Continuing the weekend’s Viggen love-fest…..
If you own or otherwise love the Saab 9-3 Viggen then you’re going to find at least the first part of this review difficult. You may even want to throw something at the screen. Hang in there.
It gets better. Much better, in fact.
The following comes from Fifth Gear’s Modern Classics section.
The previous generation Saab 9-3 will never go down in history as one of the all-time great classics. Indeed, in Saab circles, the car is positively frowned upon for not having the requisite weirdness, longevity or left-of-centre image as the brand would have liked. Then, of course, there was the simple and unavoidable fact that, under the skin, there lurked the platform and basic running gear of a 1988 Vauxhall Cavalier. Not even a Vectra, but the five-door hatchback beloved of minicab drivers, banger racers and Ispon P40-wielding wheelarch repair fanatics.
To fans of the marque, the previous 9-3 was what could be deemed ‘not a proper Saab’. egatives aside, though, let’s look at what the car did have going for it. First of all, the wheelarches weren’t as rot prone as those on a Cavalier. Secondly, by the time the 9-3 debuted in 1998, there had been some major tweaks to ensure the original platform was at least capable of mixing it with modern traffic, unlike the outwardly identical 900, which used unmodified Cavalier running gear.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, was that despite the creativity-crushing presence of parent firm General Motors (a wilderness that, thankfully, the US giant appears to be slowly withdrawing from), there was still a bunch of hardy enthusiasts plucking away at keeping the traditional virtues of the Saab brand alive and well.
These were men who remembered the days when the 99 and 900 Turbo models not only introduced the world to affordable, accessible turbocharged saloon cars, but also gave a rip-roaring debut to the delights of torque steer, neck-snapping turbo lag and the adrenaline rush of driving a car that, although flawed, was brutally quick and utterly exhilarating.
By day, these same men were churning out interior redesigns to try and disguise the switchgear of old Vauxhalls on silver diesel-powered rep-spec 9-3 hatchbacks, but by night they were busy working on a car that would share its name (and performance characteristics) with a fighter jet.
The work of this covert performance division finally resulted in the 9-3 Viggen, which made its debut in 1999.
Power came from a heavily tweaked version of the 2.3-litre engine used in top-of-the-range 9-3s (and, refreshingly in a GM-policed environment, still exclusive to the Swedish maker), while visual identifiers were suitably subtle, yet noticeable.
Five-spoke 17-inch alloys, muscular front and rear bumpers, a Porsche 911-style rear wing and side skirts defined the Viggen, along with a choice of blue, black, yellow, red or silver paint and discreet ‘Viggen’ badges. To the uninitiated, this was a 9-3 with a sports styling pack – but to those in the know, this was something very special indeed.
With a high pressure turbo, the Viggen produced 230bhp, most of which was delivered with a veritable thump at around about the 4,000rpm mark. 0-60mph took only 6.5 seconds, and the top speed was limited to 155mph. For all the discretion of the 9-3’s exterior styling, the kick in the nuts with which it transferred its power to the tarmac was at complete opposites.
Quite a few contemporary road testers missed the point. “Too much torque steer”, they said. “Highlights the inherent weaknesses of the Vauxhall-derived chassis”. “Yet another disappointing Saab”, “too much power, not enough grip”. Valid points, indeed, but only to people who didn’t get what the 9-3 Viggen was all about. Yes, it was fundamentally flawed. Yes, it did torque steer like its front tyres were made out of choc ices, and yes, it did have power that completely outbalanced the chassis’s available grip.
But those who knew and loved Saabs of yore also recognised the Viggen’s nod to the past. Its ability to recreate a little of the imagery associated with Stig Blomqvist and Per Eklund, flinging up ice and gravel from the front tyres as they ballet-danced 900 Turbos across the frozen plains of the 1,000 Lakes Rally, living out the dreams of thousands of Scandinavian schoolboys as they fought the laws of physics in the early days of turbocharging.
Warts and all, the Viggen was a car that unashamedly harked back to its manufacturer’s golden age. A car that reminded people what the Saab brand was all about, including, perhaps, some of the suits at GM. After all, every single Viggen brought into the country was sold in days, and in the twilight of the old 9-3’s existence, Saab had to cancel European production to ensure that the Trollhatten plant could satisfy all of the American orders in the system before tooling up for the new 9-3.Today, the Viggen exists in a kind of wilderness. The nicest examples are, for the most part, already enthusiast owned and are impossible to value. They’re cherished classics already, bought by people who knew what they were when new, knew they wanted one and aren’t in a hurry to sell.
The rest are floating round the bargain basement of late-90s performance cars – you’ll easily pick one up for less than £3k if you scour the small ads. But beware, as they don’t suffer neglect well. The alloys are almost certain to have delacquered, a lack of servicing can lead to premature turbo failure and – perhaps because it’s Cavalier-based – underbody corrosion isn’t unheard of. Buy as nice an example as you can, and if you take our advice you’ll mothball it.At present, the Viggen is nothing more than a half forgotten performance car, slowly fading into obscurity. But thanks to the enthusiasm of Saab fans, and the drama with which it can be driven, its resurgence is guaranteed. In an era of clinically finished, finely-tuned and perfectly balanced sports saloons, the Viggen is refreshingly old-fashioned, and is the only Saab of recent years (other than, maybe, the latest 9-3 cabrio) to truly capture the essence of the brand, right down to its obvious shortcomings. In the future, it will be remembered as a shining star during what was Saab’s darkest hour.
Years built: 1999-2000
Price range: £2,000-£6,000
Engine: 2.3-litre, 4cyl turbo, 230bhp
Top speed: 155mph