1998 SAAB 9000 CSE 2.3L turbo
Character, reliability and insane performance even with interstellar mileage
Issues with the climate control blend door stepper motor and thermometer circulation fan. Heat is stuck on, but can be regulated with fan speed (unresolved and fairly challenging in this car).
Engine mounts required replacing. Super common 9000 issue. I used cheap poly on the round transmission and torque arm, decent aftermarket solid rubber on the lower engine mounts (~$175 for parts).
Exhaust leaking in several places. Sawed it off at the resonator with a Sawzall in frustration one night. They always break between the resonator and muffler because of a weird bend around the suspension and cheap construction. I just ordered a 3" JT turbo-back exhaust from Maptun to replace ($550 after exchange).
Water pump is making some noise and leaking intermittently. Purchased an OEM replacement and waiting until it's warmer or total failure -- whichever comes first, to repair ($100 for parts).
Radiator end tank fitting broke off the radiator during inspection, spraying my face with hot coolant to the alarm of nearby friends. They hosed me off, and I purchased hardware store parts to fix ($5 for hardware store parts, $120 for a radiator, which I am not replacing for another two months to win a ghetto repair bet).
Boost control valve (BCV) is beginning to allow spurious overboost. These valves are outrageously expensive -- one of the few truly overpriced items for this car. You can change to the T7 valve for way less money, but you'll need a reflash ($270 for T5 factory replacement part).
Clutch slipping. A month of overboosting due to a flagging BCV was too much for it. Slips intermittently in 3rd, 4th, and 5th on the freeway at full boost.
Output shaft bearings in transmission are noisy. Who knows what I'll do about this. Probably buy a used transmission when I do the clutch ($640 shipped from an out-of-state Saab repair shop).
I'll preface this with the fact I'm 30 years old and owned 27 cars, mostly weird (for the U.S.) European stuff. Furthermore, I've owned 10 Saabs, seven of them 9000s. In college, when I owned a beautiful, babied 1986 951 that sustained itself on my blood, sweat, dignity and bank account, the trusty Saab 9000 was always there. You could pick up high-mileage turbo versions for $1000-1500 all day with a manual transmission. They were easy to fix, always started, drove me to work, saw me home to see family and always got me to the party. It was the cheapest manual, turbocharged car I could get my hands on to daily drive.
So I'm very familiar with these -- when you work on your own cars you develop a special relationship with certain ones. The thing is, I always viewed the 9000 as a sort of "beater" car -- a fast one, granted -- because of the open-differential/front-wheel drive, a suspension design copied from wagons on the Oregon Trail, and not having a "cool" factor around other Euro car people.
This one changed that. When I purchased this car I was about a year into Audi B5 S4 ownership, and the honeymoon was over. After that year of fairly trouble-free dependability (relatively speaking for a B5 S4), it was now in the air more than it was driving. I set up an email alert for 9000 classifieds on Saabnet a few years before, and one day at work a 1998 CSE, which has the Aero engine and suspension, came up ten miles from me for $1400 with two sets of wheels and tires -- and 251,000 miles.
The previous owner loved Saabs and bought it with 106,000 miles. He didn't work on them himself, but he had receipts for tons of major work (head gasket, transmission rebuild, clutch, turbocharger), and he documented down to every oil/wiper/coolant/tire change.
The moment I got into the car I knew this one was different. I always wanted an Aero, but never bought one because of the price premium and the fact that every one I test drove wasn't making nearly factory power. This one did. And then some. I laughed on the way home at the torque this car produced, and I noticed that it handled appreciably better than my other 9000s -- my dad drove it and remarked to a friend and me, "I always liked your 9000s, but they always had such soft handling; not this one."
I've began daily driving it to work 30 minutes+ through dense traffic patterns, using the turbo ruthlessly. From the moment I bought it I viewed it as a disposable car, just like all my other 9000s. After all, the odometer showed it had been to the Moon, and I paid the equivalent of three Audi car payments to own it outright.
Guess what? A month passed. Then another. Then I sold the Audi. Sure, the S4's performance is better. It's a legend. But you know what? Part of what makes a car great is actually being able to drive it. And that's where the Saab wins. Problems in the Audi, which occur often, generally require immediate, brutal and expensive intervention to continue driving it with any confidence. The Saab is akin to stone age technology in comparison with the S4, but from sticking to a certain simplicity through years of developing the platform, they built a car that seems almost indestructible.
The engine (B234R), the car's party piece, is so overbuilt it's currently making nearly 300 ft/lbs of torque despite the interstellar mileage. It's like the 2JZ of four cylinder European engines. It uses a very innovative approach to monitoring knock and combustion efficiency by generating and measuring an ion field through the spark plug when it's not firing, where the name "Trionic" comes from. The car's so good that I've decided to deviate from my general MO and make it both my daily and tuning car. This is despite working a job that finally affords me the option of buying something high performance that's far newer.
I've owned many manner of fast, dynamic, special cars. There's just something about the later 9000 Aero (or 1998 CSE). It's not dynamic. It's front-wheel drive. Traction is an issue -- it spins the tires in third on the freeway when it's cold out. But you know what? It starts and boosts like a banshee every day, even with some minor mechanical problems. Nobody else has one. It's faster than almost anything else in day-to-day driving. And it's just a nice place to be.
What a great car. What a shame Saab went out of business, reduced to building mid 2000s designs in China on repeat. I read somewhere that a chief engineer at Saab said "the 9000 Aero is the best Saab we ever made." It is. The 900 Classic gets all the attention, and it is good -- but where it is a fun, quirky professor, the 9000 Aero is a flawed rock star who puts on a great show every night. Soon all but the very best examples will be dead. Get one if you can.
Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes
Review Date: 4th February, 2017