Upgrading a 1998-2002 Saab 9-3 – Part 1: Viggen Rescue Kit

This 4-part series was original published in January 2009 at Trollhattan Saab. I thought I’d bring it online here at SU in order to form part of a Saab Tuning Guide.
I got an email from John K asking what might be the best path to take to upgrade his MY2000 Saab 9-3. Not just any Saab, 9-3, either. John was the guy who ended up buying the black 9-3 Viggen 5-door that I was looking at in Sydney, just before Christmas.
John writes:

I understand you owned a Viggen at some stage and I was hoping you could provide some guidance on some minor upgrades I was looking for the car. It’s starting to get a little confusing with all the sites, parts and part no’s available and seeing as most items would need to come from overseas I really don’t want to muck up an orders with incorrect parts etc.
Initially I was looking at installing the following and hope you can provide further details on the best option, where to buy from and relevant part no’s (if possible):
1) Shock absorbers – I would like to replace these with a quality set (front & rear). The current ones are leaking slightly and I’ve been told they are all pretty much due for replacement. Do you know which ones work well on the Viggen? (i.e. Koni, Bilstein, KYB or other). In your opinion where would be the best place to source these?
2) Poly Bushes – I’ve been told that replacing standard bushes with polyurethane assists in handling. Can you advise which bushes would be worthwhile changing (sorry, I’m not very mechanically minded and all the guys I know are not very well versed with the Viggen).
3) Performance Air-Filter – Any recommendations on a good element or filter kit?
4) Exhaust – Is it worthwhile purchasing an exhaust kit from a saab parts centre (i.e. genuinesaab or elkparts or would a made up one from an exhaust fitter be sufficient). I’m looking at going 3″ with as many mufflers as possible to keep it quite.
5) Computer Upgrades – Again, any advice on what to upgrade here for more performance? Elk parts sell a BSR flash handset which plugs into the diagnostic adapter and upgrades the existing computer for more power….have you heard any good or bad things about this?
Sorry to trouble you with these questions.

No trouble at all!
There’s a lot there, and rather than write back an email, I thought it would be worth a post here. Others may be interested, and I’ll be going through almost all this stuff with the Monte Carlo anyway.
As you know, I’m no techie. In fact, I’m practically incompetent. But I have owned a Viggen previously and I have spent a bucketload of time checking out the things I could do to get a little more satisfaction from it.
So without further ado…..
The Viggen is one heck of a great car, but like almost all 9-3s of its vintage, it’s got too much engine for the chassis it sits in. That means it has some handling compromises in its normal state, compromises that only get magnified if you try to tap some of that plentiful power potential.
The first thing you need then, is stability.
Viggen Rescue Kit
The Viggen Rescue Kit (or fundamental parts thereof) made by Abbott Racing in the UK is the undisputed essential item for sorting out some of the inherent problems with the 9-3. It’s named for the Viggen that inspired it, but the VRK is appropriate for any upgraded 9-3.
The VRK is made up of four components: a steering rack clamp and bulkhead brace, polyurethane track control arm bushes, a support arm bearing kit and a stainless steel subframe brance. The components can be bought separately but it’s cheaper to buy the kit as a unit.
gold_rack_clampThe magic pill here is the steering rack clamp and subframe brace, available for both LHD and RHD cars. The original Saab steering rack clamp is a flimsy rubber unit with a steel surround. The Abbott unit is made from billet alloy and along with the subframe brace, it holds the steering rack firmly in place and all-but eliminates the torque steer from the Viggen. As you get so much feedback from the steering wheel, this is a great upgrade.
I fitted the Abbott steering rack clamp and subframe brace to my Viggen and it was nothing short of a transformation in how the car felt.
Abbott Racing are the guys behind the VRK but if you’re in Australia, you have to buy your Abbott products through Swedish Prestige, in Melbourne. This is fine as Dean’s a great guy to deal with, but going through a middleman does increase the price and you won’t get much change out of A$1,500 for the VRK. I’m not sure of the purchasing arrangements in other countries outside the UK, but Abbott are pretty loyal to their distributors so I’d imagine a similar situation exists.
The good news is that there are now alternatives to buying the original VRK. Various Saab parts specialists are now manufacturing elemts of the VRK and at a substantial savings on the original Abbott parts.
Genuine Saab (Taliaferro) make a LHD version of the steering rack clamp and subframe brace. Elkparts distribute this in Europe. Parts for Saabs make a RHD version and if you want an indication of the savings – subframeI got my steering rack clamp and bulkhead brace from Abbott in 2007 and it cost me around A$500. I just ordered the rack clamp for the Monte from PFS and it’s costing me $200 – delivered!
The stainless steel subframe brace is said to stiffen things up a bit. The Abbott unit it’s a two-point brance and there’s others who make this sort of unit as well. The Big Momma of subframe braces is the Taliaferro six-point brace, which is said to stiffen up the subframe considerably.

Upgrading a 1998-2002 Saab 9-3 – Part 2: Suspension

In part 1 we got John K’s request about upgrading his Viggen and covered some of the deficiencies of the vehicle as well as one of the essential upgrades to condier – the Viggen Rescue Kit.
In part 2 we look at a few other handling improvements so you can put all that power down in a more controlled manner.
Springs and Dampers
I had the Koni yellow adjustable dampers in my Viggen and I can highly recommend them.
If you call your local suspension specialist here in Australia, they’ll tell you that Koni don’t sell dampers for the Viggen or Aero. Garbage. They just don’t sell them in Australia. Koni have had some trouble with them here so they’ve withdrawn them from the lineup and you have to get them from one of the previously listed parts sellers.
I never had any trouble with mine and the adjustability is great if you like driving in different conditions and having the car being set up for those conditions. The dampers adjust via a little handle that Koni supply and it only takes a few minutes to adjust all four of them.
viggen-16_jpg I’ve never changed my springs but I’ve heard good things about Eibach springs and I’m considering lowering my Monte 30mm with a set of Eibachs from Elkparts. These will work fine on the Monte Carlo, though they may not lower the Viggen.
A Viggen can be lowered, however, but with the already low front bumper you’re asking for scuffing trouble. That didn’t put Jeff B in Melbourne off the idea, though, as he’s lowered his Viggen down onto its guts. It can be done.
Polyurethane Bushes
I never got around to fitting these to my own Viggen so I don’t know which bushes take priority or how well they work. I’ve heard nothing but good things about them, though.
I’ll have to defer to more experienced heads than mine on this one.
Rear Anti-roll Bar
Again, My time with the Viggen was cut short before I could install a rear anti-roll bar. It’s high on my list of priorities for the Monte Carlo, though. I drove Richo’s Viggen with an ARB installed and it really did flatten out the corners nicely.
The rear ARB gives the back end a lot of stability and the driver a lot of confidence coming out of corners (just don’t get too confident, eh?). They’re inexpensive, apparently easy to install and very, very effective.

Upgrading a 1998-2002 Saab 9-3 – Part 3: Intake and Exhaust

In part 1 of this series, we looked at the Viggen’s problems and one of the initial solutions in the Viggen rescue kit.
In part 2, we looked at other suspension components that can be upgraded and give you much better control over the power your car can unleash.
The components in those first to parts comprise a pretty fair list and it’s not a cheap one to fulfil.
But if you do the engine upgrades before you do this stuff – or the essential bits, at least – then you’ll end up with a car that goes like crazy, but rarely in a straight line and many of the changes in direction won’t be intentional.
So with that done, it’s on to the fun bits under the hood….
Again, it’s worthwhile getting your engine ready to make the most of the performance modifications you want to make. You can get a software upgrade straight away, but you’ll get a heap more out of it if you upgrade some of your hardware first.
Let’s start with some better breathing…..
Inhale – getting the air in
The key to getting more power out of you engine is getting more air into your engine. It’s not just the rate you can push the air in, either. The temperature matters, too. The colder the air, the denser it is, and therefore greater in volume.
The first step is to get a free flowing (but good) air intake. These have the advantage of allowing a lot of air in and if it’s a good unit, it’ll still perform its filtration duties properly as well. Because a Saab’s turbocharger generates so much heat, your air intake should come equipped with a heat shield to keep the air as cool as possible. You should also try and provide a cold air feed.
intakepipe I fitted a big intake pipe to my Viggen the day before my crash and for a day, at least, I enjoyed some really free breathing and some slightly increased output. The pipe is quite a bit wider than Saab’s standard pipe and therefore, is capable of delivering a lot more air. The intake pipe fits between your air mass meter and your turbo inlet and took Matt the Fudgepacker about an hour to fit.
Another item I plan on installing on the Monte Carlo is an uprated intercooler. The intercooler sold by Elkparts is the one I’m looking at as it’s far more efficient than the standard Saab model and yet it fits in the same space with no need for modifications. It’s made by Forge Motorsport to Elkparts specifications.
The intercooler provides colder air, increasing your throttle response, especially at low revs. I’ve heard it said that free flowing air filters allow your car to perform better at higher revs, but you lose some bottom end responsiveness. An increase in your intercooler flow rate can be a big help in overcoming this problem.
Exhale – the exhaust system
Imagine trying to breath through a straw. It’s hard enough under normal circumstances, but when you’re working hard it would be just about impossible. The same thing applies to your engine and the standard Saab intakes and exhaust are a bit like the straw – somewhat restrictive if you want to push things.
We’ve covered breathing in, but your engine also needs to breathe out and that’s where the exhaust comes in.
There’s a lot that goes into exhaust design from the size of the pipes to the number and even the configuration of the pipes. The main objective is to get unwanted exhaust gases evacuated as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Bigger is generally better, but that theory has limits and if you go too big then it can actually have a detrimental effect on your vehicle’s output. Saabs are generally alright taking up to a 3-inch exhaust, but I was advised that 2.25 would be optimal for my Alfa.
All of the big Saab parts sellers offer performance exhaust options. The best ones are regarded to be the ones made of stainless steel. All of the Saab-recommended performance exhausts should be pretty good, but the stainless steel ones will last longer.
One component to be mindful of is the catalytic converter. You can buy ‘cat-back’ exhausts and as the name suggests, they go from the catalytic converter to the rear of the vehicle. Alternatively, you can buy a full exhaust with a performance ‘cat’ included, which will be less restrictive and allow for better breathing and more performance.

Upgrading a 1998-2002 Saab 9-3: part 4 (ECU and final words)

This 4-part series was originally posted at Trollhattan Saab in January 2009. I’ve reprinted here to make up part of the SU Tuning Guide, which I’ll put a link to in the sidebar.
In earlier instalments we covered the following:
Part 1 – the 9-3 and some of it’s deficiencies, and the Viggen Rescue Kit
Part 2 – suspension mods so you can control the power
Part 3 – intake and exhaust
Now, in this final instalment, I’ll look at getting the big power boost via ECU.
I’ve also included a number of links to the various tuning and parts companies that have been mentioned throughout this series.
Software = grunt!
And so we end up at the place where a lot of people start – the engine control unit, or ECU.
Saab 9-3 Viggens and Aeros use Saab’s own engine management software – Trionic7. Like all manufacturers, they set their engine software to the lowest common demoninator. They have to assume that the owner is going to follow the recommended oil change schedule rather than more frequent changes. They have to assume that the owner is going to buy a cheaper grade of fuel.
In short, the car is set up for Joe Average, but is capable of a lot more – and this is where tuning software comes in.
Tuning software does all sorts of magic tricks with fuel delivery, timing changes and all sort of other things (see, I’m technical, huh?) to get the most out of your engine hardware. It’s not uncommon to take a basic Saab turbocharged engine putting out 150hp, apply some software changes and get 50+ horsepower extra with an even bigger boost in torque.
Higher output engines don’t neccessarily such a great proportional increase, but appropriate hardware and software combined can easily result in 300hp-plus outputs (at which point you’ve got to start considering the internals of your engine).
bsrppcThe simplest software solution is without doubt the PPC software solution from BSR. The BSR unit connects with your engine management system via a cord plugged into a jack down under your steering wheel. The new tuning information is stored on the PPC unit and transfers to your vehicle’s computer, replacing the original factory tune. The original tuning information is stored on the PPC and you can revert to the factory tuning at any time – and go back and forth between tunes as you please.
BSR also post updates from time to time and these are downloadable via the web and free to PPC owners.
Other ECU tuning options are available from companies such as Nordic, Maptun, Abbott, Speedparts and others. These generally involve the owner having to swap their ECU for a tuned ECU. Getting an ECU in and out of a 9-3 isn’t a difficult process (see “Installation…”), but it’s not as convenient as the plug-n-play option like that from BSR.
Most of these tuning houses sell tuning options in stages.
Stage One will generally be software only and it goes up from there. Stage Three will often include an exhaust system and air filter. Higher stages will include fuel pressure regulator and bigger injectors. The options are endless.
All of these assume, however, that you’ve got those suspension and handling options sorted first.
Finally, a word of caution….
Saabs can be tuned up to be absolutely monstrous four cylinder vehicles, but it’s going to cost money, and you’ve got to make sure you do it in a balanced way. When you crank these things up you increase the stress on many components so you’ve got to be careful and be prepared for adverse consequences should they arise.
And always ensure that your engine is running well at stock configuration before you consider doing serious upgrades.
Tuner links:
Elkparts – UK (and much appreciated site sponsor)
Abbott Racing – UK
Genuine Saab (Taliaferro) – USA
Speedparts – Sweden
Nordic – Sweden
Maptun – Sweden
Jak Stoll – USA
BSR – Sweden

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