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
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
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
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
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.