old cars rarely disappoint, because you already expect them to be a bit rough around the edges and kind of broken in some areas. You know what you’re getting into. But the turbo lag in this Saab is immense; it’s an experience beyond what can be described in words.
Of course, given that this particular example is boosted to about 25 psi (more on that later), things are somewhat worse. These cars were notorious for being all-turbo and very little actual engine, and this one is that... times ten.
Floor it, and nothing, nothing- oh, there she goes! And that’s when all hell breaks lose. Torque steer is, as expected, horrible, you really need to keep a firm hold on that steering wheel or it will destroy your wrists.
Pedals are awkwardly positioned to the right side of the steering column, so the clutch pedal is where you’d expect the brake to be. And the shifter is rather sloppy, as most manual transmissions from the ’80s tend to be.
But the SPG’s gearbox is particularly bad. Gears are hard to find from the long, skinny stick and won’t always get into gear on first attempts. Félix admits that these things can be a handful at first. But he claims they are solid, as long as you know how to operate them. If you don’t, as in, beat on the thing like a Honda Civic, you’ll need a new transmission real quick. And a lot of spare cash.
“Take your time with it, use the boost to compensate,” Félix recommended.
I can only imagine the people over at Saab saying things like: “just add more boost, people won’t mind the shitty gearbox.”
This car is comfortable, and there’s very little cabin rattle when driven over bumps. I also dig how you sit upright in those Scandinavian leather thrones, facing an absolutely flat and high simplistic dashboard. The windshield is just as flat.
In many ways, driving an old Saab feels like driving an old Porsche 911. That, or a large metal box on wheels.
But the ride is livable, even if this one sits lowered on Bilsteins. And since there’s so much torque when the turbo kicks in, you can upshift it a gear of two and just floor it to drive around. That’s actually a lot of fun.
Félix removed the rear seats for weight reduction - that’s always the best excuse for removing anything on a car. So this one won’t really baby.
However, check out the size of the hatch opening in this thing:
Through a bit of internet research, I found out that there’s 51 cubic feet of total cargo space in there (without the strut bar). That’s about the same as a modern Golf. Also, if your Saab SPG is kept stock, it’ll pull about 21 mpg combined, just a tad under a Ford Focus ST.
Félix’s SPG has little to nothing to do with the original car. Everything was changed from the intercooler, to the clutch, flywheel, engine management system. There’s even a direct ignition conversion kit. The list of modifications on this car is so long, it would take up the entire ink space available for this post.
But, holy crap, this is a fast car.
Thanks to that 25 psi of boost and, well, an engine that was entirely rebuilt specifically to go fast, Felix estimates his SPG churns out roughly 350 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque, at the crank. Good Lord.
First and second gear are useless. Especially in the rain. It’s wheelspin, wheel hop and a squirming front end the entire way, as well as a series of satanic sounds - whooootshee - braaaap - tutututut - pop!
But once those front tires find grip, typically in third gear, the car lunges forward with haste, speedometer furiously climbing to illegal speeds, steering wheel tugging left and right, large black puffs of smoke filling up the rearview mirror. “Intense” is the word to remember here.
Driving a modified 900 Turbo around a bend requires patience, and alertness. But the brakes bite hard, so you can always rely on them if you mess up.
Let the old girl complete her apex. Get that front end where you want it, point and shoot! Also, try to floor it ahead of time, because you’ll be counting the seconds in your head before the power gets back on full boil.
It’s counter-intuitive, kind of frightening, and totally unsettling this car, yet, somehow, I couldn’t get that stupid grin off of my face.
Old Saabs are getting rare, and clean SPG’s are almost impossible to find. Félix prefers not disclosing how much he paid for his, but expect to pay in the vicinity of $8,000 and $10,000 for one in decent shape. From the looks of it, they seem to be maintaining much better market value than the Viggens.
Considering that parts are relatively hard to find and that the reliability of these cars is iffy, they’re a risky investment. But if you’re aware of what you’re getting yourself into and know the right people, then the SPG is a car worth saving.
Is the Saab 900 Turbo SPG more of a “real” Saab than the Viggen? If you consider the kickass clamshell hood, the air vents front and rear that were put there to cool down the cabin, like in a rally car, and an engine positioned at a completely ridiculous angle, than I’d say yes. This is the real-deal Saab.
But as far as getting power to the ground and going around a corner efficiently, as ironic as this may sound, the Viggen is the much more capable car here, and in stock form, presumably faster. It’s also more refined inside and quite a bit more luxurious.
If you’re looking for the ultimate Saab, the most iconic shape, the car that started it all, the European hatchback that set the pace for all the current turbocharged hot hatchbacks we love today, then yes, the 900 Turbo SPG is the most bad-ass Saab out there.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com