Saab has always been an interesting carmaker, and, in some ways, a tragic one as well. The Swedish carmaker was such a gleefully idiosyncratic and distinctive team, with all sorts of unusual but oddly rational approaches to engineering and design, from two-strokes to V4s to longitudinal front-drivers with engines facing backwards to aerodynamic designs and smart safety innovations and, of course, the weird ignition key in the transmission tunnel. The tragic part is Saab’s end, which wasn’t so much a carmaker stopping production as it was a carmaker getting diluted out of existence, with the last Saabs of the GM-owned era being barely Saab-costumed glimmers of what Saab once was. There are three of these Sorta-Saabs I want to talk about today, arguably the most egregiously un-Saab cars to wear the Saab name, and I think we should decide which one is the worst Not-Saab. Because it’s important.
Two of these cars are from the GM ownership era, but one actually pre-dates that dark period pretty significantly, and is instead from one of Saab’s golden ages, the 1980s. Let’s look at this one first, because it’s very weird:
This is one of those badge-engineering marvels that makes you question why the damn thing exists at all. This car doesn’t seem very Saab-like, and that’s because it’s very not-a-Saab. It’s a Lancia Delta. So why are there Saab badges on a Lancia Delta?
It’s there mostly because Saab was never a huge automaker, and they needed a replacement for the legendary but quite dated Saab 96. Sure, it had Ford V4 power (since 1967) now instead of a two-stroke, but this was a car whose basic design hadn’t really changed since it came out in 1960. So a replacement was needed for the lower part of Saab’s lineup, but they really didn’t have the resources to develop a whole new car. That’s why they looked south to Italy and Lancia.
The car chosen to fill the 96’s hole was a good car, even if it wasn’t a particularly Saab-like car. It was a clean, crisp hatchback design from Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign, with a transverse inline-four from the Fiat Ritmo, but with some carburation and intake/exhaust system improvements to boost power to a respectable 84 hp. Interestingly, Saab actually did have some input into the car’s design, especially in the very Nordic-relevant heating/ventilation systems and rustproofing. Also, it’s said that Saab also worked on getting the car split-folding seats and a tailgate that opened all the way to the bumper.
Visually, the only way you knew you were looking at a Saab-Lancia 600 and not just a Lancia Delta is because it said SAAB on the badges. That and some very minor trim differences on the rear bumper, and that was pretty much it. These were only sold in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, and they identified it as the non-Scandinavian pretender it was, and as a result, these never sold well. Plus, they rusted, because even with Saab’s input, they’re still Italian.
Even with headlight wipers for the Swedish market, these just weren’t suited for Scandinavia, and hardly anyone bought them. Only about 2,000 were built between 1980 and 1982, so chances are you’ve not seen one of these and never will. Sorry.
Saab 902X (The Saabaru)
This one is a product of the GM era, but it’s not a GM at all. It’s a Subaru. Sure, GM owned 20% of Subaru, which is why this existed at all, and there is a sort of strange logic to why this sort of made sense. In a lot of ways, Subaru appeals to the same sort of smart, individualist, maybe somewhat academic kind of people that have traditionally gone in for Saabs and Volvos. People who had outgrown air-cooled VWs, but still wanted something different. With Saab gone and Volvo more upmarket today, modern Subaru tends to fill this niche, and even back in the early 2000s that was the case.
So, dressing a Subaru up as a Saab made a certain amount of demographic sense, even if it really did look and feel like a costume. The redesign was limited to the front end, which got a Saab-like grille and face, badges, and taillights. It really did seem like a WRX wagon in a costume, because that’s what it was. This car was all Subaru, with all the trademark Subaru traits: horizontally-opposed engine, all-wheel drive, all that.
These did get a bit more sound-deadening than the usual Subaru, and had the better steering rack from the Subaru WRX STI. So that was nice. Still not very Saab-y, but whatever. There were more suspension and other changes made to Saab this thing up as much as possible, and we cover them in detail here, but I think we can just say that for all the effort, it wasn’t really enough.
It’s a good car, just not a Saab. But maybe that’s the appeal? The confusion?
This one is full-force GM: from 2005 to 2009, you could buy what was essentially an Oldsmobile Bravada, just dressed up like a Saab and with its ignition key in a funny place. In fact, this Saab was basically a replacement for the Bravada, since Oldsmobile a a whole brand was euthanized in 2004. In order to transform this not-your-father’s Oldsmobile into a Saab that your father also never owned, GM gave the Bravada a new face, moved that ignition key, and shamelessly glommed onto Saab’s history in aviation, as you can see in this commercial:
Nothing about this Saab was born from jets, other than the idea of sleeping upright in a seat with your head leaning against a window.
If we consider this a Saab, it’s a Saab of many firsts: first SUV, first V8, first Saab to be recalled because window switches may catch on fire, all very exciting things. But the overall car? It’s just a re-skinned Bravada or TrailBlazer or Buick Ranier with a weird, fragile cupholder and badges with griffin heads on them.
I really like to think about the conversation that had to have happened to get a GM engineer to move the ignition switch to the transmission tunnel, because from an engineering perspective, it’s madness. You want me to do what? Move it where? Why?
Sure, originally on Saabs this made sense, it was a security and anti-theft thing, but the GM wasn’t engineered for that. It was purely done for marketing reasons, and was, really, one of the saddest and most cynical actions ever committed in the service of the sometimes-crime of badge engineering.
Okay, so those are our three not-Saab Saab candidates! Which one is the worst of the bunch?
Tell us and then discuss and argue and rant in the comments! Again, this is important!