1991 Saab 9000

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Orlando Sentinel

Saab needs to do a better job telling the world about its 9000 Turbo. If people knew how good this car is, Saab likely would sell all the 9000s it could build.

Instead, Saab is suffering through a nasty sales slump. And that's a shame because of all European luxury/sports sedans cars rolling into the United States, the 9000 Turbo is one of the best.

It is a bit pricey, but I am convinced it's one of the most versatile cars on the market.

Do you like performance? The Saab's turbocharged, 16-valve four cylinder is powerful enough to make many V-8s obsolete.

Do you like sports cars? Try and find one this side of $50,000 that will outhandle the Saab.

Do you need something that will haul five passengers in reasonable comfort and that could also be configured to hold a bicycle or a couch? The Saab 9000 Turbo can.

For some reason, American car buyers never have warmed up to five-door hatchbacks. Rover tried to sell one, the 3500 SD1, 10 years ago and failed. It tried again with the Rover Sterling 827SLi two years ago and the result was pretty much the same. Mazda had a hard time moving its 626 five-door hatchback.

Yet it is a very practical body style and one of the most popular in Europe. The nice thing about the Saab 9000 is that at first glance it doesn't look like a hatchback. And it certainly doesn't act like one.

ENGINE, PERFORMANCE

Pumping out a cool 200 horsepower and 244 feet-pounds of torque, Saab 2.3-liter, slant four offers the power and performance of engines twice its size while still delivering respectable fuel economy. It is EPA rated at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

Driving with a heavy foot around town with the air conditioner on yielded an even 20 mpg, according to the car's computer system. That increased to 24.7 on the highway.

The engine has not only the power of a V-8, but the smoothness, too. There is no turbo-lag - that short pause caused when the turbocharger is first engaged. Power comes up quickly and evenly. In fact, the power band is so consistent that it is difficult to detect when the turbocharger spins to life.

The test car was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. The 9000's shifter was dull, the quadrant vague and the action heavy and awful. The sloppy shifter is the car's biggest shortcoming. It is constantly annoying. Sometimes I went from first gear straight into fourth.

A four-speed automatic is available.

STEERING, HANDLING

The nicest surprise about the 9000's road manners is that there are no surprises.

The driver never has to fight with the steering wheel to maintain a straight course, even under maximum acceleration. Learning how to handle 200 horsepower, though, takes a bit of practice and patience. More than once I left a stop light squealing tires, though not on purpose.

The 9000's handling is neutral. All four tires stay plant ed firmly on the pavement regardless of how hard you throw it into a curve. The four-wheel disc brakes do a fine job of arresting the action. The test car came equipped with anti-lock brakes, that when engaged, worked well but caused massive pulsing of the brake pedal.

FIT, FINISH, CONTROLS

When Saab engineers created the 9000's interior, function won over style. The driver feels comfortable almost immediately after sitting down and learning where the controls, buttons and switches are located.

The dash is basically a one-piece affair containing all the controls for the air conditioner and heating, radio and lights less than an arm's length away.

The 9000 features an automatic climate control system. You set it and forget it.

All the buttons are lighted, so if you do have to take your eyes off the road to make an adjustment, your attention is diverted for just a split second.

Rear passengers have plenty of room. With the back seat fold ed down the 9000 is like a station wagon. It has 56.5 cubic feet of cargo room.

Few car s offer the performance and versatility of the 9000 Turbo. With the auto industry in the doldrums, and Saab in a slump, now might be the time to get a deal on a Saab.

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