Serious Saab fans know that the Swedish brand builds more than just cars. They also build some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world. So when it came time to name their new, hopped-up version of the 9-3 coupe, they chose the name of one of their most famous fighter jets, the Viggen. In English, the word Viggen means thunderbolt. And to drivers used to the standard Saab 9-3, this new Viggen hits like a bolt out of the blue!
And that said, we’re sure it’s no coincidence that our Saab 9-3 Viggen Coupe came clothed in an eye-popping color dubbed, appropriately enough, Lightning Blue.
But the Viggen’s real charge is found under its electric skin, in the form of a highly modified 4 cylinder powerplant. Using the current EcoPower 2.3 liter engine found in the 9-5 as their base, Viggen engineers added an industrial strength Mitsubishi turbocharger capable of boosting pressure to 20 psi. Freer breathing intake runners and a new exhaust system also aid the air-hungry turbo.
The results are nothing less than stunning—225 horsepower and a neck-snapping 252 pound-feet of torque! That’s just 6 pound-feet less than Porsche’s six cylinder powered 911. Now that much torque in a front driver can be a real handful. So to keep things from getting too scary, Viggen torque meisters have electronically limited torque output in first gear to 184 pound-feet and 243 pound-feet in second. And don’t bother asking for an automatic transmission. The Viggen comes with a 5-speed manual only.
So we punched the gas pedal and held on while the Viggen delivered us to 60 in 7 seconds flat on a hot, slippery track. Power delivery smooths out once past second gear, and we flew through the quarter mile in 15.2 seconds at 96 mph. And what about turbo lag, you ask? Well, thanks to a new drive-by-wire throttle, a 9-3 first, and Saab’s Trionic 7 engine management system, you’d be hard pressed to find any. That’s because when you call for power, the computer tricks the throttle into opening farther than requested. This helps overcome the inertia of the larger turbo and allows the engine to reach the desired torque level quicker. Pretty neat!
But there’s more than just raw power and shocking hues separating the Viggen from other Saab 9-3s. There’s also aggressive and aerodynamic styling to match. The deep front spoiler not only looks good, but serves to force much of the airflow over the body rather than letting it under the car where it creates lift. The pronounced rocker panels channel what airflow there is under the body to the rear, where it’s integrated with the airflow coming off the rear wing. As a package, these aerodynamic accouterments reduce the Viggen’s co-efficient of drag by 8% to 0.31, and drop lift forces at the rear wheels by 60%.
To fully maximize the advantages of the Viggen’s road-hugging form, Saab’s Special Vehicle Operations team joined forces with Tom Walkinshaw Racing in tweaking the MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension. The coil springs at the corners have been lowered by 10 millimeters. Front springs were then stiffened 5%, while rears were stiffened over 25%. Damper valving and the anti-roll bars were also recalibrated. The result of this careful tweaking is very well balanced Viggen handling. Turn ins are quick and precise, with a little push coming at the end of the corner. The steering has a nicely weighted feel, and the tight suspension keeps body roll during lateral transitions to a minimum, but does it without the harshness often associated with sport-tuned suspensions.
One of the standout features of the Saab 37 Viggen fighter jet is its ability to land and stop in short distances. And those same qualities are found in the earthbound Viggen as well. The new 17-inch light alloy wheels, wrapped in specially developed Z-rated tires, allowed Viggen engineers to install larger rotors and brake calipers behind them in the front. There you’ll find 12.1 inch vented rotors, with 11.2 inchers in the rear. All rotors have grooves machined into them to improve bite and cooling. And it all works. Stopping from 60 was accomplished in 115 feet with nary a trace of fade after many runs. Stability is first rate, while pedal feel is solid. And feedback from the ABS system is just enough to let you know it’s working.
Also working for you is the Viggen’s comfortable and, yes, aircraft-flavored interior. The sharp looking, TWR-designed leather seats with their deep blue inserts are very supportive, and offer 8-way power adjustments with a manually operated lumbar support and heated surfaces as well. The driver faces a telescoping steering wheel, and a set of clear analog gauges that could be giving air rather than road speed.
To the right, the center stack houses a digital message center, an AM/FM/CD stereo, and single zone climate controls with an auto setting. All are within easy reach of the driver. Even the cupholder. But it’s also unwisely mounted right over the stereo.
In the rear there’s good-for-a-coupe room for two adults, and the seats also deliver excellent thigh support. The seat bottoms and backs also flip and fold in case the 9-3 Coupe’s trademark 21.7 cubic feet of cavernous trunk space isn’t quite enough.
Pricing for our test 1999 9-3 Viggen Coupe starts at $38,325. Tack on $180 for the CD player and $370 for the heated front seats, and our fully loaded tester rings up at $38,875. That’s if you can find one. Viggen availability has been very limited up to now. But the 2000 Viggen is on the way, with added 5-door and convertible body styles, two new colors, a deep black and racy silver, and as if the Viggen needed it, more power. Horses bump up 5 to 230, while torque broadens to a max of 258 pound-feet.
That’s three ways to experience the exhilarating performance that is about as close to the thrill of flying as you will ever find in a road car. There’s an old saw that says lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. But in the case of our Lightning Blue Saab Viggen, we’re glad to say it will soon be a triple threat.
Engine: 2.3 Liter Turbocharged 4-Cylinder
Torque: 252 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.2 Seconds @ 96 MPH
60-0 MPH: 115