Should I purchase a Saab?
July 3, 2013 1:15 PM   Subscribe

I will be looking for a car soonish. I've always had a hankering to own a Saab and ended up with different vehicles. My question is, since Saab went under is it harder to find parts for them or repair places? Is is more spendy then. I'm not looking to purchase a NEWer Saab. Also are they alright to work on on my own or are they a huge pain? Im no automechanic by any means but I do like to change my own oil and repair what I am capable of repairing. Or I will take recommendations for other cars. I prefer manual and hatchback.
posted by misformiche to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total)
My husband and I each have a SAAB (me a 9-3 2005 convertible; him a 9-3 2006 sedan) and as soon as SAAB went into bankruptcy it became very difficult to get SAAB parts b/c the factories that made them were either owned by SAAB and closed down in the bankruptcy or in China and only fired up the production line when SAAB corp had a big order for them (and hence no recent orders= no firing up). After the bankruptcy the chinese factories started back up again for a bit but there is no guarantee they will continue to produce parts that were specific to SAABs. A lot of parts are shared between SAAB and other GM vehicles though so that helps a bit.

Next problem is finding mechanics who can work on your SAAB. Every SAAB mechanic around here (DC area) in the past few years and there is literally only 1 guy left and he doesn't even advertise b/c he has too much business and has to turn ppl away.

This has made the remaining SAAB cars on the market extra cheap. But it's a risk i don't advise you to take in purchasing one given the difficulties in getting repairs down the line.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 1:28 PM on July 3, 2013

I've owned 4 Saabs, and currently drive a 2002 9-3, the last year for the hatchback. I have done most of my own work on them and have found them easy to repair, and when I couldn't do my own work due to time or other constraints my neighborhood mechanic was happy to work on them for me. Parts are still readily available from and IMHO, reasonably priced. I've always found helpful when researching a procedure or troubleshooting. The former Saab dealership in my town still offers service, should I need it. I love my 9-3, it's sporty, comfortable for a large guy (I'm 6'4", 245 lbs) and I get 35 mpg at 70 mph all day long on the highway. When buying used you have to make sure the maintenance was done per manufacturers recommendations. The 1999 - 02 Saabs were prone to engine sludge problems, and sticking to the oil change intervals is essential. Do your research, read up on them at Saabnet, carefully shop around, and, if you find a good one you're good to go.
posted by Floydd at 1:33 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

At this point, I wouldn't touch one with a barge pole. Not unless you can find a good Saab mechanic and a second Saab to canibalize for parts.

I drove a new one once, and I thought it was very cluncky to steer, it felt like navigating a coffee table.

But there are those who would have no other.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:48 PM on July 3, 2013

I heard the same thing about parts from one of the independent Saab mechanics in my town (Seattle): parts actually became more available after the factory went under.

But my experience with aftermarket parts prior to the factory shutdown was poor; even stuff from reputable dealers turned out to be Chinese counterfeits with fake factory stickers.

Everything went wrong with my 2002 model 93 hatchback over the course of a couple of months: ignition pack, antilock brakes, oil pickup full of sludge (which didn't signal a pressure loss until the damage was done)... it would have cost $5000 to make it back into a $5000 car. Then my neighbor crunched the bumper. I sold it for parts.

When I was attempting to work on the car myself, I was frustrated by the complexity of the systems. Everything's very interconnected, and intentionally hard to work on. Anti-theft measures make it easy to 'lock yourself out' of the systems if something fails or you replace something important.

I liked the solidity of the steering, and the push of the turbo at highway speed. Having seen what moose do to cars, I appreciated that it was built to avoid them.

But I replaced it with a Honda.
posted by Kakkerlak at 1:49 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not looking to purchase a NEWer Saab

Which is what everyone here so far seems to be discussing. Can you clarify that? do you mean the mid-early 90s models?

Also are they alright to work on on my own or are they a huge pain?

They have a reputation for being such. I briefly wanted one and every single person i regularly talk to who knows anything about cars(and especially my dad, uncles, and great uncle who used to have a repair business) was like NO DON'T O MY GOD STOP. I will note that this is mostly in relation to the older models(ie 900-9000 generation, not the newer GM-parted stuff so much)

Skim the wiki and you can get an idea of why. The engine was mounted backwards in the engine compartment so that the power was delivered from the front. This is as ass-backwards as it sounds since you literally needed to pull the engine to change the timing belt, i'm fairly certain water pump, and many other things.

To directly address the newer models like the 9-3 though, my friend got one as a graduation gift. She didn't expect "that nice" of a car, but her family got what seemed like a super omg awesome deal on a low mileage one with all the records from a dealership.

The thing was broken more than it was running. Regularly to this day i run in to her and mention going somewhere and she says "Oh, i would but i had to get a ride/bus because the car imploded again".

After a fresh checkup from a mechanic she decided to drive down the coast from the seattle area to california, up through montana and back to seattle. What was originally planned as a 4 day trip involving lots of marathon driving turned in to a something like 2 or maybe even 3 week adventure because the car would basically break down every 200 miles. Turbos exploding, and every problem Kakkerlak described above. Oh yea, and all these repairs were expensive as hell. As mentioned above, it basically ended up being put $3-4000 into a $5000 car to make it worth $5000 again. The points above about shit being overly complicated and hard to repair apply too. When she got stuck in a small town the local garage took a pretty long time to figure out how the hell to deal with some of the systems on it being needlessly complex.

So although the newer ones don't suck for all the reasons i was warned away from the old ones, it seems like GM helped them come up with new and innovative ways for them to be unreliable and sucky.

If you want a quirky car that does things a little bit differently from a manufacturer who does a lot of things kinda their own way... Get a subaru. There's a reason Saab collaborated with them for a little while. And although the days of crazy subaru shit like this are gone, they still have a lot of character. And depending on where you live there might not even be that many of them on the road around you.

Go get a little impreza wagon and forget you ever wanted one of these. If you wanted a little hatchback with a turbo, well that's essentially subarus bread and butter as well.(and for what it's worth, i could very easily write the opposite stories of above about subarus. The things are goddamn unkillable tanks. My parents one still feels like a very new car with 200k miles on it)

The subaru recommendation is also good if you wanna do some work yourself. I've heard of people doing massive repairs in their driveways on them simply because everything is so straight forward. Like replacing entire suspension swingarm assemblies/hubs/drivelines after a small collision. Apparently the entire thing is like a K'Nex set underneath, and from the bits i've screwed around with that seems like the case. It's no 60's carbureted car with 10 components under the hood, but it's also not the space shuttle like a saab.
posted by emptythought at 2:01 PM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I just got rid of a 2001 saab 9-3 hatchback (last friday in fact), so I have Thoughts. I think this is the age-range you probably want; I wouldn't buy anything after 2002 or so, GM kind of killed saab IMO (IEO?), and as an earlier poster pointed out, they stopped making hatchbacks. There were many good things about this car -- it was fun to drive (I liked the steering myself), really comfortable, got good mpg (however, it needed 93 octane, and also should have only synthetic oil), had heated seats/sunroof/etc, could hold a huge amount of stuff, and I think they're pretty safe. For years I had a lot of fun with the car. Given what I got on my trade in I expect you can find one for pretty cheap.

However, the car was most definitely prone to weird, quirky, expensive problems. The last couple of years I was barely driving it and kind of decided to do minimal maintenance, but the year before that I poured _at least_ $4000 into that car, and I would expect that this would have continued if I were driving it more. It was also entering (or maybe already in) the phase of its life where it had all sorts of strange electrical problems (and probably engine issues too). Here are two examples. The longstanding one was of course the display / sid (another link) where there was a glue that melts over time killing the pixels -- good luck finding a saab of that era without this problem; a brand new or reconditioned SID if you can still get them is likely to remain readable for 2 years on the outside in my experience. Now I have a car where I can _read the clock_ (not a high bar). More recently it was developing the neutral safety switch problem, for which as far as I could tell the best solution was to _manually bypass the switch yourself and install a button you could press while starting the car_! There were a bunch of other much smaller issues over the years. I describe this not because this will happen to you, but the odds are, 3 other strange and expensive similar things will. Browse the saabsite faq for this generation, especially the electrical section. One note re ruthless bunny's comment: while I did have various problems over the years related to the turbo, I don't see the point of getting a non-turbo saab.

Also, it is hard to find people who still work on them, at least in my area. The one mechanic I found does good work, but they deal mostly with rich audi owners (it seems) and aggressively upsell / are just generally expensive. I've never worked on mine myself (except for a few attempts to do one of the reconditioning procedures on my SID myself) so I can't really address that.

Basically, as much as I had a good run with mine, I wouldn't ever buy one again, the window for last good generation was probably about 6 years ago for a used car. It might conceivably be different if GM hadn't wrecked the brand post-2002, and there were recent saabs that were any good on the used market, but I do think you have to go back before then to get something worth owning, and then you get into the territory like I described above (mine had 120k miles and that is probably pretty low for that age). If you do get one, you should get a very thorough pre-purchase inspection, and spend a lot of time reading saab forums to know what you're in for.

I also replaced mine with a honda. (The Fit, in case you are looking for reliable hatchback recommendations too.)
posted by advil at 2:08 PM on July 3, 2013

If you are partial to SAABs, you might consider a turbo Volvo. All the expense and trouble of a SAAB, but also all of the good stuff, and you get the benefit of an active dealer network + lots of independents. Also, parts aren't a problem. As a data point, the DON'T GET A TURBO warning for a SAAB is DON'T GET A NON-TURBO for Volvo, so that's fun too.
posted by davejay at 2:11 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to have a 2001 Saab 9-3.

Towards the end, there were numerous odd cabin, engine and electrical problems that became exponentially expensive to repair, and that was just if the issue was repairable. A commenter above remarked on the SID display unit, which failed in mine and needed a $400 reprogrammed swap.

Then there was the oil sludge issue, where the oil line fed over a very hot area of the engine and would turn to sludge, killing the engine. This required an $1800 re-route job to fix. The cabin seals failed, causing rain water to collect in the passenger well. That was $500 to get fixed, drained and dried out. Heater coil failure, another $1500. At the tail end, the battery would die at random periods. The battery itself checked out, suggesting a mysterious short somewhere in the car. No real way to fix it, and no way to predict when the battery would fail. So it had to go.

All that quirkiness said, the user interface that Saab provided is the best I've ever experienced in a car. They were like the Apple of ergonomic automobile design. The turbo kick after 2000 RPM was fun. I had a decent run with it, but it just became a mess at the end of its life and I went for a Subaru. I still miss my Saab, but I don't miss the grief it caused.

FWIW, you might be interested to know that the Saab 9-2s were actually Subaru cars with a Saab facelift to the body and cabin.

If you can bear the expense and can find a reliable mechanic you can trust, then go for it. But you should go in knowing that heartache may be on the horizon.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:31 PM on July 3, 2013

This thread is blasphemy.

I love my classic 900 turbo convertible. (A 1991, I think). They are great cars. My family had one growing up, and my Dad eventually got into a fender bender and it was totaled on the insurance repair cost. I looked for years for a low mileage example to replace it.

It's true that many mechanics take issue with Saab design choices, and things can be hard to reach in the engine compartment. However, those choices were usually made for a reason. But their quirkiness can make them a bad choice if you aren't near an experienced garage, or aren't able to find a mechanic who won't bitch and moan instead of pulling out a manual and reading it.

If you buy a 900 you avoid a lot of the expensive problems people talk about. It's true that there are issues with the early turbos, but it's really not the end of the world. If you buy a 9000 there are a few more issues, but not many. I don't have much to say about the GM era NG900, 9-3 or 9-5 although SAAB enthusiasts I trust have good things to say about certain specific year and model combinations. However in my experience, the horror stories from the GM years far surpass the maintenance annoyances associated with the classic 900 and 9000s, and the classics are far more unique and interesting cars.

Check out -- both the boards and the classifieds. But the boards especially. Everything you need to know to make an informed decision is there.

(The Volvo equivalent is probably brickboard.)

I'm happy to respond to any added details here. Or feel free to memail me, I could talk Saab for hours, but as the weight of opinion here is against me I'll leave it at that.
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:37 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

And yes, you can definitely work on a classic 900 or 9000 yourself -- take a look at the forums. I'd take a look at a 900 hatch if you want the tried and true classic Saab. Ideally, an Aero, if you're into tuning -- since that involves swapping in Aero parts anyway.
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:51 PM on July 3, 2013

Excuse one more post -- had some cobwebs in there.

For the classic years, you'd be looking for an "SPG" hatchback, in North American market badging, in that era over here "Aero" referred to a particular bodykit. (The Aero terminology may have been used for both the model and the bodykit in Europe back then, not sure). Here's a recent Jalopnik post on an especially nice SPG.

And the real weak spot in the 900s is usually the three speed auto transmission, if you don't want the five speed manual. It holds the car back, gets crappy mileage at higher RPMs and tends to wear out. It's a lot more trouble than a burned out turbo, which will only happen once (the Garrett T3 turbo used in the earlier years was more prone to failure and is usually replaced with a remanned Mitsubishi TE05 from a later year). The replacement turbos were in the 380-500 range last I checked. There are also places that will overhaul a turbo for you, for a little less. Or you can get a DIY rebuild kit for under $200. A transmission failure is obviously more costly.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:25 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

You don't say where you are, which makes a difference. I love my 2002 9/3 turbo - so far the only thing I've had to do is replace the thermostat. However, I'm in the UK where they are a dime a dozen, and I have a great local mechanic who is a Saab specialist, should I need it. My family had a 9000 when I was growing up in Australia, and my dad's reaction when I told him I'd bought a Saab was "good luck getting parts", so I get that they can be more difficult to work with the further you are from Sweden.

But god do I love this car. It goes really, really fast when I want it to, I have no issues doing basic maintenance myself, it has a boot you can play golf in and is just a great all-round family car.
posted by goo at 4:11 PM on July 3, 2013

That's true: the trunk is ridiculously huge for a sporty car. Just one more way the car's interior was well-designed.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:33 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been driving SAAB's off & on all my life. I never got to drive the family's 1967 96 2-stroke, but I have driven 99's and classic 900's, and I have driven and owner-maintained 9000's and a 9-5.

The 9000's were a little tough to work on - unlike the 900, the engine is mounted transversely, and a lot of common repair procedures begin with, "Remove the right front wheel and take out the fender liner to access the front of the engine". But I managed to do some pretty hefty repairs on them nonetheless - clutch, head gasket, engine mounts, PS pump, CV boots & axles....

The 9-5 (a 2000 5sp 2.3T) is much harder to work on - there's even less elbow room. And we've had bad luck with ours. Build quality just fell off a cliff when GM took over. It's also stranded us with trouble that was undetectable until the failure (DI cassette, crank position sensor....), and developed a head gasket leak much earlier than one of those engines should. And to give you an idea of how cramped that engine bay is, I tried doing an alternator on it myself once, and the alternator couldn't be pulled without removing the upper engine mount, too. WTF?

A car that breaks more often, uses relatively expensive parts, and is hell to work on yourself is a nightmare to own. I'm trying to sell it right now. I will never own any SAAB newer than the mid-90's again.

But I always loved the practicality of the 900 and 9000 hatchbacks. You could stuff a new fridge in there, if you needed to.

And they are a joy to drive. More so the 900/9000's, but even the GM-era cars. Don't let anybody tell you not to get a turbo - I've put eh, 250,000 miles on 3 different SAAB turbos and only had to replace one turbo unit. (Yup, it was the 9-5 again.) The Subaru wagon that we bought to replace the 9-5 feels like a U-Haul truck in comparison - and so does my mom's Volvo XC70, for that matter. Selling the 9-5 is a bittersweet move, like finally giving up on a lover who can't beat a drug addiction.

I'll always remember a particular sunny winter day, sure-footing fifteen miles of snowy dirt road near the Colorado/Wyoming border at speed in my '87 9000T. To me, these cars offer a unique sweet spot at the center of a four-circle Venn diagram. The circles are marked "Performance/Handling", "Practicality", "Winter Weather Capability" and "Crash Protection". For nearly the entire life of the company, IMO, SAAB owned the space where those circles intersect. If those circles are the 4 most important ones to you, a pre-GM-era SAAB is a fine choice; if not, you probably won't be happy with it and should stay away.

Dammit. You got me all worked up. Why'd GM have to screw up such a great car company? :-(
posted by richyoung at 4:54 PM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

P.S. If it's my used SAAB you're thinking of buying, misformiche, it's never given me a lick of trouble. Honest!
posted by richyoung at 4:57 PM on July 3, 2013

If you're in the US/Canada, you might want to look for a Saab 9-2X, which was a rebadged Subaru Impreza, with a more deluxe interior. The Impreza was pretty Saab-like for a Japanese car (Fun to drive, good winter manners, 5-doors could handle a lot of cargo)
posted by zombiedance at 5:04 PM on July 3, 2013

Yes! As richyoung alludes, they have the body of a tank. I learnt to drive in (and drove for the first few years) a 1979 Ford Fairlane, and the Saab is the only thing to come close in terms of feeling safe and fully in control, because anything that smashes into you is going to come out the worse for wear. In London, where people tend to have tiny crappy cars, I feel like the queen of the road - just try to turn illegally in front of me, come on! I dare ya. The Saab is solid as shit. This is probably far less of an issue in the US with your massive trucks, but still. I love the security the really solid body gives me and my family.
posted by goo at 7:04 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

1999 is the last year before the GM power-train, though when exactly they switched I'm not sure. I'm driving a '99 9-3 which I got cheap. Mine had at least one quirky problem that wasn't totally cheap to fix (involved sawing a deformed bushing out of the transmission) and has many minor problems. the turbo works a lot better if the vacuum lines aren't rotting out. the other thing is that, at least for my saab, it feels like they started value engineering a lot the interior parts and they are breaking/broken. has a fair number of FAQs about Saab repair.

The thing about my Saab is that it was definitely designed to drive on the autobahn. Turbo hesitation and the limited slip differential are annoying at low speeds but the acceleration at 120k/70mph is really nice and it handles fast highway curves better than any japanese car i've driven.

Bottom line: get one cheap that's had some maintenance. look at the saabsite link above to see common problems. or don't because it's a quirky brand with some expensive parts. avoid the gm powertrain.
posted by at 9:01 PM on July 3, 2013

My dad used to drive a 2002 Saab 9-3, and when he bought a new one (2010 9-3, I believe) a few years ago, I started driving the '02 full time. I love it.

That being said, they aren't without their problems. Last summer, the 9-3 encountered a ton of problems in its tenth year, ranging from engine to AC issues. It had to go into the mechanic a couple times, and they were always able to service it. Like Floydd says above, parts are still readily available online. Most of the time, though, my dad and I would do the work ourselves. There are really great resources for Saab drivers online, and we were able to identify and fix most issues ourselves just by browsing a few Saab forums. It's been mostly fine for the past twelve months. If you're willing to do some work yourself, go for it.

There's been a host of other weird problems throughout its life, including the vanishing pixels issue mentioned above. The speakers have aged horribly. The passenger seat squeaks a bit when you take turns a certain way. But I still love driving it. I can't overestimate that enough. It really is a fun car, and I dread the day when it'll need to be replaced.
posted by rensar at 8:42 AM on July 4, 2013

My experience with them is that they are terrible cars, riddled with problems that only mechanics can fix - and only then at a hell of premium. There are lots of quirky european brands still being serviced, go with one of them.
posted by smoke at 11:21 AM on July 4, 2013

I loved and miss my 1986 900 2-door. It was a blast drive, although by the end it needed the AC fixed and was kind of sluggish. I wasn't driving it much at all, so we got rid of it. My wife then had a 2001 93 and that was also a pretty good car, although missing some of the old feel.

I wouldn't get a Saab today though unless you're a competent mechanic.
posted by reddot at 3:37 PM on July 4, 2013

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