By on January 29, 2011

In my Nissan Frontier Capsule Review, I briefly mentioned the fact that I’d had a Saab 9-3 prior to said Frontier. Well, as it turned out, I ended up having the Saab after the Frontier, as well. Before I could take possession of said little turbocharged hatchback for the second time and send it back to the lease company where it belonged, however, I had to beg, threaten, and — depending on your definition of the word — perhaps steal.

Prince’s suggestions aside, I didn’t party much in 1999. Instead, I formed two businesses: a nonprofit web-hosting cooperative designed to provide affordable space to individuals and small businesses who were interested in using the Debian operating system, and a tech consulting firm. One of my partners in the latter was a fifty-something veteran of the food-brokerage industry who could sell the proverbial ice to the proverbial Eskimos. Before we knew it, we had some pretty decent clients and a little bit of income coming in.

My partner was a big believer in not showing a lot of profit on the books, so we went looking for some company cars to burn up the money. His credit was dismal, a casualty of starting a dozen businesses and declaring bankruptcy at least twice, so he wound up paying $800 a month for a used Cadillac STS. I had done a better job of adhering to the American secular religion of debt and repayment so I found myself at the local Saab dealer signing up for a 2000 Saab 9-3 “S” five-speed for the bargain rate of $339 a month over thirty-six months.

Some of you will have forgotten the original Saab 9-3, so let’s review. GM bought Saab in the early nineties and promptly replaced the company’s long-serving “900”, a long-nose variant of the positively ancient Saab “99”, with the “900 NG”. The brand’s loyalists were horrified; the “new” 900 was basically an old Opel with a transverse engine, generic styling, depressing interior materials, and a suspension that produced torque steer at almost any power level.

In 1999 Saab performed a modest revision of the 900NG to create the 9-3. In most ways, the 9-3 was better than its predecessor, but it was still pretty far from good enough. However, it had a few things that very few other cars in its price segment could offer: the availability of a hatchback in both three-and-five-door body styles, the combination of a turbo engine and a manual transmission, and some absolutely monstrous incentives courtesy of GMAC.

Those incentives put me behind the wheel of a black base-model five-door with leather interior, 185 horsepower from a light-pressure turbo, and dowdy-looking fifteen-inch alloys. At the time, I was still spending most of my nights at a skatepark or BMX track and the Saab’s ability to swallow a few bikes was quite convenient. The seats were better than good and the heater loops embedded into those seats could boil water if required.

The GM people wanted Saab to be a luxury car, perhaps not understanding that Saab had never really sold luxury cars. They’d sold expensive cars, but those cars were only expensive because they’d been dragged across an ocean and priced in a different currency. There was nothing luxury-car about the 9-3. The driveline, in particular, sounded cheap and the shift lever felt like its operating cables were long enough to hang the Golden Gate Bridge.

This was also the era of the ridiculous “Born From Jets” advertising. To provide that advertising with the barest connection to reality, Saab equipped the 9-3 with the “Black Panel”. The Black Panel was an enormous button that, when pressed at night, cut the illumination to every gauge except the speedometer. The idea was that only critical information would be communicated to the pilot, I mean, driver. If one of the gauges reached a “critical area”, it would light up. Supposedly this was the way LearJets worked. The way it worked in practice:

  • Explain “Black Panel” to passenger;
  • Press Black Panel button;
  • Observe the non-impressed countenance of passenger;
  • Drive for a while in Black Panel;
  • Shriek like little girl when the fuel gauge falls below a quarter-tank and lights up out of nowhere in CRITICAL MODE;
  • Never press Black Panel button again.

The money it took to develop the Black Panel would have been better-spent on brakes. The 9-3 was not a great stopper and the ABS cycle rate seemed very slow. Or it could have been used to address the torque steer, which was miserable despite the engine’s modest power level. At least it was possible to make relatively rapid progress if one could hold the steering wheel straight, since there was plenty of area under the curve on the power chart.

About a year into my lease, my partner came to me with some surprising information. We were broke. Although we were making decent money, his purchase and complete renovation of a massive home had eaten up our profits. He’d decided to revamp the business into a cell-phone distributorship, and he had new partners. I agreed to walk away from the business for a modest consideration, leaving the Saab behind as a condition of said agreement.

Come the year 2002, I’d all but forgotten the little hatchback when the calls from GMAC started. My lease payment was ninety days past due. Would I mind addressing it? Not at all. I called my partner, who told me the Saab had been stolen and that therefore he’d stopped making payments. Upon further questioning, he revealed that “stolen” meant “taken by the new partner in the business in lieu of repayment on a major loan.” I went to see the cops anyway. They explained to me that, although I had not handed the keys to the new partner, I had handed the keys to the dude who had handed the keys to him, and that therefore there was no theft involved.

I called the new partner and got his secretary. His secretary referred me to his attorney. I called the attorney, who informed me that his partner had a perfect right to hold the car as long as he wanted to. I explained to the attorney that the two parties holding title to the car were GMAC and Jack Baruth, and that my old partner wasn’t really suffering. He explained to me that he didn’t care. I asked him to please reconsider. He declined. At that point I threw caution to the winds and explained that

a) I was being placed in a desperate situation;
b) people in desperate situations did desperate things;
c) his client worked late at night in a bad part of town and I couldn’t necessarily prevent his client from being shot in the face by vagrants, even though I drove by there all the time.

Two weeks later, I met the new partner behind the automatic gate of a Public Storage facility, along with his attorney, and watched as my Saab was backed out of a rental garage. It looked terrible. Every panel was scratched and dented. The rim of one wheel was so badly bent I was surprised it was holding air. The new partner had been smoking in the car for almost a year. It stank. It was filthy. The seats were torn. I felt sick to my stomach, but in moments I was gone, accompanied by an odd noise from the transmission.

I don’t remember what I had planned for that weekend, but I remember what I ended up doing: cleaning that car from bumper to bumper with Q-tips, alcohol, thick brushes, peroxide, and (I kid you not) sandpaper. Near the end of the ordeal, I opened the glovebox… and found a Rolex Air-King. I knew it belonged to the new partner because it had suffered the same kind of abuse to which my Saab had been subjected. The mineral crystal was scratched and the leather was worn. I figured it for a fake and tossed it on the kitchen island.

Two weeks later, the GMAC inspector stopped by for the end-of-lease paperwork. She looked at the car for a long time, took a lot of notes, and, to my amazement, announced that there would be no damage penalty. It turns out that GMAC used the same criteria for Saabs as they did for Silverados and Suburbans. I couldn’t believe my luck. Some stories have a happy ending…

…and the story got a bit happier. My wife saw the fake Rolex sitting on the island and ran it to the local jeweler. It wasn’t fake, and they wrote her a check on the spot. Eight hundred bucks. I figured it as a hundred-dollar-an-hour detail job. A week later, the phone rang.

“Uh, hey, that car I gave back to you?”

“What about it?”

“You, uh, find a watch in there?” I told him where he could look for the watch, but unless he owned some very specialized medical equipment, I doubt that he ever managed to follow that advice.

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24 Comments on “Capsule Review: 2000 Saab 9-3 and the Free Rolex...”

  • avatar

    Revenge is a dish best served cold, I guess. A great story, as usual.
    It’s sad to see what’s happened to Saab and Volvo: I owned a 99 way back when, and should have kept it longer than I did. The first car I really learned to drive in was an old 96 my father owned when I was in high school. That car was so weird and temperamental that my mother refused to drive it, and my father would only drive it back and forth from work, my to my teenaged delight. I loved the 4-speed column shifter, which always freaked passengers out who thought I was going to try and pull into an intersection in reverse. After the left rear shock mount rusted out, my best friend’s father fabricated a new shock mount out of 1/4″ angle iron. I actually think it improved the car’s handling.
    Saabs were never meant to be luxury cars, as you pointed out. They were meant to be strange, safe, practical and fun to drive in a totally Dali-esque fashion as compared to “normal” cars.

  • avatar

    You had me thinking about my old 2002 9-3 SE.  Properly cared-for**, it was a really nice car, but it required a lot of care.  Mine suffered through Saab’s terminal inability to program the ECU (fouled throttle body, twice; several DI cassettes, some sludging despite a steady diet of synth) and a four-speed auto that became both a one-speed auto and a repair that exceeded the value of the car.
    Oh, and there were various other little things (AC compressor, two heater cores, alternator, more headlights and tail-lights than I can recall).
    I can see why the car got abused.  Unless you’re masochistic and/or really like the car (and I could chalk myself into both of those) you’d probably let the maintenance backslide to hell, too.  I couldn’t do it, though.  For one, we drove both my children home in it, my wife drove it, and I couldn’t put her and the kids out.  For another, the seats, the versatility, the safety-for-the-dollar, the winter ability and the mid-grade turbo and the highway mileage that still makes me chake my head made it fun to own.
    The Sienna that replaced it is probably a better choice in every way, mind you, and the little Honda Fit I got for work purposes mostly makes up for what the Sienna can’t.  Still, I’d really like those seats again.
    ** Crazy car people always say that.  “Well, you know, the ______ is a great car if you keep up with the maintenance”.  That’s a really nice thought, but Toyota seems able to build Corollas that keep going even if their ownership experience borders on gross neglect—which is what gearheads utterly fail to understand.

    • 0 avatar

      Up to a point you are correct, but sadly, even a Toyota or Honda can go into the crapper if not maintained, I’ve seen some of both that obviously needed major work, some had smoking issues emanating from the tailpipe and one guy had an older Camry (90’s era I think) who had difficulty getting it to start and once he did, it didn’t run too well.
      So while ultra reliable and all that, they aren’t infallible.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember when I was looking for a car for the daughter…I drove a red Civic hatchback whose shift linkage was so sloppy that it was a little hard to tell if I was in the gear I thought I was. That was when I learned that Hondas can be beat to shit too…. And then my carpool driver who had owned a succession of pos cars bought a 1989 Accord. It was a pos too. The rear suspension broke on it, and it suffered several other maladies that I had never experienced with my succession of five Accords.

    • 0 avatar

      The DIC failure is usually related to the owner not using dielectric grease when changing the sparkplugs.  Also the upgraded EGV system solved the throttle body problem with the 9-3.
      a 2000 with a clutch cable?  They were hydraulic clutches in the model.
      Cheap interior?  SAAB was pretty good about keeping the interior nice in the 900NG — far better than the C900.  Yes, cheap opel parts were out and about but usually not in direct view of the driver.
      Seats that would heat up and boil water? My biggest complain about the NG is they have a thermostat and turn themselves off too quickly. I also don’t find them comfortable, but I had a 97.
      GM made a bad choice with Daylight lights that would burn out the main headlights too quickly.
      Torque steer on that car is related to tire size;  16″ wheels solved most of the problems.  Not all of them, but most.
      Highway mileage may be good, city mileage is piss poor.  I get 15 in Washington.
      Actually, pretty amazing what they did with a 1985 era opel cavalier.

  • avatar

    My family stable currently includes two ’99 Saabs (9-5s). Both still run like little Swedish bears, give every sign of continuing to do so and have yet to develop their first squeak, rattle or buzz. They are far more engaging to drive than the missus’ much newer Lexus 350.  Yes, they have the night vision button, but a demo of the lone cupholder cues more astonished squeals. I agree that Saabs never were intended to be luxury cars. However, if you look at what passed for luxury cars back in the day, you can see why select motorists might have looked Saabward.

  • avatar

    I had a 2000 9-5 Aero with stage lll Nordic kit. Fast as an M5 back then from 100-125 mph. Then I did a track day at Putnam Park. Had to rotate the tires at lunch, too much power to the steering wheels. Never did any start-ups but chuckled at friends who did.

  • avatar

    Great story as always Jack.

  • avatar

    Yes. Very nice story about many things… Life. Business partners. Weasels. SAAB history. Despair. Revenge.  I especially like the ‘SAAB history’ part. It’s the first time I’ve ever read it that way, and it really is the truth about SAABs: they were not luxury cars, they were just expensive-from-importing ordinary cars. SAABs owners made the statement “I have the money, but I spit on your mass-market mega-corporation cars.”  So what happened? The mega-corporation buys them, and ‘poof,’ their reason for existence is gone.

  • avatar

    a) I was being placed in a desperate situation;
    b) people in desperate situations did desperate things;
    c) his client worked late at night in a bad part of town and I couldn’t necessarily prevent his client from being shot in the face by vagrants, even though I drove by there all the time.

    My sentiments exactly!

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    You Sir, have an interesting “auto-biography.” 

  • avatar

    RF said that the reason you weren’t writing for his latest venture,, was because you were a convicted felon.  I thought he was joking, that it was really because he doesn’t pay anything, but now I’m not so sure…

  • avatar

    There are few things that feel as good as getting back at someone who willfully wronged you.  I’ll spare the story of what happened but the payback was glorious.  A screwdriver was used to separate the frameless window glass from the gasket.  A small pointed funnel was inserted, and a two litre bottle of urine was introduced to his leather interior.  I waited months after he screwed me to do this, and chose the morning of what would a nice hot sunny day.  He had to park in the railroad station lot, so an early morning run to the train station was all it took.  I was in my early 20’s when I did this and I still feel good when I think of what it must have been like to jump into that car…Kahn was right.  Revenge is a dish best served cold…

    ** Crazy car people always say that.  ”Well, you know, the ______ is a great car if you keep up with the maintenance”.  That’s a really nice thought, but Toyota seems able to build Corollas that keep going even if their ownership experience borders on gross neglect—which is what gearheads utterly fail to understand.

    Because to a gearhead, treating your machine like that is like child abuse or starving a puppy.  Any gearhead I know has no problem pounding on his car, but neglect the oil?  Never.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Because to a gearhead, treating your machine like that is like child abuse or starving a puppy.  Any gearhead I know has no problem pounding on his car, but neglect the oil?  Never.

      Absolutely.  Drive it like you stole it, but give the machine what it requires.  I’m hounding my fiance right now about scheduling an oil change for her car that’s roughly 1000 miles overdue. 

  • avatar

    I had an ’01 SE.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, but at 90K the maintenance became too much to absorb, and weird electrical gremlins started causing trouble.  But what can you expect?  Also, with the possibility of an immanent sludge explosion, it was time to pull the trigger.  Yet it never stranded me.  On the other hand, it appears that your problem was not really with the Saab, but rather your choice of sleazy business associates.
    Excepting the yuppie crowd, Saab was an answer to a question no one outside of Stockholm was asking.  After a long time with no new or interesting product it became easy to see that GM was simply waiting for an excuse to chunk it.  Hell, I’d buy another one if they could get their act together.  But that is like saying if your aunt was a man, she’d be your uncle.  Some things are just impossible.

  • avatar

    There’s a 1995 900S in my family, which I drove quite a bit in high school. At the time it had a little over 200,000 kms on the clock, and still drove like it was basically new. It’s the most basic 900 you could buy — non-turbo-, stick, cloth upholstery, etc — but our only real complaint about the car is that it’s not the most comfortable in the world.
    The engine has been completely reliable; the only big repair we’ve had to do in several years of ownership is to replace the clutch (it was basically shot when we bought the car.) The NG900 and OG9-3 lack the character of other (older) Saabs, but if you’re careful, they’re a great deal on the used market.

  • avatar

    My neighbor is getting into SAABs. He has a 9-3 with 200 K that’s about had it,  lots of work over the years keeping it on the road. He got a station wagon cheap with a  blown engine,  replaced it and figures he’s ahead of the cost game. I like the wagon but no way am I buying one. Too expensive to fix and great uncertainty for their future.

  • avatar

    We had a black ’94 Saab Turbo, bought used in ’99. While driving home from Delaware, where we bought it, to Pennsylvania, we suddenly noticed that the tachometer was not working.  In fact, nothing was working on the dash except the speedometer.  That was our introduction to the black panel.  Fortunately, we somehow figured out what the issue was without having to driving back to the dealer, which would have been embarrassing.  We never used the black panel again, either.
    My wife enjoyed that car for several years, until it got caught in some snow, and after freeing her, I let her drive my Audi to work.  After that, she became an AWD convert, though she went the Subaru route.
    I agree that the Saab was never a luxury car.  It was enjoyable for its uniqueness, and its utility – we often threw our bikes in the back too – but other than those wonderful heated seats, it never felt luxurious.

  • avatar
    slow kills

    I had a friend demonstrate the Black Panel and the overdone air vents on his parents’ Saab.  I was underwhelmed by this gimmick at the time, and to this day I am not distracted by the soft glow from the window switches.  But I know how to adjust the brightness of the instruement panel backlight, so I’m not getting full blast illumination anyway.

  • avatar
    bill h.

    ‘This was also the era of the ridiculous “Born From Jets” advertising. To provide that advertising with the barest connection to reality, Saab equipped the 9-3 with the “Black Panel”.’
    IIRC, the Night Panel feature on Saabs first appeared on the nextgen 900s, in 1994. Doesn’t that pre-date by some years the (agreed silly) ‘Born from Jets’ slogan?  So the implied cause and effect in the article is exactly backwards by my estimation.  Personally I don’t use the feature all that often, but it works as advertised when the fuel level gets down to a quarter tank, which on this car can mean about 100 miles worth of fuel left.

    We actually have two 9-3s, a base 2001 model w/180k miles (bought new, now given to my college attending son) and a 2002 SE model, 150k miles (bought last year for $4k).  The base model has plenty of power, and we installed a thicker rear antiroll bar to help the handling, which isn’t SOA by any means.  RoadHOLDing though is great, in even the worst weather.  No issues with transmissions (manuals), though the clutch is $ to replace (partly because it’s a hydraulic system on the 9-3s Jack, NOT cable).  No issues with engine sludging, and no electrical gremlins either, though  I do think it wise to keep a spare ignition cassette around in case the one on the engine fails.

    My son likes the fact that when he brings a couple of passengers to and from school during breaks, he can easily carry a month’s worth of student stuff for all three of them (even when one of the other kids is a young lady, who often have more).  It has plenty of go for staying ahead of the semis on Interstate 81’s up and down roads, keeps its composure in Blue Ridge snowstorms, and still gets about 35 mpg on the trip.

    Oh, and in over 10 years of driving these cars, my son and I have never remembered encountering the so-called “torque steer” issue.  Perhaps we don’t notice it, having gotten so used to FWD turbo power.  OTOH, maybe we just don’t ‘baruth’ our cars hard enough when we drive them….

    Some pushback about the Night Panel….

  • avatar
    alfred p. sloan

    I totally remember C/D writing about the redundant “Black Panel” button on the 1994 Saab.

    They were mystified by it at the time and now that know more about it, uh I’m still mystified. seems like a bit of a”Gee-Whiz” gimmick to me.

    Oh and Saab never meant Shizz to me before GM bought them and even less after. Saabs have an undeserved cult following that borders on lunacy.

    Maybe Spyker will inject some kick-ass into the line.

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