From the most boring car of all time to the most exciting, it's quite a journey.
Sweden is home to 10.3 million people. For some perspective, the UK is a tiny island in the Atlantic sea with a population of just over 66 million people. Despite its relatively small size, Sweden has emerged over the decades to become an automotive powerhouse. It's responsible for three large global car brands, the now sadly defunct Saab, the recently-reinvented Volvo brand, and the bleeding edge hypercar brand Koenigsegg.
However, Sweden's automotive influence also runs deep in trucking and is home to two of the largest truck manufacturers in the world: Scania AB and Volvo AB. As a result, the automotive industry is a major part of Sweden's economy and the vast majority is exported. 85 percent of the passenger cars and 95 percent of trucks built in Sweden end up in other parts of the world.
Sweden's automotive culture being mixed with the country's legendary wintery climate has also given rise to some of the finest racing drivers in the world. Particularly in sports where going sideways is heavily featured, such as rallying and rallycross. Here though, we're going to concentrate on the cars Sweden has produced, particularly the most influential models. Mainly we're looking at Saab and Volvo but don't worry, we'll get to Koenigsegg at the end.
Starting a list off with a car generally considered boring is not usually a great idea, but the Volvo Estate was in production for almost two decades and cemented Volvo's reputation for building safe cars. It also stealthily became an icon as well as an anti-status status symbol.
Yes, you read that right. We're declaring the Volvo 240 Estate to be both a leading light and benchmark for family car safety at the time it was built and a subversive car at the same time. For that wonderful contradiction, the 240 Estate goes on top of this list.
Saab's 99 Turbo was the first mass-produced turbo car, but the Saab 900 Turbo broke a bigger boundary by becoming the first successful mainstream turbocharged car.
It was fast in a straight line, but if you optioned the Pirelli P6 tires, it also gripped and handled like a dream if front-wheel-drive was your thing. The Saab 900 had a 20-year lifespan from 1978 to 1998, but it's the late 1980s and early 1990 Turbo models that achieved iconic status. If you were a yuppie and wanted to stand out, you didn't buy a BMW 3 Series. You bought a 900 Turbo.
For a long time, Volvo wasn't a name you associated with aesthetic beauty. But, between 1961 and 1973 Volvo made one of the prettiest cars in the world in the form of the P1800. Roger Moore drove one in the iconic British TV show The Saint, but it was the tongue-in-cheek advertising slogans like "It's sort of a souped-down Ferrari" that endeared it to Europeans in the long term. Although it had the Volvo badge and reliability, it was actually designed by a Swede while working for the Italian design house Frua, then produced in the UK by the British company Jensen.
This was where Saab began as an automotive company, and its aeronautical influence is clear in the 92's aerodynamics. Like the British Land Rover, it came only in green due, most likely, to the post-war surplus of green paint. Production started in 1949 with a 750cc, water-cooled two-cylinder and two-stroke engine. Two versions were offered, but nobody was interested in the standard version so Saab only made the Deluxe trimmed model. It was immediately put into motorsport and Saab's head engineer Rolf Mellde entered the Swedish Rally to come second in his class.
Volvo wasn't the only Swedish company to make a beautiful looking car. The Saab Sonett, or Super Sport or Saab 94, arrived in 1958 and was built purely to go racing. Only six were made, making it an incredibly rare car. Saab had intended to build 2,000 a year but a change in competition rules allowing production road cars to be tuned put an end to that idea as the economic and marketing viability of the project disappeared. The Sonett was reborn later, but the first one is the prettiest.
The Saab 93 was the first Saab to make it to the US, but it was the 96 that truly put the Swedish automaker on the map. It was largely down to its success on the World Rally Championship stage in the hands of the legendary wheelman Erik Carlsson. It started life with a three-cylinder, two-stroke engine but that was replaced later with a V4 powerplant.
Nobody, it seems, knew they wanted a fast Volvo wagon until the T5, T5R, and R spec vehicles were dropped on a largely unsuspecting public. Unsuspecting because unless you opted for a canary yellow paint job from the factory, it was a true sleeper. In T5R spec, the 850 came with a 2.3-liter turbocharged five-cylinder with an ECU tuned by Porsche to make 243 horsepower and all the torque steer you can handle, plus a spoonful extra. From the factory, it came with Pirelli P-Zero tires as standard.
Even better, the performance 850 models were inspired by the Tom Walkinshaw race cars that stunned competition and spectators alike in the British Touring Car Championships. When the press and public saw the following photo, Volvo had to put something fast out, well, fast.
Some will be wondering why this spot isn't filled by the 9-3 Viggen, which was also a bit of an animal in its day. Well, by the time Saab was done with the 9-5 Aero it was making 260 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. Unless you had the manual that included a 20-second over-boost function pushing it to 270 lb-ft of torque.
"Engineers at Saab once told me that the most power you could realistically entrust to a front-wheel-drive car is 220 bhp. A point they proved recently by launching an unwieldy 250-bhp front-driver called the Hot Aero," said Jeremy Clarkson in one of his books. It's that kind of thinking and following action that makes us miss Saab.
We're not talking about the S60 Polestar Engineered model here. The S60 and V60 Polestar we love had a transversely mounted straight-6 until later on when it went to a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. That made it good for a 0-60 mph sprint in 4.5 seconds while Ohlins dampers helped improve grip and handling.
The Volvo 240 Wagon was at the top of our list of Swedish cars, but let's be real here: The Koenigsegg Agera RS is the cream of Swedish cars. It's the hypercar that took Bugatti to task by breaking several records, including a run from 0-249-0 mile-per-hour in just 33.29 seconds. That same day, the Agera RS trounced four other records and became fastest production car on the road with a top speed of 277.87 mph
The Agera RS is an insane piece of machinery and was built by Christian von Koenigsegg's 25-year-old independent company that, unlike Bugatti, doesn't have the backing of Volkswagen money.