What would you expect from Saab if not the unexpected?

While the all-new 9-5 sedan looks very mainstream, a generous portion of "Saabness" gives it a unique personality. Styling resembles an evolution of the former 9000, but slip into the ventilated seats of the upscale SE and you find yourself behind the wheel of a tight, quiet and energetic four-passenger sedan that rivals anything in its segment for driving pleasure. That's saying a lot, since rivals include such luminaries as the Audi A6 and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

Prices range from $29,995 for the base car to $36,800 for the top-line SE, reasonable prices considering the competition. The test car was a loaded SE.

What impressed me most was the mid-range punch of its turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 as it snarled through the gears. Rated at 200 horsepower, it generates a nice push in the small of your back when you dip into the throttle, almost like a small V8. That responsiveness is due to its asymmetrical turbocharger system, wherein one small turbo is mounted on the front cylinder bank but feeds power to all six cylinders. Normally, turbocharging a V6 would require twin turbos. The beauty of this setup is that it creates nearly instantaneous throttle response without a fuel consumption penalty.

The base engine is a 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder. It, too, is turbocharged, and has 170 horsepower.

The V6 is available only with an automatic transmission, while the four-cylinder comes with either a 5-speed manual or an automatic.

Saab has done an excellent job of muting the wind and road noise that so commonly invades the passenger compartment. Its quiet ride is due in part to its outstanding coefficient of drag (Cd) of 0.29, cleaning up the underbody so it doesn't disrupt the flow of air as well as the strategic placement of sound deadening mats.

One drawback from such a quiet ride: On the highway, you find yourself driving way faster than the speed limit because it is so relaxed.

This would be an excellent car for long, high-speed road trips. The back seat is exceptionally spacious, which can also be said of the trunk. The split-folding back seat enables the trunk to swallow huge items almost like a station wagon. Folding the back seat down is now a one-step operation, unlike the previous model, which was too complicated.

Welcome innovations include:

Ventilated seats. This option uses two small fans inside the seat to pull air through perforations in the bottom cushion and lower back area. The cooling is subtle, but refreshing, and far outweighs the noise of the fans.

Our test car was also equipped with heated seats, front and rear, for cool weather.

Active head restraints. In the event of a rear-end collision, the head restraints move up and forward to "catch" the occupant's head, reducing whiplash. The system moves back into place after an impact and is ready again. It requires no repair to restore it to ori ginal condition.

Night panel. At night, a button on the dash turns out all instruments except the speedometer, and it is only illuminated to 90 mph. The dark panel eliminates distractions and lessens fatigue on the driver's eyes.

Air filters. An electrostatic pollen filter is standard, but there is also a charcoal filter to fight odors and bacteria.

Safety features include front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes and traction-control.

Inside, the 9-5 looks similar to the 9000, but the instrument panel has been cleaned up and secondary switches are now larger and easier to operate. In the upscale SE, woodgrain trim adds a nice touch of warmth.

The seats sit upright and provide a chair-like driving position that is comfortable for long trips.

Like the smaller 9-3, the 9-5 now has its ignition key mounted on the central console. While I understand Saab's reason for putting it there (in one motion, the driver can buckle the seat belt, s rt the car and release the handbrake), I did not get used to it after a week.

Also, power window switches were on the central console. There may be good reasons for putting them there, but they seem less handy than on the door.

At the end of my weeklong test drive I hated to see the 9-5 leave -- not because of its styling, which is among the most conservative in its segment; not because it had a fluid, firm ride that swallowed the highway without breathing hard; but because the single-turbo V6 snapped to attention every time you stepped on the throttle.

Price

The base price of our test car was $36,800. Options included ventilated seats ($925) and heated front and rear seats ($500). That brought the sticker price to $38,775, including delivery.

Warranty

The standard warranty is for four years or 50,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The 9-5 uses innovation and creative thinking to break new ground. Things like a single-turbo V6, ventilated seats and head restraints that catch your head to help prevent whiplash are notable. Plus, it is quiet and smooth.

Counterpoint: I never did get used to the console-mounted key, and the pass-through from the trunk limits slightly the objects you can carry.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 3.0-liter, V6

TRANSMISSION: automatic

WHEELBASE: 106.4 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,590 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $36,800

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $38,775

MPG RATING: 18 city, 26 hwy.