Road Test: Saab 96 V4

If you want genuine variety, it is to the past that you must go. Just picture which family saloons were on the market back in the 1970s. Ford’s utterly conventional Escort was doing battle with BMC’s adventurous Allegro. Their engines were mounted differently, they each drove different wheels and one used metal springs for suspension, while the other used balls of gas and liquid.

Saab 96 saloon

Styling like no other – Saab ploughed its own furrow.

Even with Sweden’s own manufacturers, all two of them, there were big differences. The boxy, traditionally-engineered Volvo had rear-wheel drive and was utterly loyal to convention. The Saab was an evolution of its radical 92, launched in 1947 and could not be more different. Saab recognised that front-wheel drive gave many handling advantages, especially in poor conditions. The teardrop shape was typical of the aeroplane manufacturer and a stark contrast to the angular Volvo. Under the bonnet, Ford of Germany’s narrow-angle V4 provided an off-beat soundtrack, and drove the front wheels. This engine was bought in to replace the DKW-inspired two-stroke, three-cylinder engine used until then and finally deemed as likely to put some buyers off.

The gearbox was still allied to a column gearchange, and there was still a freewheel device – which disconnects the gearbox from the engine when you ease off the throttle – coasting in other words. This was very necessary with the two-stroke engine, as easing off the throttle in one of those cuts the fuel supply, and the lubrication as two-strokes use one fluid for both. High-speed engine running is therefore a problem if you’ve lifted off the throttle, hence a freewheel device is fitted.

Using Ford’s engine gave much more power and torque than the two-stroke design – 841cc compared to 1498cc and 40bhp up to 65bhp. It certainly helped boost sales. More than 326,000 V4s were built in 13 years compared to 220,651 two-strokes in eight years. Production finally ended in 1977, ten years after Saab’s new-fangled 99 had arrived on the scene. The old favourite had continued to sell well.

Smooth shape allows a world-beating 0.32cD drag coefficient.

Smooth shape allows a world-beating 0.32cD drag coefficient.

The car I’m driving here dates from early 1977, so is a very late one. You’re struck by how lengthy it is – those swooping lines take it to 4.17m long, so a fair bit more than an equivalent Escort. The lack of rear doors might be an issue for some, but there’s lots of space – including an enormous boot. The 95 estate offered more load lugging space, but no extra side doors. The looks really are like nothing else. They stand entirely alone. They’re genuinely low drag too – a 0.32 drag coefficient, which puts it in the same ballpark as the McLaren F1 road car of two decades later! The swoopy Citroen DS and NSU Ro80 are 0.36. The original Volkswagen Beetle is an appalling 0.48! That helps the Saab to a 93mph top speed, and a creditable 30mpg.

Clambering aboard, the interior is a rather sombre place to sit. It’s all very black. A heavily-padded steering wheel – Saab were always big on safety – sits directly ahead of you, with the gearlever and two dainty stalks hanging from the steering column. The handbrake sits straight up from the floor where you’d expect the gearlever to be. The seats are soft and supportive, with large head restraints. Switchgear is dotted about the place, and it’s not necessarily that clear what everything does. The seatbelts lack buckles – the belt itself is merely clipped into the unit tucked down to your left.

Saab steering wheel

Padded steering wheel and clear gauges.

You sit quite low, and the scuttle seems quite high, but visibility is pretty good. Being a hot day, I wind the window down, delighting in the way it pivots on its forward edge as it disappears into the door. The V4 engine thrums into life, with a booming noise exaggerated by what seems to be a fairly sporty exhaust.

Setting off requires you to pull the gearlever towards you and raise it. Second is straight down, with a slight push away and up to find third, and down for fourth. It’s all pretty easy to get used to once you’re under way, though I must concede it feels nowhere near as precise as the fantastic column change of a two-stroke era Saab.

Speed builds up quite nicely, though the 0-60mph time of 16.5 seconds remind you this is no road-burner. Still, that’s a couple of seconds quicker than an equivalent Beetle. The engine is quite noisy on the move, though I’m sure the exhaust isn’t helping. There’s a definite boom as you ask the engine to work harder, though the freewheel means things get very quiet when you ease off. Just a gentle rush of wind noise.

Handling is rather pleasant. It rolls a bit, but not too much and the rack and pinion steering offers plenty of feel and accuracy. The long gear lever does slow down your changes though, and the overall feeling is that this isn’t a car for chucking around. Not that this stopped Erik Carlsson and Stig Blomqvist on rally stages in the 1970s! Perhaps as you become more familiar with the gearchange, you feel more able to snick through the gears. Disengaging the freewheel would help too as there is no engine braking whatsoever. A good job the brakes seem good then.

But overall, this car makes a fine alternative to some of its more conventional and/or famous rivals. I’d certainly rather have one than a Beetle or Escort. It’s just such a shame that individuality like this has been all but removed from modern cars. Saab battled long and hard to retain its individuality, but all it found was bankrupcy as a reward. The company has recovered (as of 2015), but only offers one model these days.

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