Lord Nothing-Much Smokes Another Cigarette

We are still rifling through the footnotes of 1998 and now the examination has produced the Saab 9-3.

1998 Saab 9-3: source

The back-story to this 1998-for-1999 car can be traced to 1994, the year the NG900 appeared as the headstone to Saab’s career as maker of indestructible doctors’, engineers’ and professors’ cars. In 1998 the 900 became the 9-3 and fitted under the 9-5 in Saab’s small range.

You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t state how many revisions you do when re-launching a car. In a glass-half-empty way, the outgoing NG900 was so awful it needed 1,100 changes to make it into a 9-3. In a glass half-full-way, the clever people at Saab found 1,100 ways to make an arguably decent plodder into even more decent plodder.

Those 1,100 changes involved revisions to the suspension, deletion of the snow flap and beefed up bodywork for better crash-surviviness.

With the new name, there came a new focus. The 9-3 designation hinted at Saab’s wish to challenge BMW’s 3-series. Unlike BMW, the 9-3’s fourteen-car range didn’t offer anything less than 2.0 litres: a plain 2.0, a turbo 2.0 and a 2.3 with a diesel 2.2 (for the five-door cars).

This made the 9-3 more convincing in some ways and prices were adjusted accordingly. As the 900, some of the cheaper models were priced well into Golf territory – surprising given Sweden’s high-cost labour market. Saab did not want to compete with VW at this level.

In the same way the much-loved Jaguar X-Type was tarred by its association with the Mondeo (a critique I have always found maddening, trotted out as received wisdom), the 9-3 was burdened by its relation to the Opel Vectra’s GM2900 platform.

Not everybody has the same knee-jerk need to mention this**: the RAC is quite charitable about the 9-3 and prefer to address the Saab 9-3’s essential good value in comparison to similarly priced BMWs. Most commentators tend to prefer the 9-3’s style to the old 900’s, which is not something I am going to agree with.

It’s quite alright aesthetically but also far from absorbing. You can see the Saabness only as watered-down accents in the car’s exterior forms. Inside it’s a bit better with the ergonomically-sound wall of dashboard, night panel, low-mounted ignition and superb seating.

1998 Saab 9-3 three door: source

Despite or because of its GM2900 roots, the 9-3 is, on the road a smooth and refined vehicle or “competent, comfortable and reliable” in the RAC’s words. And it is best consumed in 2.0T form rather than in hairy torque-steering Viggen form. The 9-3 should have been better than that though. Alfa Romeo had dealt with the bug-bear of torque-steer by the late 80s as had other manufacturers and Audi’s high-performance FWD cars did not get the same beatings over this problem.

Perhaps the Saab 9-3s biggest problem was its identity crisis. In its 2.0T form it was usefully quick. In higher performance versions it just ended up being challenging where BMW, Alfa and Audi were not. Even if BMW and Audi didn’t sell so many of their M and S cars, the halo made their mainstream cars seem like the driver’s choice regardless of their actual merits.

Fundamental decency must not be an idea that travels up a range because if it was, the Viggen would have been a fundamentally decent car that could go really quickly rather than a car with odd manners under pressure. The offerings at the lower end of the BMW and Audi range were fundamentally quite ordinary, lent the grace of their high-priced-and-seldom-bought specialist showroom brethren.

Alfa’s cars sit somewhere in between these two poles.


* And I am mentioning it too, in a meta-way.


Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

43 thoughts on “Lord Nothing-Much Smokes Another Cigarette”

  1. Saab is another sad case like Volvo and Jaguar – car companies that had great histories but couldn’t adapt fast enough to the switch to SUVs.

    In Saab and Volvo’s case, they actually had the platforms for the NA market.

    If you look at sales here, after full size pickups, the big sellers are compact and intermediate FWD cars and compact SUVs based on those cars. (Canada looks the same).

    The largest “luxury” name plate is the Lexus RX, which is another FWD car based SUV.

  2. The Vectra platform was one of the most dynamically flawed ones to base a car on. The severe design fault of mounting the steering rack to the bulkhead and the suspension to a subframe disqualified it for any competent car.
    The feeble Opel engines and their typical customer might have been happy with the car as long as the driver didn’t lose his shepherd’s check-patterned hat during cornering but the heavy and powerful Saab engines put this setup under much more stress with the inevitable result of many a cracked bulkhead in a Saab 900.

    1. As a relatively unabashed NG900 owner, I can attest to the chassis’ broad ineptitude (which doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t at times amusing) and to the well-known structural issues surrounding fatiguing bulkheads – a matter which rather inexplicably wasn’t remedied amidst the myriad 1998 revisions. Having driven both iterations of the NG series, I can say the later car was a palpable improvement from a dynamic perspective, but from a low base.

      In my view, the NG900 was a credible modernisation of the original 900 styling template. While shorn of most of the original’s character, it nevertheless was instantly recognisable as a Saab. However, the restyling work was not an improvement. Nor was the widespread use of fake wood on the dashboard and ‘centre stack’ of some NG 9-3 models.

    2. A small correction from a former owner, the bulkhead issue only affected RHD Saab 9-3 models.

  3. Good morning, Richard. Your second photo above reminded me that the NG900/9-3 offered a variant that used to be popular in Europe (but, strangely, not in the British Isles) the medium/large two-door saloon.* The Ford Granada, Opel Rekord and Audi 100 were all available in this format in Europe and seemed to sell pretty well. I remember my surprise when some German acquaintances of my family turned up in one of these:

    Two-door large saloons offered no practical benefits over their four-door siblings, as long as the latter were fitted with child locks on the rear doors but I suppose they did look rather less “family man” and, hence, rather more appealing to their target customers(?) In any event, for some reason they seemed to fall out of favour long before the demise of the large four-door non-premium saloon.

    * I realise the Saab was a hatchback!

    1. Two door cars seem to have been a German habit until the late Sixties/early Seventies.
      In a country with more than forty percent of cars on the road being two door Beetles people were used to Houdini contortions to get onto the rear bench. That enabled Audi to ask 900 Deutschmarks for rear doors in their F103 when the whole car cost around 8,000…

    2. I know everyone is sick of me going on about it but I really lament the demise of 2 and 3 door cars. I can count a couple of advantages 2 door cars hold over their overdoored brethren. Looks are subjective but the only car I feel that looked better with rear doors rather than without is the mark 2 golf with big bumpers. Second advantage is cost, they were cheaper to buy. 3rd advantage is stiffer body. 4th is that the b pillar is further back. This makes the car safer as blindspots are greatly reduced and the seatbelt holds taller drivers snugly in their seat. In most cars, if I adjust the seat for comfort the seatbelt hangs uselessly in front of me.

    3. I largely agree with you Mick, but need to mention the particular grace of the 5 door Peugeot 205 compared to its 3 door sibling.

  4. Good morning, Adrian. I absolutely agree about the 205. The five-door was simply perfect, a design that couldn’t be improved by adding, changing or removing anything:

    However, on the three-door, the vertical trailing edge of the rear side window and the two bits of superfluous plastic trim on the (unnecessarily wide) C-pillar look rather uncomfortable, on non-GTI versions at least:

    I wonder why Peugeot felt the need to avoid the obvious solution for the three-door, an identical C-pillar treatment to the five-door with a rear side window to match?

    1. How odd. Much as I like the 5 door, the 3 door is perfect, down to the beauty spots on the C-pillar. That C-pillar was a feature of Pugs for years after too. Not liking it is like not liking the Mona Lisa´s odd expression.


    2. I was always more of an Uno fan than of the 205 – the rear view, with the overly small lamp clusters and odd louvred grey plastic panel (later deleted) between them was at odds with the rest of it, whereas the Uno (pre-facelift) was much more of a piece and also more of a step-forward design-wise. For me, 205 vs Uno was one of the defining comparisons of the 80’s – for example, from memory, LJKS is reported to have scuppered the former’s chances of winning ECotY in ’84 by scoring it ‘nul points’ and yet giving the FIAT full marks. Happy days for the market sector … and FIAT which repeated the accolade with the Tipo a few years later in 89.

    3. I think they used and still use that vertical trailing edge of the rear side window on subsequent models: the 206, both 3 and 5dr, the 308 II, the upcoming 208 II, availabale only in 5dr, sorry Mick.

      At least I think they stopped trying to make it happen on their bigger saloon offerings, the 407 experience, with an equaally upright window, seemed quickly abandonned. But it may harder to design a well-integrated boot with that type of window shape so Im not surprised they’re sticking to adding that feature to the A,B and C segment offerings but I didn’t dislike it on the 407.
      I kind of see it as Peugeot’s attempt to have a Hoffmeister kink of their own. The two plastic units featured on the 205’s C-pillar seem to become a regular feature too: in an less obvious form on the 208 3dr and supposedly on the future 208 too if some illustrations are to be believed.

    4. Hi Richard,

      I was still looking at it trying to figure out if there was a purpose to it and if I was unnecessarily harsh. I always filed it in my mind as an odd way to do it but never really got to analyse it. I’ll keep you posted 😀

  5. Well, Richard, in that case, I guess you won’t approve of me tinkering with it!



    The “beauty spots” looked fine when they carried the GTI and engine size badging, but on lower line models they were either fake grilles, as above, or carried some naff logo for one of the multitude of special edition models used to stimulate sales to the gullible.

    1. Nicely illustrated gentlemen.

      Conversely, when it comes to the 106 I think the 3 door is far superior to the 5 door, and don’t care much for either one after the facelift.

      I think my 106 diesel was the slowest car I ever owned.

    2. The revised 205 reminds me of the 106. I have to agree with John. It´s a credible revision but not better. I found the original very distinctive and good, one of the very lovely small car designs of the period and hard to beat. Full disclosure: I used to own a three door and … repeats himself … cheap and Spartan and great fun to drive, even with its one litre engine and four speed box. What a hoot.

    3. Peugeot presented this version on the same day as the standard car:

      With the larger side windows this wouldn’t have worked.
      They wanted the T16 look as similar to the standard vehicle as possible and maybe that had an influence on the design of the C pillar.

    4. Hi Adrian,

      I think in the case of the 106 (same with the 205), the 3dr had (obviously and as intended) a youthful, sporty apperance while the 5dr wAas more granny-like if that makes sense. Which wasn’t a bad thing per se for me, just very different coming from 2 cars sharing the same nameplate but not the same number of doors. For example I see less of a personality-split between a 1982 Opel corsa 3dr and its 5dr counterpart: they both seem to channel the same facial expression.

    5. …..And let’s not ignore the elephant in the room and pretend like the 106’s awful rear bumper/rear wheel arch junction didn’t exist. Don’t even get me started on the flimsy side plastic strip passing-by awkwardly above said rear wheel arch, on some of the 5dr versions mainly if I recall correctly.

    6. In my opinion the 106 3dr looked much better with rounder back wheel arches, as seen on the GTI. I thought that the less rounded ones found on the regular version looked odd underneath the crease that run above it, it made it look fragile.

    7. NRJ: is it possible that Peugeot handled the regulations poorly on the 106? Other cars from around the same did it in unobtrusive way. Do you have any idea what they could have been trying to do with that?

    8. I replied to you in the wrong section Richard, my comment is above the red 205 GTI.

    9. I think the whole appearance of the pre-facelift 106 was cheap, cheerful and flimsy though, which I’m sure wasn’t intended but is part of its charm in my eyes.

    10. The Saxo, based on the 106 as we know, didn’t suffer the same scar, by adding a plastic side-strip of the same width as that of the rear-bumper section meeting the wheel arch’s edge on all versions. The Saxo VTS and VTR had these weirder rear wheel arches, flatter than the sporty 106s. I loved them.

    11. It was such a strange decision for Peugeot to replace the mega successful 205 so late in the game and not with a similarly designed replacement that could live off the legend, like the Golf does.

      Instead the thinking then was that the 106’s sales would take care of the lower-end of the B segment, now vacated, and the 306’s sales would take care of the upper end. Another mysterious PSA decision for me. Same with the 206. It was a big commercial success (still the most built Peugeot I think) but was replaced by the 207 that I think, veered too far off the 206’s DNA.

      I think Peugeot made the wrong prediction too when they decided that the current 208 had to be smaller than the car it replaced, thinking the trend was going to be towards more compact B-segment cars. But the Clio, Fiesta, Polo et al didn’t see it that way and outsold the 208 on the european level.

    12. The rear wheel arch arrangement looks to have its roots in the Visa don’t you think? Then via the AX to these two that we have been talking about (106, Saxo). Funny, but the Saxo is actually my least favourite of these four. I always was awkward…

  6. As an(other) aside, it’s not hard to see where Ford found inspiration for the Mk3 Fiesta:

    A doppelganger for the 205, but not quite as well resolved, IMHO. That crease from under the door mirror to the tail light looked a bit uncomfortable and was expunged when the car was facelifted:

    1. The Fiesta isn´t a bad car but it´s a long way from Ford´s best work. The contrast with the 2002 car is marked, with the 2002 car being a vehicle with a clear identity, rigorous consistency combined with an optical buzz that makes one keep looking at it. The earlier cars are more typical contemporary vernacular (which the market always likes).

  7. Oh well, I guess that’s a fail. I knew I should have blacked out the B-pillar…

    Luckily, I’m too old (and too useless) to be taking up a new career as a car designer.

    1. Daniel: I was reflecting on your proposal for a revised 205 . It´s actually pretty credible and perhaps more a matter of bad luck than bad judgement that it´s not more than subjectively appealing. I´d suggest a tweaking of the radii though, so they were more consistent with the other ones.
      Why the poor reaction from the audience? First, you are up against the fact that we´ve seen the 205 for thirty years so when we see the revision we are a bit unsettled. The new (whether good new or bad new) always does that. Second, one reason the actual 205 is so interesting is the subtle “wrongness” you don´t like about it. PF did take a chance by making the C-pillar so thick when rationality would have suggested a larger DLO as in your proposal. Character is often a synonym for flawed.
      By and large the “rules” of good design are learnable. The art of great car design is a more hit and miss affair and for every daring rule-bender like the 205 c-pillar there must be ten flops or unnoticed relative failures. I would suggest that far from being rubbish at design you seem to have a good eye for rational design which is more than most have.

  8. Good morning, Richard, and thank you for your kind and sage words. You have, I think, hit the nail squarely on the head: the designs that particularly appeal to me tend to be clean and rational, with really well resolved details. I am, however, not good at recognising the pleasingly quirky and distinguishing these from the merely incoherent or plain bad.

    I’ve been meaning to ask you if you could recommend a good book on the principles of automotive design, particularly one that would analyse individual designs in the manner you do on DTW. It is a subject of great interest to me and I would like to leatn more.

    1. Good books on car design are in short supply. If you have deep pockets try getting a hold of C. Edson Arme´s book The Art of American Car Design. It´s out of print. Christopher Butt has to write a book on the topic: ask him nicely to get on with it.

  9. Thanks, Richard, that’s been my experience hunting in bookshops and on Amazon. Perhaps you and Christopher could co-author a book? You would have at least one advance order, and probably quite a few more!

  10. By this point in the commenting I’d like separate blog posts examining the Peugeot 205 and 1995 Ford Fiesta.

    I think the three door 205 works because the rear three quarter window is broadly symmetrical about the waistline with the area ahead of the rear wheels. Daniel’s version looks unbalanced with the side glass extended further back. His is undoubtedly better when changing lane though!

    Richard, you’re the only person who likes the 2002 Ford Fiesta. I find the 1995 predecessor fascinating because they took the dull-looking 1989 design, grafted quite bulbous new front and rear ends onto it and somehow just about got away with it. A happy side effect was that the new version looked a lot more solid than the rather tinny-looking 1989 one.

    Of course it also helped that Richard Parry and co massively improved the car’s mechanical package. I know a lot of people don’t like its downturned visage, but to my mind the 1995 Fiesta is one of the most successful reinventions ever and took the Fiesta from the bottom of the class to the top.

    1. Actually, I rather admire the 2002 Fiesta as a very coherent and well balanced design.

  11. Me too. I think the 2002 Fiesta, the contemporary Fusion and the Mk2 Focus (pre-facelift) were excellent and underrated designs from Ford’s unheralded post-New Edge and pre-Kinetic design era. The 2002 Mk3 Mondeo was also a nicely resolved design, although quite colour-sensitive and rather dull looking in dark non-metallic colours.

    1. I agree with all of that. Chris Bird´s Fords were excellent bits of work. They were good in the same way his Audis were (the formal correctness) but also they were clearly Fords too (so he understood Ford´s identity). You can´t mistake these cars for anything else. I really like these designs for their strength of character and also, they weren´t wierd and weren´t boring. I keep looking at them with satisfaction.

  12. I think that Fiesta was almost perfect. Not trying too hard, not letting itself go either. I liked its taut looking skin, the iconic tail lights and pointy front side indicators

    1. It´s one a quite small number of cars who hit the sweet spot in many ways, maybe sold in considerable numbers too but is also overlooked at the same time. Most people who have seen a Fiesta (or 205) won´t even notice they saw it because of something not inherent to the geometry, the ubiquity. The Fiesta needs to be put in a plain room, illuminated correctly so the viewer can see it afresh. In contrast, there´s a much larger number of cars whose appeal is down to something that is not in front of your eyes, like power or cost. Sure, they might also look quite good but in many ways have not even met half the design challenges of a car like the Fiesta. Perhaps the most useful point in this sermon is that one needs to keep one´s eyes and mind open because design excellence can be hiding in plain sight. The 2002 Fiesta has a place in my hypothetical car museum whilst no Ferrari since the 456GT get in (and not so many from before it either). Most of them are simply not that intriguing.

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