The next few pages are officially dedicated to making Saabs better. I honestly believe that the classic 900 was (and is) one of the best cars on the road, but I won't deny the fact that there is room for improvement. As with any car, designing and building the classic 900 invariably included some compromises to make the car appeal to as many people as possible. This results in a car which didn't come home from the dealership performing to its full potential. For everyday Saab owners, this is probably alright. The average driver won't care if they ever see triple digit speeds, and probably won't have an overwhelming desire to see what 0-60 feels like with 250 horsepower.
And that's what this page is all about. Taking a very special, unusual and uncommon car and making it truly unique. I have done - and am continuing to do - my best to to gather up all the information I can about Saab Performance and presenting it in a concise, informative package, bite-size and ready to swallow. I have not yet had an opportunity to try everything on these pages, but rest assured I am working on it. As more data becomes available on specific mods, you can look for the details here.
Note: All of the information on this page is applicable to the 16v 2.0l turbo engine, designated B202. These are the cars with which I have the most experience, and as such they get most of my attention. Some of the things here may be applicable to other Turbo Saabs and some to non-turbos, but to be up-front about it, those items are the minority. If you've got some tips for non-turbo cars, or newer 9000s, feel free to send 'em my way, or point me to a URL and I'll be happy to provide a link.
Before you can start making your Saab go faster, it's important to be sure it's already in tip-top mechanical condition. Starting with a weak foundation can cause unpredictable results when modifications are applied - anything from no change to catastrophic failure. Obviously, this is not an ideal state of things...
There are two things you should absolutely have before starting your Saab on a tuning program. One, a calibrated boost gauge. While the "butt dyno" makes tuning fun, it is important that you deal in quantitative facts when tuning your car. Two, a quality air:fuel meter. These are available from several sources, and come in several flavors. Autometer produces a very nice 2 1/16" circular gauge which will fit in any standard gauge mount. Haltech makes a much more accurate meter, and is probably the recommended way to go. I strongly advise against any serious tuning without the aid of these two devices. Ideally, you should also have at your disposal a quality EGT (exhaust gas temperature) gauge and an injector duty cycle gauge - these are invaluable tools for making sure everything is in good shape as you tune your car.
Once you've got the right tools, you should give your car a serious once-over to ensure that all of its systems are in good working order:
Basic Tune-Up: When preparing to modify your engine, it doesn't hurt to start with a basic tune-up.
Check all the fluids, and replace as necessary:
Engine oil should be replaced every 3,000 to 4,000 miles, and wherever possible I recommend using synthetic oil. Extended change intervals are a nice side effect of using synthetic, but its real benefit is a higher temperature tolerance and inherent resistance to coking. Stick with a 0w-30, 5w-30, or 10w-30 oil for maximum protection and best performance. Redline, Amsoil and Mobil 1 are three well-reputed brands.
Saab recommends using either Gear Oil or Motor Oil in their transmissions - 75w-90 in the former, and 10w-30 in the latter. There are a number of arguments to use each type of oil, and very little quantitative evidence indicating which is better. I generally stick with Gear Oil, using Redline MTL or Mobil 1 Synthetic, but in the end, the choice is up to you. Either way, be sure to change it regularly (every 30k miles or so) to keep contaminants out of the oil - you're transmission will thank you with a long[er] life!
To keep the engine cool, there are some truths you probably need to know: A very common myth is that the green stuff ("anti-freeze" or "coolant") is necessary for the cooling of the engine. This is completely untrue - water is a far better conductor of heat than green stuff, and in fact you will get better cooling running straight water. However, the green stuff is necessary for three reasons: One, it helps to raise the boiling point of water, to help keep your car from bubbling over; Two, it includes several chemicals which inhibit the formation of mineral deposits in your cooling system; Three, if you live in a cold climate, where temperatures fall below freezing, the green stuff prevents your cooling system from freezing solid.
With those facts in mind, you may wish to consider a few things: First, use distilled water instead of tap water when filling the system. Distilled water is nearly free of minerals, meaning less chance of deposits forming in the narrow coolant passageways. Two, assuming you do not need to worry about freezing temperatures, try changing the ratio of "coolant" to water to favor more water - I run 30% "coolant" to 70% water. Three, consider using an additive such as Redline Water Wetter - products such as this add some inhibitors (to prevent deposit formation) but are also superior heat conductors (compared to water), meaning they'll help keep things cool. Finally, consider switching to DexCool or one of the other new coolant/anti-freeze solutions such as Audi or Mercedes "brand" coolant. These new chemicals offer all the protection of the old green stuff, but are superior to it in terms of heat transfer capability. One note: When switching from green stuff to something else, it's worthwhile (if not critical) to do several flushes of the system with pure water - most of the new coolants are not compatible with the old one.
Check filters and replace as necessary:
When choosing filters, stick with name-brands, and don't buy the cheapest thing that fits. I recommend Mobil 1 oil filters and Bosch fuel filters. The transmission and power steering filters should be purchased from a Saab dealer, or from an OEM source. The air filter may be part of your upgrade plan - if not, at minimum, I strongly endorse the use of a K&N drop-in filter element. They really do work better, and may save you money in the long run due to the fact they can be cleaned.
Check the ignition system, and replace as necessary:
Chances are these three items are going to be a part of your tuning package. If not, stick with the stock components - NGK plugs, Bougicord wires, and Bosch cap & rotor. They will perform adequately for most applications, and are sturdy and reliable. I strongly recommend staying away from Bosch Platinum +4 spark plugs - they have a history of poor performance in Saabs, especially Turbos.
Check engine components, and replace as necessary:
If any of these components are on the verge of failure, or are simply old, the easiest way to push them over the edge is to pump more power through the engine. Replacing these things ahead of time may save you a serious headache later - nothing kills an afternoon of fun more quickly than a broken water pump belt or a head cracking due to insufficient cooling.
Motor Mounts: Make sure your motor mounts are in good shape. Both Saab 9000 and Saab 900 Turbos use hydraulic (oil-filled) mounts in some places, and solid rubber mounts in others. Be sure all of yours are in top-notch shape before upgrading your engine. More horsepower and more torque means more stress on your motor mounts, and the last thing you want is your engine and/or transmissions sliding around under the hood. This can (and will) cause unnecessary wear on your drive shafts, damage to your transmission, and result in unpredictable handling. All are bad. On 9000s, be especially sure the lower mounts are in good shape - when they fail it may not be readily apparent but it will accelerate wear on the upper mounts.
When replacing the mounts, you've got three basic options:
Replace them with genuine Saab parts - this is the path I recommend for a daily driven car. These parts can be ordered from any dealer or authorized Saab repair shop.
Replace them with "off-brand" parts - you can probably save a few bucks by using someone else's motor mounts. They might work well, they might not. You never know. And for that reason I strongly urge you to stick with genuine Saab parts. You know how they're going to perform, and you've got a large, reputable company standing behind them. It's cheap insurance.
Replace the solid rubber mounts and/or hydraulic with solid mounts of another material - urethane and aluminum are two common materials, and both will result in more reliable power transmission from the engine to the wheels - less energy spent allowing the engine to move around under the hood lets more power get to the wheels. The negative side-effect is more engine vibration and noise transferred to the car (and thus the cabin). If you're willing to deal with a louder, rougher ride, by all means go with solid mounts. If you're interested in moving to these to replace your 900's hydraulic mounts, check out the For Sale link on the left.
Suspension Bushings: The next thing to check is to be sure all your suspension bushings are in good shape. These rubber bushings wear out with age, causing clunking, creaking, and sloppy handling. If you plan on turning your Saab into a road-rocket, sloppy handling can become downright dangerous. Check all the bushings everywhere - on the a-arms (upper and lower) in front, the trailing arms in back, and all the sway bar and shock bushings.
When replacing the bushings, you've got a couple options:
Replace them with standard, rubber bushings - this will give you a good stock feel, and is a solid choice.
Replace them with urethane bushings - urethane is stronger and will last longer than the stock rubber bushings. You will get tighter handling and better road feel out of the deal, but the side-effect is that road vibration will be increased inside the cabin. In my opinion, urethane is a worthwhile investment if you're going for a true performance machine, but such swaps must not be approached carelessly. You most certainly can go overboard with urethane. Suspension designers do a fair amount of work when putting together a car, and often build certain amounts of flex into suspension components as often for ride as for stable handling under varying conditions. Replace bushings in one location at a time until you get a ride that's comfortable and responsive. My advice is to start with shocks, then move to swaybars and finally to major suspension components.
Vacuum Hoses: If you're making your Saab Turbo go faster, chances are you're going to be relying on turbo boost for much of that power. More boost means more air pressure coursing through the maze of vacuum hoses under the hood, and if you've got an older or high-mileage Saab, it's pretty unlikely the stock rubber vacuum hoses are going to be up to the task. Since the 2.0l engine relies heavily on vacuum for management and control, it's imperative that your vacuum system is up to spec.
Once you've committed to replacing the hoses, there's only one option: Use silicone hose. Silicone is more resistant than rubber to extreme heat and pressure, and using it will mean you won't have to worry about replacing it again for a long time. Most any performance auto shop should be able to supply you with the stuff, and due to its rising popularity, you should also be able to find it in black as well as an exciting array of other colors. If you can't find it locally, shoot an email off to the nice people at HoseTechniques and they can sell you all the hose you need. Alternatively, talk to John at Saab Savior - he can set you up with a "kit" which includs everything you need.
Depending on how thorough a job you do replacing your hoses, you'll need anywhere from 8' to 16', plus or minus. Some key areas to remember:
Additionally, you will want to check and possibly replace:
Do note that most silicone hose is not rated nor designed to handle gasoline or oil vapors, and it may fail in these applications. I still use silicone for these purposes (so it matches - I'm so vain! :) but if you choose to do so as well, you need to keep an eye on it.
Those are the important ones to get - but if you're really ambitious you can also replace all the vacuum line associated with the cruise control system and windshield washers. This system is isolated from the engine, and will not affect engine operation (except as noted in the APC Troubleshooting FAQ).
Diagnostics: Once all the maintenance is taken care of, give the car's systems a thorough once over. Install the boost gauge mentioned above and verify that both maximum and base boost are at the correct levels. Hook up the air:fuel meter and drive around for a while, so you can get used to how the O2 manages the mixture and at what levels the system is operating during idle, cruising, and full boost. This will give you an idea where work needs to put. Additionally, get your hands on a timing light and check to be sure your ignition timing is where it should be. Start with stock settings (16 degrees BTDC) and go from there.
Once you're confident your car is fully up to snuff, and that any nagging maintenance issues have been taken care of, it's time to make it go faster...