Saab Central - Features
Classic Saab 900 - Press Reviews
Test Extra 900 Carlsson
New wrapping for an old car doesn't disguise the problems, but the latest 900 Carlsson still has a lot to offer.
Price £20,495. Max speed 131 mph. 0-60 8.6. MPG 23.9
For Strong performance, crisp handling, well made
Against Harsh ride, terrible gearchange, price
SAY WHAT YOU WILL ABOUT SAAB, it cannot be accused of underplaying its hand. With just one basic engine and two basic body styles, the Swedish car maker contrives to span an amazingly wide sector of the market: from £11,995 (900 two-door) to £26,295 (9000 Carlsson five-door). Just as remarkable is the continuing development of the stalwart 900. a model which was launched way back in I979 and can trace its lineage through to the decade before that with the 99.
Whats more, it still looks much the same. Despite the inevitable smoothing and tidying of evolution, it's a quirky, characterful shape that no one has ever really tried to copy. Even the £20,495 Carlsson tested here, with its bold three-spoke alloys, extravagant spoilers and skirts is a maverick in the executive express ranks. And beneath that distinctive wrap-over bonnet beats the same old Triumph-derived 2-litre four-cylinder engine - albeit barely recognisable with its twin-cam 16-valve head. A new, small-turbine Garrett turbo and a distinctly up-tempo 185bhp at 5500rpm 10bhp up on the regular turbo's output) with a thumping 201lb ft of torque at 2800rpm.
Saab says the 900 Carlsson is a genuine 130mph car. With an average of 131mph round Millbrook's high-speed banking- and therefore a flat-road maximum closer to 135mph - the claim errs on the side of caution. Mind you the Carlsson can't afford to be any slower, not with the 142mph Lancia Thema 16v SE Turbo £21.375) as a rival. Alfa's similarly powerful but considerably cheaper 75 3.0 V6 Veloce £16,650) beats the Saab by a convincing margin, too, with a top speed of 137mph.
A 0-60mph time of 8.6secs doesn't quite measure tip to Saab's 8secs claim nor does it do the Carlsson any conspicuous favours. In fact, the Saab doesn't help itself here, tramping so violently off the line and presenting the driver with such a flimsy, ill-defined gearchange action that finding the optimum acceleration times is about as easy as tracking down the holy grail. Over the benchmark sprint, the Lancia is devastatingly quicker than the Swede with a time of 6.8secs while the lusty, normally-aspirated Alfa manages to lop a second off the Saab's time with 7. 5secs. Judged on the basis of in-gear times, the Carlsson finds itself having to give best again, its fourth gear 30-50 and fifth gear 50-70mph increment times of 9.5 and 9.1secs comparing with 6.9 and 7secs for the Lancia, 6.3 and 8.7secs for the Alfa.
And that's how the Carlsson feels on the road: quick rather than thrilling. What the adoption of the smaller turbo has done is to even out the power delivery Gone is the low-speed lag and attendant sloth; gone also is the blistering mid-range pick-up. it's all been averaged out to provide a more consistent, less peaky push in the back. In truth, some lag remains below about 3000rpm and throttle response is far from sabre sharp. That said, the new style power characteristics are preferable to the old and, given the engine's ageing four-pot design, it's impressively refined.
Only if you're prepared to be especially easy-going with the gearchange will it reward you with a pleasant. baulk-free passage between slots. Introduce even a hint of urgency and the shift goes to pieces, suddenly feeling gritty, stodgy and recalcitrant. No complaints about the clutch, though. which is quite light, smooth and very well cushioned; or the well-spaced ratios which allow maxima of 33, 58, 87 and 123mph at 6200rpm in the first four gears.
The Carlsson is capable of covering ground swiftly without the occupants feeling rushed. It's among the more frugal cars in its class, too. Our test car returned an entirely reasonable 23.9mpg overall, which comfortably beats the Lancia's 21.1mpg and Alfa's 20.5mpg. The projected touring consumption of 26.8mpg is close to heading the class and allows a maximum range of 372 miles on a 63-litre (13.9-gal tankful of unleaded.
With its relatively narrow tyres, nose-heavy balance and stiff suspension, the 900 Carlsson doesn't have as much grip as many rivals and displays what some would see as an unfashionable prediction for early understeer. On top of that, it torque steers quite badly when the turbo blows. Yet there can be no denying that this Saab is enjoyable to drive enthusiastically, It always feels crisp, responsive and agile. the latter trait being accentuated by the car's narrowness. The steering's power assistance isn't overdone and allows plenty of road feel to filter back; it's direct and accurate, too.
But while the tautness helps keep body roll in check and ensures a crisp turn-in, it doesn't do much for the ride, which is always firm and borders on the harsh over ridges or pocked surfaces. The seats do well to remove the worst excesses of the ride but they seldom do enough:
On poor roads, the Saab is simply uncomfortable. Braking, on the other hand, is largely beyond criticism: four big discs (ventilated at the front) haul the Carlsson down from three-figure speeds progressively and without fade or drama. Anti-lock is standard.
Refinement isn't at all had considering the Carlssons sporting aspirations. The engine is well muted unless worked hard and, up to about 60mph, nothing much intrudes on the hushed progress. Wind noise from around the windscreen pillars makes its presence heard above 70mph but isn't appreciably worse at 100mph plus. Road roar is generally low but tyre bump thump is present to a moderate degree on badly surfaced roads.
For the rest, the Carlsson is very similar to the regular 900 Turbo. Which means adequate passenger accommodation for a quartet of adults - though getting into the back can he a squeeze - and a huge luggage bay beneath the long, sloping tailgate. The rear compartment is rather gloomy and a little short on headroom hut the front seat occupants get a good deal, especially the driver, who benefits not only from the large and superbly supportive seat but also a first-class driving position.
Instrumentation is clear and comprehensive with visibility generally excellent, though the rear pillars can impede vision at acutely angled junctions and the lights aren't as powerful as might have been expected. The old-fashioned water-valve heater's output is quick to warm up and powerful when required but hard to regulate. Cabin appointments live up to Saab's tradition for hard-wearing quality.
Where the Carlsson scores though, is in combining these elements with good, clean design that has cheated the ears. Build quality is excellent with doors that shut like bank vaults, smooth paintwork and close, even panel gaps. Standard equipment includes headlamp wash-wipe, electric front mirrors. sunroof and door mirrors, cruise control, central locking, a leather sports steering wheel and heated front seats.
Our enduring respect for the Saab 900 has, if anything, been reinforced by this latest encounter with the Carlsson. While not as quick as we were hoping, it gets most things right and is seldom less than enjoyable to drive, if something of an acquired taste.
That doesn't, however, excuse the dismal gearchange and hard ride. On a long-term basis, it's likely that one or the other would become an irritation. This is a pity because the Carlsson is certainly a distinctive and capable performance car. In view of its shortcomings, though, the asking price is probably a little too high.
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