SAAB 99 Electronic Manual Special
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 2
The SAAB 99 EMS (Electronic-Manual-Special) offered a firm, positive ride that lacked the softness of the best French systems of the era, but it did come close to achieving the same suppleness. Looking back on the car today, it is best described as a restful, smooth car that featured a fuel-injected two-litre engine which ran out effortlessly to the redline of 6200 rpm, and fitted with brakes
that could be squeezed on in the apex of a corner without upsetting the inherent balance of the car.
Its competition was arguably Alfa's Alfetta
, another European car built for the driver and offering a little extra performance. The Saab's roadholding might have lacked the upper limits reached by the Alfetta but it did go about its business with a little more finess and a feeling of engineering integrity.
Comparing the EMS to the Alfetta is an obvious tack to take but they were very different cars although, superficially they seemed to appeal to the same buyers. The Alfa had more character and was more of a genuine driver's car but the EMS had the practicality and ruggedness that always seemed to be missing in an Alfa.
Where an Alfa driver would (or should have) thought twice before belting his car across potholed dirt roads the Saab driver would simply drop down a gear and accelerate. In many ways the Saab actually got better as the conditions got worse
. If you checked out the interior window demisting, you would know immediately the Saab came from a colder climate. All the interior windows - including the side ones - were demisted; the rear one by ducting air onto the glass in the same way as with most windscreens - not by the more conventional electrically-heated wires.
The headlights were always kept clean and the big 15 in. wheels and surprisingly conventional suspension
did their best to iron out the jolts and bangs that were normally passed through to the occupants. The EMS, like all Saabs of the era, had front wheel drive
but it had a mountain goat's ability to climb slippery surfaces and claw its way through ice and snow. All that was understandable really, considering it came from Sweden.
What was also understandable, but rather annoying nevertheless, was its lack of enough fresh air ventilation to cope with the Australian summer. Winters were fine; you could get just the right temperature for hot air at feet level and a gentle breeze of air - or blast if required - at face level. But in summer the lack of volume for the feet necessitated opening the windows and losing the silence that went with having them closed. Read a road test conducted in an winter is quite different to one written about the car in the middle of an Australian summer.
In 1975 Saab switched from the computorised electronic fuel injection
used on the earlier EMS models to a mechanical system. Apart from one or two troubles with the black box on the old system the only reason was to reduce manufacturing cost, the simplicity of the mechanical system overriding the apparent greater sophistication of the electronic unit. This change was, in our opinion, very much a step backwards. But, strangely, road testers often commented that the mechanical system did make the car slightly smoother and quieter, at high revs. Inevitably however the mechanical setup would go out of adjustment at idle and would drop right down to 500 rpm before the injectors came in and prevented it from stalling. Standing at traffic lights then became a series of surges between 500 and 1000 rpm. A matter of adjustment that must have frustrated owners, knowing the earlier cars did not suffer the same problems.
The Saab 99 EMS's performance was impressive - standing 400 m in 17.4 seconds - but the top speed was less so at just over 165 km/h. However, this is misleading since the Saab would run all day at 145 km/h. And the beauty of the car was that it looked after the driver and his passengers so well that fatigue limits were extended and eight hour trips could actually be enjoyable. Using the upper ends of the EMS's performance did reduce fuel consumption although, like most European cars of the early 1970's, the effect of increasing petrol prices was cushioned by their normally excellent performance/economy compromises.
Drifting the Saab along at 110 km/h would return an impressive 9.7 km/Iitre (27.3mpg), cruising at 150 km/h lowered this to 8.1 km/litre (22.8 mpg) and the daily grind of traffic jams would give a figure somewhere in between. Saab increased the size of the petrol tank by 9 litres (two gallons) on the 1975 model so it had a safe touring range of 450 km. The fuel gauge was highly inaccurate however. The practicality of the EMS extended to simple instrument faces with brilliant lighting, although this did reflect badly in the external rear vision mirror. There was loads of room for five adults; the driver's seat was adjustable in the conventional way but could also be raised or lowered at either end of the cushion and it still had the famous Saab "seat warmer" which came in whenever the temperature dropped below 14 degrees. And the rear seat squab folded down to double the already large boot space, but getting bulky luggage under the rear window sill could present problems.
Unlike Italian cars which were instantly fun to drive, or French which were obviously comfortable the moment you sunk into the front seat, or German which were clearly well-built and could make the statement "over engineered" with some truth, the Saab needed time to sneak up on you. As a town commute the Saab 99 EMS was completely wasted, but for those (Melbourne Footbal Club Members) who would dash off to the snow every weekend in winter and enjoy getting out of town during the rest of the year the Saab was fun to drive, was comfortable, was well-built and was very much an ideal compromise. But it did lack the pose value of the Range Rover on the slopes of Falls Creek.