In Eastern Canada, in the infancy of sedan racing around permafrosted hay bales at abandoned airports, our constant humiliation was a young stud from New York in a silver Saab.

After that first '50s summer of our discontent, we presumed he and his quick, stable, infernal, tight handling, three-cylinder Model 93 would head south for the winter. But he showed up in January and cleaned our clocks during the ice-racing season.

Saabs haven't changed much. They remain Swedish spoilers, cars of relatively limited horsepower that manage to go like the clappers of doom. They are homier than bread pudding. There also is no reason on God's brown earth why some Saabs have ignition switches between the front seats.

Yet those who like freckled kids and Thin Man movies adore Saabs for such oddities; especially as peculiar vehicles of enormous charm and individuality created by their confident resistance to change.

Volkswagen Beetles had it and the marque became a cult classic. So did that corrugated slowpoke, the Citroen 2CV deux cheveaux.

And the 1992 Saab 9000 CD Turbo Griffin--you expected maybe a less convoluted designation from Saab?--maintains that level of automotive eccentricity.

For one thing, there is no reason for the Griffin beyond its statement as another piece of Nordic nonsense.

It is a made-over Saab 9000, which itself is an 8-year-old design. While other sedan manufacturers are using the whole-grain power of V6s and V8s, the 9000 Griffin is fitted with the relative antiquity of a multivalve, four-cylinder engine turbocharged to produce 200 horsepower.

Although softened over the years, the notchback styling is a little dated and visually as conservative as that other stolid Swede, the scholarly Volvo.

Only 400 Griffins will be made, and that will do absolutely nothing for Saab's sales in the United States. In the first quarter of 1992, the company sold 5,648 cars in this country, about 20% off 1991's numbers.

And here's the kicker: Saab's Griffin sells for $42,635.

That's an extraordinary amount of money for a car clearly responding to the luxury-car competition rather than challenging it.

And $42K is dangerously close to the cost of the Lexus LS400 and the Infiniti Q45, which are smoother, larger, V8-powered and certainly more elegant and prestigious.

So why the Griffin?

Obviously to set a stage and bridge a gap.

Two years ago, General Motors purchased a 50% interest in Saab, and the writing was clearer than the wall it was written on: Production times had to be reduced; productivity had to be increased.

Above all, Saab had stretched its reputation for quirkiness about as far as it could reach with the 14-year-old 900 and the only slightly younger 9000. So Saab-GM decided to redesign both cars while awaiting a new luxury model.

Expect the luxocar, which will take a few years to get to market , to be powered by a V6 engine from one of GM's European divisions and to cost somewhere south of $50,000.

Hence the Griffin, a motor car stuffed with every option the factory can offer. That includes leather upholstery (with suede inserts, yet), portable phone, CD changer, burled walnut instrument panel, an alarm, trip computer, automatic climate control that actually de-mists all windows and carpeting that probably reduced several thousand sheep to shivering nakedness.

Driver's-side air bag and anti-lock brakes, of course, power sunroof and headlight wiper/washers. And the Savoy-comfortable, eight-way power front seats flop straight back to flatten driver and passenger faster than muscle relaxants.

For the little snob that lurks in all of us, the Griffin is the only Saab that comes in an environmentally correct paint job called Eucalyptus Green. The car also carries a silver dashboard plaque designating which of the 400 limited edition cars is yours. It's rather like owning a Chagall lithograph--only more expensive.

But doing things this way eases us into viewing Saab not as a manufacturer of odd cars but as a maker of capable luxury cars. It also prepares inculcated owners who might whinny and faint at a $42,635 price tag on a Saab.

Stage set. Gap bridged. Then enter, stage left, a really competitive luxury car.

It's all smoke and mirrors, of course. But that doesn't mean the Griffin is a griffon. The car is roomier than most, weighs close to two tons (which should be hefty enough for anyone's sense of security) and remains remarkably quick with a 0-60 m.p.h. time of 7 seconds.

Everything that was and is grand about the 9000 CD turbo survives in the Griffin. Despite its size and 16 valves, the 2.3-liter engine is remarkably devoid of buzziness and thrash. When pushed hard toward its upper ranges, the little four develops a soft snarl usually associated with a V6. And that turbo produces some exhilarating, lag-free acceleration in the middle to upper performance ranges where instant power is a useful escape from lane drifters and similar emergencies.

Don't doubt that this is a luxury car. Such a description has nothing to do with looks, leather, layers of wood and other upper-crust indulgences. Rather, it's the secure feel of a big car that sets well at highway speeds and can maneuver hard without any flopping and wallowing to cancel a driver's best intentions.

This is a composed, carefully evolved vehicle with an inherent understeer common to front-drive vehicles, but nothing savage.

It would be nice to have a tilt steering wheel in such an expensive car, and $42,635is such an expensive car.

The styling remains a snore.

The front grille stays traditional, all Saab and showing the grace of a transom.

On the other hand, you could see the Griffin as a public prototype; a rolling test vehicle with 400 buyers paying for theprivilege of aiding the research and development of the new and more luxurious generation of Saab.

Pray that its offspring doesn't break the $50,000 barrier.

1992 Saab 9000 CD Turbo Griffin

The Good Big, luxury-car feel. Quality appointments. Fast, sure-footed performer. Roomy trunk and cabin.

The Bad Styled behind the times. Priced above the market.

The Ugly The front grille.

Cost Base: $42,635 As tested: $42,635 (including leather seats, power sunroof, CD changer, portable phone, anti-lock brakes, driver's side air bag, automatic climate control, traction control and kitchen sink in burled walnut).

Engine 2.3-liter, 16-valve, turbocharged in-line four developing 200 horsepower.

Type Front-drive, four-door luxury sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h. as tested, with automatic, 7 seconds. Estimated top speed, 141 m.p.h. Fuel economy, EPA, city-highway, 17 and 24 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,200 pounds.