As most of our readers remember, I tested out a new Saab 9-3X wagon and found it to be lacking in any features that made it stand out from its competitors. But, Saab has always marched to the beat of its own drum (which, ironically, led it right to the poorhouse), for better or for worse. My Aunt’s family lives in Albany, NY, and they have owned this red 900 hatchback since it was new, and they won’t get rid of it. It’s rusty, it’s crusty, and it has 174,000 miles on it. But, I approached it with a question: How good is a 17 year old Saab that’s spent most of its life in the Rust Belt? On a cold night in December, my uncle tossed me the keys and I found out.
First things first, this car is not in the greatest condition. The red paint was mottled with nasty rust on most of the panels, including a nicely sized hole in the trunk. The rims have lost a lot of their finish to wear and tear, and the headlights have more clouds than London in the springtime. But, this car is a lesson in the phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover”. I sat in it, and the interior lights were somewhat working (most of the center stack was nonfunctional, and the sunroof was stuck closed). My uncle also explained that the air conditioning was broken and the heater was functional. With that in mind, I surveyed the rest of the interior and found it was still holding together, despite the electrical maladies.
All the gauges worked when I turned the key to ACC, and I went for the ignition again and the little 2.3L naturally aspirated straight-4, with all of its 150hp and 2.3 liters, fired up on the first turn. This one was a 4-speed automatic model, and even with more than 170K miles on its shoulders, has been regularly maintained and kept up to date constantly. After backing it out of the driveway, I brought it out to the streets of Slingerlands, NY, and found that the little red Saab still had plenty of life left in it. The seats are comfortable but at this point in their lives are definitely not as supportive as they once might have been. The ride revealed how old the car was as well–it was comfortable but the shocks were a bit worn. The brake pedal was solid, stopping this Saab with little fade and reasonable nosedive.
Handling-wise, the little 900 felt tight. The steering on it is fantastic, it feels much more lively and communicative than the 9-3X I drove. It was heavy and had plenty of feel. The body lean was predictable but in no way irritating. Around an industrial park, it felt more than capable, with a chassis that was nice and solid on all accounts. Although this one was not the turbo, the 2.3L, 150hp I4 was more than capable around town, and sounded willing when pushed to its limits. The transmission, however, could’ve be better–the 4-speed automatic is prone to gear-hunting and is definitely tuned for fuel economy. The little Swedish bean isn’t dead yet, and like some other old European cars I’ve come across, rust and old age just doesn’t seem to affect the driving experience. Mechanically, my uncle’s old Saab was pretty much 100%. After I got it up to 60mph and threw it around a few mountain roads, it became quite clear to me that this was a car that did not get worse with time.
My uncle is the original owner and has gone from using this car on a daily basis to using it only for trips to airports or non-essential driving, due to its age. He also wants to give it to my cousin when she becomes a licensed driver. I laughed when I heard him say it, but when I drove it, I realized that since there was nothing mechanically wrong with the car, and that it was still intact even with the rust, my uncle is far more on the money than I realized. So, while the newer Saabs aren’t my cup of tea, this older model is definitely still around and will likely be around for years to come. It’s no BMW or Mercedes, but Saab’s older models like this one are certainly built to last.
-Albert S. Davis