Can you believe that the oldest SAAB 9000 on the roads in the US today is just short of its 15th birthday? Time flies. When it entered the US market for the 1986 model year, the 9000 turbo was the fastest production sedan on the market, at 141mph top speed. Creature comforts were pretty decent for a SAAB, a big step away from, say, the base 8v 900 available that year, and a broad variety of trim levels were available: from cloth seats and no sunroof to the works; and a hatchback sedan or one with a more "conventional" trunk. My advice to you - avoid the CD (trunk) variety; the hatchbacks do not handle appreciably worse and their hauling capacity is just short of a new 9-5 wagon.
Now the car you may be looking at on Saabnet.com's own classifieds or elsewhere may be a very new car or one with a good number of years and miles under its belt. A properly maintained 1987 9000 can be a pleasure, and a poorly maintained '92 can be an absolute nightmare. Trust your used-car buying instincts here more than you would, say, with a 900, and don't get all hot in the pants just because it's the only one in your town. Print this out and stick it in your back pocket, we may just save you a lot of trouble.
The 16 valve 2 litre powerplants in the 9000s are more or less the same as in a 900, save for the type of turbo, manifolds, and the occasional Direct Ignition cartridge (1990-). The LH fuel injection (versions 2.2, 2.4, 2.4.1 and 2.4.2.) are the same as the 900 and use the same sensors and meters et.c. Likewise, the Hall Effect (turbo) and EZK (NA) from 1986-89 ignition systems are the same as the 900 and switch from distributor trigger to crank trigger in 1989 like the 900. Timing chain and tensioner failure is just as common, as are the tappet hoses above the camshafts (1986-88) prone to the same sort of failure. Both of these noises are easily discernable, not necessarily fatal or terribly expensive to remedy, but should take consideration in your purchase price. You will notice that the 9000 clutch is not as easily replaced as the 900, and the transmission must be removed for slave cylinder replacement, so if clutch or hydraulics are weak, keep that in mind. The 2.3 litre engines utilize a balance shaft whose chain, sprockets and guides are known for premature wear with the SAAB 7500mi oil change intervals which some of them were suscepted to, here again, be careful.
1986 model year 9000 turbos were the only year without water cooled turbochargers. As such, if the previous owner failed to give the car its 30 seconds before launch and 30 seconds after landing pause before shutting down, turbo failure may be imminent. This is also true, to a lesser extent, with the later cars which featured a water and oil cooled turbo. If you're familiar with pre 1988 900s and this same ailment, continue on. Turbochargers run from $700 for a rebuilt unit to $1000 or so from a dealer; alternatively a "cartridge" or impellers and shaft can be had somewhat less expensively. Use your best judgement here.
9000s with automatics tend to be troublesome, but not usually like the classic 900 series where 2nd gear disappears. Usually auto trans failure on a 9000 relates to valve body, band or governor malfunction causing poor or no kickdowns, slippage, and generally poor performance. A rebuilt unit is expensive and the job is not for the inexperienced DIYer. Make sure the 9000 automatic you are looking at does not slip kicking down from 4th to 3rd and does not slip on its upshifts. Sometimes this can be as simple as a cable adjustment, other times it means trans failure. On the other hand, 9000 manual transmissions are very reliable but have been known for bearing failure in a few cases; certainly nowhere near the failure rate of the infamous SAAB 5-speed in a classic 900! Oh, and avoid automatics with evidence of a tow hitch, these trannies just can't take it!
Older 9000s have a tendency for their brake calipers to bind up, this is not really common but it is something which can be quite startling. This usually occurs in cars whose brake fluid has not been changed in some time and or have been sitting for a while. Symptoms are a wicked vibration in the front end after a few miles and a few hard stops, and a hot road wheel and hub. Calipers are not cheap for these cars, nor are ABS master cylinder/valve body/accumulator units. On the topic of ABS, note the time it takes for the ABS and Brake Fluid lights to go off. If longer than 20 seconds after initial startup, you may have very old fluid and the potential for disaster on your hands.
Moving to the interior, you will notice a display in the lower left hand corner of your instrument cluster with a pictogram for open doors and failed bulbs. The rear bulb clusters are susceptible to moisture and corrosion (1986-92) and can set off a bulb out light if the printed circuit is corroded or even if the bulbs are not the same brand between left and right on that circuit! This is due to the fact that some bulbs have different ohms resistance between positive and negative and this is how the pictogram system determines a bulb failure. This may be a challenge for some of you. Another very common failure item is the high-beam dipper on the 1986-1987 9000s. The relay itself is just a manual switch within the combination switch. If you are looking at one of these early cars, make certain this works properly, a new one is over $200. Sometimes they can be repaired but you will want the car to pass inspection!
A common and expensive repair in terms of both labour and parts on a 9000 is the heater core. This is located between the firewall and "false bulkhead" in the engine compartment, nicely buried within the heater box/evaporator casing. If you switch on the automatic climate control, turn it to heat, and smell maple syrup, the heater core is either leaking or has just been replaced. Determine which. If you decide to buy a 9000 with a bad heater core, it is advisable to do the blower motor and speed resistor pack at the same time as all three are difficult items to access. Factor in about $700 for parts or $1300 for parts and labour if you don't want to do the job itself.
Coming back to the automatic climate control. Fixing the ACC can be an expensive and time consuming process, especially for the non-DIYer. To get an idea of its condition, press the AUTO and VENT buttons simultaneously (1986-89) and wait for the "88" blinking to begin. The system will cycle through its functions and come up with a number of faults. If "0" is displayed, the system is working properly, hit VENT again and it will resume normal operation. If a number greater than 0 comes up, hit VENT and write down the fault code, then repeat that procedure until you have recorded all the codes. Visit the Townsend site and find the section with the fault codes, then determine where and what they are. On a 1990 and later ACC system, you can still hit the AUTO and <---> buttons simultaneously; "0" will be displayed as the system runs through its course. This number may increase during the function test and if so, you need to find a buddy or a technician with the SAAB ISAT or Tech II tool to pull the actual failure codes.
Something you may want to avoid is a 1992 or 1993 9000 with Traction Control (TCS/ETS). These were the first two years for this feature and the electronic throttle bodies, bleeder valves, and other components are somewhat prone to failure. If at all possible if you desire a particularly nice '92 or '93 have the VIN run through the SAAB warranty database at your local dealership and see what service campaigns (recalls) have been performed; for instance SR369 - Electronic Throttle Body. If you purchase a car with "flawless" TCS or ETS, have it calibrated as soon as possible by your local dealer and continue to have this done on a regular basis to keep it in check.
Struts and shocks are available on the aftermarket as well as from SAAB, they do clunk, and they occasionally require replacement. Loose or dead motor mounts may make similar noises to leaky strut cartridges, so inspect those as well if your car makes noises over bumps.
Like the 900, the 9000s were very well protected against corrosion. Cars which have been wrecked or repainted are a lot more susceptible to rust, so look in all the obvious AND not so obvious places. Be careful, a rusty or wrecked 9000 is a very difficult car to repair properly and usually not worth anything but parts.
There are cheap 9000s out there and there are nice inexpensive 9000s out there, right along side the high dollar ones which can also be trouble (read: some used 9000 Aeros!). Try to get as many records and evidence of proper service with your purchase as possible. This is the best general information guide I can give and it is one I use myself more or less, still fresh in my mind after buying my "new" '92 9kT 10 days ago. I'll admit that the day afterwards, with no warning whatsoever and 94k miles on the clock, the turbo decided it had had enough and blew an oil seal. Luckily I had bought it from a wholesaler friend of mine who instantly threw in a warranty. Now there's some incentive perhaps to buy not from an individual but from a small used car dealer or honest SAAB garage or dealership as they will tend to stand behind it. I did not have to pay for the turbocharger.
Enjoy your search and your inevitable (hee hee) purchase of a SAAB 9000. I welcome comments, critiques and parts requests...if you have a substantive addition to this FAQ, please contact me with those materials.
William "Chip" Lamb
West of Sweden SAAB
Charles City, VA.