It's probably about time for the Saab flagship to slide unobtrusively out the back door. The 9-5 was introduced in 1999 - Ordovician Age in car terms - and though it received a fairly thorough "refresh" last year, it goes up against a raft of more compelling choices. But I'll say one thing for Saab: Even though they've gone to a more conventional exterior appearance than once was the case, their cars still stand apart from the rampant sameness one finds these days, even in the low-luxury ranks.

It's the fashion to call Saabs quirky. Much has been made of the fact that the ignition switch is located on the front portion of the floor console. Think about it, though - doesn't that make more sense from the consumer's point of view than hidden on the steering column, which is overwhelmingly-often the case? That unfriendly positioning evolved because it was more convenient for the manufacturer.

And I must admit, the first time I tried a Saab 9-5 with manual transmission, I expended a considerable portion of the day's allotment of swear words until I broke down, consulted the owner's manual, and found out that the ignition key can only be inserted or removed when the car is in Reverse.

Now that I've become a regular Saab hand, I can laugh when other neophytes struggle to untie that Gordian knot.

Saab didn't do that to be mean - Reverse is quite a stout gear, good for holding the car when it's parked on a hill, and also useful for forcing the driver to think a moment before moving off.

One doesn't find useless gimmicks on a Saab, the parent company being an aircraft manufacturer. They also pioneered red lighting for the instruments and heated seats after the air division had discovered the utility of those two items.

So what I'm saying is, the mass of people who buy a sedan in this price bracket would be happier elsewhere - check out archrival Volvo's S80, BMW's 5 Series, Mercedes C-Class, Jaguar X-type or an Audi A6, to name but the European contenders.

The few who gravitate to the unusual, however, might not mind the Saab line's shortcomings - might even find them endearing.

The 9-5 is in EPA terms a mid-size, with front-wheel drive. Certain misapprehensions about that technology have led to front-drive's repute as better than RWD in snow; this doesn't take into account that those crazy Swedes who flog about on snow and ice are using terrific winter tires, even studded.

The 9-5 comes in two forms - sedan and wagon - and three series, or "architectural forms," if you've been breathing cold Arctic air, like the advertising copywriters.

The base model is called the Linear. It comes with a lightly-turbocharged 2.3-liter four-banger and a five-speed manual transmission (a five-speed automatic can be had, for a price). With the forced-air induction, the game little engine produces 185 hp and 207 foot-pounds of torque. For a car that curb-weights at less than 3,500 pounds, that's more than adequate. Base price on this one is $33,995, and you'll probably want to add a couple of grand worth of goodies.

For more finesse and more luxurious appointments, you might choose the next series up, the Arc. Its claim to fame is a 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine, again lightly turbocharged, coupled to a five-speed automatic. This one starts at $38,650. Its 200 hp and 229 foot-pounds should provide much the same performance as the Linear, but more smoothly. This is the car for those who want a near-luxury sedan or wagon . . . you notice the word "sport" isn't part of the equation.

For that, strap into the Aero, the one I tested.

It, too, starts at $38,650, and retrogresses to a four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual.

But it has a more robust suspension to handle the power produced by an engine turbocharged to within an inch of its life. With the added boost, the same 2.3 liters we saw in the Linear now makes hp and 258 foot-pounds, hot stuff indeed.

Maybe too hot. This is, after all, front-wheel drive and the tires have to steer and transfer torque to macadam.

Burnouts (and they very easily can be smoky burnouts) are a part of the 0-60 drill, and torque steer is a bear. With maximal power going down to the rubber, wrestling the steering wheel is practically aero-bic. At this output level, such shenanigans are hard to prevent, but some manufacturers have learned how.

The traction control system is quite unobtrusive on dry pavement, but seemed to be helping in the wet.

The 9-5 also has a stability control system. Becoming ubiquitous at this price level and beyond, this involves a little computer watching motions of the steering wheel and the four wheels. Its little silicon brain is programmed to cut power to one or another wheel if the driver is asking for more yaw than is possible.

I didn't have any issues with it because front-drive cars don't invite the degree of derring-do that RWDs do.

The brake pedal was solid and stops were dramatic, even in simulations of panic at 70 mph. It's discs front and rear, of course, with antilock assist.

The shifting mechanism on the car I tested was worse than mediocre. It was vague in feel and balky about certain gear changes, like 1-2, for instance, which should be a breeze. A first-rate shifter along with this spirited engine would be a gearhead's delight. Pity. The engine was lovely, quite willing to roar past the 6,000-rpm warning zone, and with a broad torque curve, docile in more sedate circumstances.

It wants as much octane as you can get. EPA ratings are 22 mpg city, 30 highway. I was satisfied with 24.3, considering how much fun I had watching the needle on the turbo boost gauge bounce around. (The upshift indicator light struck me as funny on this flavor of 9-5.) Handling was very good for the type. Bite comes from 225/45 tires on 17-inch alloy rims. Nonetheless, the car felt somewhat sluggish and reluctant to play hard, in no small measure because the steering is rather heavy and slow.

Saabs have a rep for safety, and the 9-5 upholds it. The government ran one into a wall at 35 mph and the results weren't pretty, but they were reassuring. The 9-5 got top marks (five stars) for its protection of passenger and co-pilot. They did not test one in side impacts; the two folks in first class do have head-and-torso side air bags in addition to the two mandated up front.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has a tougher drill - they run cars into an offset, yielding barrier at 40 mph, so there's a great deal more kinetic energy involved. Here, too, the 9-5 got top marks and was named a "best pick" in the midsize luxury class, along with five competitors.

Having covered itself with glory in the passenger-protection categories, the 9-5 disgraced itself on the four, 5-mph bumper crashes IIH S does. Average damage from such a modest impact was $1,112.

Some competitors fared better, some worse, but on the whole it's enough to make you back very slowly and carefully.

The up side of the aging process is that it drives the price down. surveys show buyers on average are getting a bit more than $2K knocked off the asking price. The test car had special (cosmic blue metallic) paint for $475, and a $1,195 "touring package". This consists of xenon headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming mirrors and rear sonar. If you were paying attention earlier, you'll appreciate how valuable that last is. Total, with freight, was $40,945.