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1998 Saab 95

TROLLHATTAN, Sweden — It's a character thing. Some car owners

like to drive something different, something with personality,

something that sets them apart from the faceless hordes.

In the old days, they used to put up with midnight breakdowns,

weird styling, and bizarre engineering that had friends and

family shaking their heads.

All in the name of driving something, well, interesting.

Not many of these people around any more, especially in North

America. And what our dwindling passion for things unusual

hasn't done, legislation has. Every car must be safe as church,

and cleaner than Michael Jordan's skull.

What's a carmaker like Saab to do, then? While they bristle

every time the word "quirky" is applied to one of their cars,

the fact is that over much of their history, Saab engineers have

taken a different road.

Saab can rightly point out it's a road most other carmakers

have recently turned on to. Saabs have always been about safety,

fuel economy, front-wheel drive, aerodynamics. Now that this

sounds like the mantra of every car ad, how can Saab stand out?

Particularly when they are now run by General Motors, arguably

the most conservative of the major carmakers?

Another reality facing a small manufacturer like Saab is the

need to generate capital by moving upmarket where the

competition is fierce.

All this to introduce the newest Saab, the 95 sedan.

It's the largest car Saab has even designed, and will replace

the 9000 in our market next spring. (It launches in Europe this

fall, where it will be sold alongside the 9000 hatchback.)

There will be no hatchback 95 heresy of heresies. But a

station wagon will join the family next year.

The new car's name is laden with meaning. The 9 is a Saab

tradition — former models include the 99, 900, and 9000. If you

take nine to the fifth power, it's 90,000. Logical, right?

The 5 also suggests the car's market position aimed squarely

at BMW's all-conquering 5-series.

The 95 is loosely based on GM Europe's Opel Vectra platform,

but virtually everything you see, touch, feel or hear has been

given the Saab touch.

On first glance, the 95 doesn't look radical, but after a day

or so, I started appreciating its grace. Silver is definitely

this car's color.

Maybe only Saab fans will recognize styling cues that relate

to previous Saabs — the wedgy profile, the chunky lower body,

the deep windshield reminiscent of an aircraft canopy. In fact,

SAAB in this country's impossible-to-pronounce language stands

for Swedish Airplane Company Limited.

Likewise the return of an old Saab logo — a tapered horizontal

bar that looks like an airplane wing coming at you, and which is

featured inside and out on the 95.

Inside? Saabophiles will instantly note that the ignition key

is where it belongs — in the centre console. Again, like an

aircraft. Saab notes this makes it easier to fit a transmission

lock when the key is removed (although all cars back home have

had that for years). It also takes the key out of the way of an

errant kneecap in a crash.

But mostly, it's fun. The key pops out of its plastic case

like a switchblade, but only opens 90 degrees. Slide it into the

slot and the case acts like a lever to switch everything on.

Cool. No, really.

The dash is Saab's traditional Wall of Gauges, a massive cliff

cascading down into the console, which houses the integrated

radio and heating/air conditioning controls. Sadly, we only get

the automatic climate system with buttons, while large, that are

no easier to operate on the fly that anyone else's and which

dent Saab's claim to world-leading ergonomics.

The system incorporates a dust and pollen filter for intake

air. Heard about that from other car makers recently? Saab

introduced it 20 years ago. Do they ever get any credit for it?

They do from me.

The 95 also offers an activated charcoal filter to absorb

various airborne nasties. They aren't first with this, but it's

welcome nonetheless.

Saab introduced heated seats way back in 1971. The 95 has

them, front and rear. Now, Saab is first with ventilated seats.

Fans mounted in the front thrones extract air from both

cushion and seatback, making them more comfortable in hot

weather. Cool. Yes, really. If we are going to continue to

perversely insist on leather in our cars, Saab is going to try

and make it livable.

They like to point out that this technology is borrowed from

aircraft too. But when pressed, they admit the 95 isn't the

first Saab vehicle to use it — their Scania large trucks were,

but there's no cachet in that.

There's Convention Centre room inside this car, one of the few

where three adults in the back might actually be comfortable

during a longer trip. The trunk is also large, although the

opening isn't. The rear seatback folds in a 60-40 split, and has

a ski hatch opening.

Auxiliary storage abounds. Pockets in the front face of the

front seats and small mesh pockets at the base of the central

pillars augment the more conventional door map pockets and a

glove box big enough to stage a rock concert. It's air

conditioned too.

Four cupholders prove Saab is listening to its customers.

All engines feature low-pressure turbocharging. The 95 starts

(for us) with a revised 2.3 litre twin-cam 16-valve

twin-balance-shaft four generating 170 horsepower at 5,500 r.p.m.

and a torque plateau that peaks at 206 footpounds at only 1,800

r.p.m. and stays above 90 per cent of that value until 5,000

r.p.m. It will be offered in Canada with either Saab's rather

clunky five-speed manual or an electronic fourspeed automatic

transaxle.

A 3.0-litre four-cam 24-valve V6 has an innovative

"asymmetrical" lowpressure turbo. Exhaust gasses from just

one bank of cylinders supply sufficient pressure to compresses

intake air for all six. Power is 200 horses at 5,000 r.p.m. But

the impressive number, again, is torque — 230 footpounds from

2,100 all the way to 4,000 r.p.m.

The V6 is offered only with the smooth-shifting automatic, an

entirely fine choice.

The V6 is the quicker of the two engines, of course. But the

four is surprisingly smooth and pleasant. Our market has

traditionally shunned anything less than six cylinders in this

class of car. If buyers can't see past their prejudices, they'll

be perfectly happy with the V6.

Safe, stable handling has always been a Saab trait, and

remains so.

The 95 gets Saab's first independent rear suspension. I

hadn't driven 20 metres before noticing the clear improvement in

rear suspension compliance over the 9000.

Only the occasional rustle of wind around the sideview

mirrors disturbs the quiet interior.

The 95 is clearly the most sophisticated Saab ever, and

nothing less than a make-or-break car for the company.

If the 95 doesn't catch on, Saab is toast.

My guess on price is a base 2.3-litre manual at around

$40,000, a loaded V6 well under $50,000. In other words, a car

that lines up very well against the BMW 5-series or

Mercedes-Benz E-Class, for about ten grand less.

Audi, another European that shares perpetual second-tier

status with Saab, weighs in next year with the intriguing A6,

and there is no shortage of competitive Japanese and domestic

cars in this price range either. As I said, it's fierce.

The 95 should help Saab return to the 2,000-car-a-year mark

in Canada (from 1,300 currently). If similar gains can be made

in the United States, Germany and Japan, Saab should live to

fight another day.

I for one hope so. I like character in ,20 cars. Why else

would I own a Hornet?

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers

invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions

arranged and paid for by the automaker.

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