Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Itchin' for a Fight

Saab 9-3 Viggen demands attention

By Marc Stengel

JANUARY 17, 2000:  It is a rare, bracing moment when you find yourself scolded by the automobile you are driving. Comfortably saddled into the neon-blue, textured pigskin sport bucket of Saab's 9-3 Viggen performance coupe, I marched dutifully through its short-throw first gear and mashed heavily into second. Clutch. Shift. Accelerate. Suddenly the world was all tie-dyed streak-and-blur; the steering wheel was literally ripped out of both hands; my car-turned-projectile was darting maniacally right and left, barely within its lane, as front wheels scratched and clawed for traction.

I backed off the throttle in a reflexive eruption of self-preservative instinct. The Viggen does not so much decelerate as re-enter earth's orbit. Safely descended from three-digit speeds, the car justly chided, "Next time, pay attention." What other choice was there but to salute, razor-sharp, and chirp back, "Yessir! Full attention, sir!"

There was no more relaxing behind the wheel of the 9-3 Viggen.

What a remarkable, curious achievement is this tactical fighter jet of a sports coupe from Saab. And the aeronautical imagery is neither accidental nor hyperbolic. Named, unabashedly, after the Saab 37 Viggen jet fighter, this three-door hatchback boasts a 230-horsepower High-Output Turbo for launching 2,900 lbs. of curb weight into 6.4-second exultations of zero-to-60. Owing to front-wheel-drive--and to an unapologetic unavailability of joy-limiting traction control--the Viggen chastens an untender accelerator foot with terrifying zigzags across the road as it rages its way up and over the sanity barrier of responsible speed. Few other autos, however, reward the experienced, ungreedy motorist with so exhilarating, so aeronautical a sensation of ground-hugging, contour-following flight. On sweeping, lonely backroad stretches, the 9-3 Viggen treats its pilot, er, driver, to an inimitable braid of fluid verve and unruffled stability, accompanied--if you're smart--by no other sound than the furling wind.

Which is to say that Saab's Viggen coupe is not for everybody. Even if the $38,675 sticker price weren't selective enough for an otherwise mainstream midsize coupe, the car's explosive, even unpredictable road manners seem to beg for competency credentials from prospective purchasers. Gang-bang hot-rodders would be better served by the traditional, all-American heavy-metal horsepower of the rear-drive Corvette or Viper. In contrast to those cars' over-amped, electric-guitar thrashings of charred tires and big-bore exhaust notes, the Viggen is a Stradivarius in the hands of a virtuoso. Played by an untutored musician, however, even the finest violin is reduced to a fretless screech.

What could be better for a liquid-fuel projectile like the Viggen than Saab's platterful of safety technologies? These include safety-cage cab architecture, with front and rear "crumple zones"; front and side airbags for front occupants; and Active Head Restraints to combat whiplash. For all their responsive performance potential, the slotted disk brakes at all four wheels are also integral to the overall safety package, thanks to standard ABS and electronic brake distribution circuitry that proportions stopping force according to dynamic shifts of vehicle mass.

Technoids will marvel at the Viggen's computational abilities: A drive-by-wire electronic accelerator actually instructs the Viggen's 32-bit microprocessor, amiably named Trionic T7, to spool up turbo boost, fuel injection, and ignition timing according to the answers from 2 million calculations per second. The result is an unhesitating rush of thrilling, even scary horsepower over a broad, flat powerband. It is interesting to note, for example, that the Viggen's monster maximum of 252 ft.-lbs. peak torque is electronically limited to just 184 ft.-lbs. in first gear, 243 ft.-lbs. in second. Even so, the quest for traction under hard acceleration is constant and all-consuming--both for the T7 computer controller and for its human copilot.

On my tester, the window sticker indicated but a single option, Viggen's trademark Lightning Blue paint scheme, at $350. Otherwise, this particular performance package includes virtually every conceivable power and convenience option, including auto climate control and healthy six-speaker sound with, in my case, in-dash cassette (although the stereo is also pre-wired for an optional CD changer). OnStar, General Motors' satellite-based telecommunication/navigation/emergency rescue system, is available for 2000-model Viggens as well. Of 3,000 Viggens to be built for the year, only 1,000 are slated for U.S. delivery.

Saab's co-developer for the 9-3 Viggen is England's vaunted Tom Walkinshaw Racing Group of Formula One, Touring Car Championship, and Group 3 Prototype fame. Saab alone, one must assume, is responsible for an enduring image of erratic quality control that manifests in quaint, unpredictable ways. Emblematic, in both symbolic and literal terms, is the feat whereby my Viggen's shift-pattern badge atop the gear-shift knob suddenly lifted up out of its perch into the palm of my hand in mid-acceleration one day. On another occasion, a chittering squeak in the dash console, like a gerbil on a millrace, annoyed me for an entire trip downtown, only to disappear without a trace for the trip home and thereafter. Twice, the stereo refused to be silenced, even after removal of the key from Saab's quirky ignition switch. But an engine restart and restop later, and the phantom accompanist joined the gerbil in exile.

After a week of navigating Saab's Viggen through Nashville's automotive aerodrome, I'm honestly relieved to be grounded now--and unscathed at that. I am humbled by the prowess I experienced, awed by the potential I dared not tap. Like the mythical thunderbolt to which its name alludes, the Viggen is an impressive, bold stroke for Saab, but a shocker for the unsuspecting.

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