SAAB's 9000 Turbo: best of the bunch in an all-new line

The SAAB-built Swedish Air Force JA37 Viggen jet fighter swept in low above the bay, then arched straight up into the sky in a magnificent demonstration of the plane's versatility and speed, followed by a delta-winged fighter that successfully applied an ''exclamation point'' to the performance.

It was, in a way, a fitting salute to SAAB's brand-new 9000, equipped with the Swedish carmaker's 16-valve, third-generation turbo, which goes on sale in the Nordic countries in the fall and the rest of Europe in the spring, but won't reach the United States till the fall of 1985.

The air show highlighted the versatility of a company that doesn't produce a lot of cars compared with some of its competitors in the United States, Europe, and Japan - a little more than 100,000 this year, the carmaker expects - but which supplies Sweden with its air cover and builds missiles.

Sweden's SAAB, which has a futuristic approach in the design of its motorcars , has come a long way from the ''portable popcorn poppers'' of 25 and 30 years ago - those 2-cycle vehicles, ugly to some, which told you to mix oil with the fuel when you filled up the gas tank. While the ''antique'' SAAB 92 did provide a high level of performance, safety, and fuel economy on the road, it didn't look much like a ''serious automobile'' at the time.

Even so, the 92s and their successor 2-strokers became cult cars and were even raced on the ice - not the slippery winter roads with which motorists in northern locales are all too familiar, but on pond and lake ice where there are no traffic lights and the speed is left up to the skill and common sense of the person behind the wheel. A significant buff club developed around them.

Now, in 1984, enter the SAAB 9000, a 5-door-hatchback, super-refined car that was developed in league with Fiat-Lancia of Italy and whose basic design was provided by Ital Design, a Milan-based firm noted for creating a lengthy line of highly regarded vehicles, including the first Volkswagen Golf (Rabbit in the US).

Despite the Italian involvement in the project, Sten Wennlo, head of the SAAB car division of SAAB-Scania AB, insists that ''the 9000 is a true SAAB.''

What the tie-up with Lancia did was save SAAB a pile of money. But only a dozen front-end parts are shared by the SAAB 9000 and a car that Lancia also plans to develop and sell.

The intercooled 9000 turbo, the largest car ever built by SAAB in its 35-year history, will not replace either the SAAB 90 or the 900. The company, in effect, is launching an all-new line of cars, the wedge-shaped 9000 being the best of the bunch. With a 2-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine and high-performance suspension, the car zips from a standstill to 100 kilometers an hour (62 m.p.h.) in 8.3 seconds. Top speed is 220 k/hr.

While the engine of the European version of the car is rated at 175 horsepower, the US version will be rated at 160, equipped as it will be with US-required emissions controls. The dashboard and control layout are functional and complete. All SAABs are front-wheel drive.

For the technically minded, the flush-mounted glass and small frontal area give the SAAB 9000 a drag coefficient of 0.34, a very low figure for a production car these days.

The 9000 turbo is really aimed at the rest of the world, not Sweden. ''It will have a limited place in the Nordic countries,'' reports Georg Karnsund, president of the SAAB-Scania Group, of which the car division is a part. ''Turbos are downplayed in Sweden,'' he adds. While SAAB sells about 25 percent of its total car production in Sweden, it sells only 12 percent of its turbos.

Even though its plans for the car are high, the company plans to build no more than 10,000 turbo 9000s in the first year, gradually stepping up the output in the future. Production capacity of the new 9000 turbo is 100,000 a year.

This brings up an interesting shift in the way the Swedish car company does business. Up to now SAAB has shunned the production race, feeling it was not where the money lay for a company the size of SAAB. ''Some years ago,'' Mr. Karnsund admits, ''we let the production capacity govern the market side. Now we are doing it the other way around, where the marketing side is running the production.''

In 1983, SAAB sold 95,000 cars, and its capacity now is 120,000 a year. The 9000 turbo will significantly increase its market share, the company expects.

The new turbo will compete with the BMW 528 as well as the all-new 16-valve Mercedes 190, Audi 5000, Volvo 760 turbo, and the like.

Why doesn't SAAB include an antiskid braking system on such a new car? ''There is no antiskid braking system for front-drive cars that we can accept,'' asserts Gunnar Larsson, technical director at SAAB. ''We've been waiting for the third-generation systems,'' he adds, ''which will be available in a couple of years in volume production.''

SAAB plans to road-test a three-circuit system next year, Mr. Larsson adds, reaching full volume in 1987.

Besides the 5-door hatchback, SAAB plans other versions of the 9000 down the road. The company denies plans to build a 4-wheel-drive car, ''even though we have the knowledge in our truck division,'' says Mr. Wennlo.

Meanwhile, never at a loss to find a new market, the Swedish carmaker has set up service stations in Moscow through two Soviet organizations. Instead of having to go to Finland for parts and repairs, diplomatic buyers in the Soviet Union don't have to go any farther than their friendly Russian repair shop.

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