As we were arguing about the merits and flaws of the 1997 Saab 900 SE Turbo, a skinny guy wearing bright olive oversized glasses pulled up next to us in a green 1995 Saab 900 five-door. With "for sale" signs hung up in the windows.

Thinking Anita (not a Saab loyalist) would win this time, we jumped out and had a word with him. Oh, no, he said. He loved the Swedish-made Saab. He just was trading up to a Porsche, a vintage 911. And he often had to wrestle the keys to the Saab out of his wife's hand - in fact, she'd put 28,000 miles on it herself, often spurning her minivan for the peppier ride and personality of the hatchback.

Paul (the Saab lover) felt vindicated. But then, it's often hard for him to get the last word.

She: You have to be quirky and eccentric to love the Saab, especially the three-door hatchback that we drove. After all, how many cars come with offbeat little touches, like an ignition switch between the front seats? But that's what you get with the 900. People who are crazy about Saabs say that's what gives the car character. But I find the whole package off-putting, not off-beat. The ride is harsh and the interior is even harsher. It's got a very black and brooding cabin that has a real post-industrial look. Unless you get into those little rubber mats with the raised bumps in your coin holders.

He: I think someone needs to raise some bumps on your noggin. What's not to like about the Saab? The 900 has always been one of my favorite cars, even the latest model which shares a lot of its underpinnings with the Opel Vectra. I love the 900 because it's so idiosyncratic. There are an awful lot of pretenders and would-be competitors, but the truth is there's really nothing like it on the market here in North America. And it's just a blast to drive.

She: Not if you can't get comfortable. Yes, the power front seats adjust eight ways, but by the time I got the seat forward enough to reach the pedals, my knee was driven right into the bolster under the instrument panel. I tried to tilt the steering wheel so I could see the dials a bit better, but it only telescopes forward a notch, not up and down. I grabbed for my coffee in the cupholder located to the rear of the console and couldn't reach it. Settling for checking my lipstick instead, I flipped the visor down. Talk about quirky. It doesn't automatically light up. There's a little switch above it. So it takes two motions. And that's before I even put the car in gear!

He: Guess what? That also takes two motions - you push in the clutch pedal, shift into gear, let out the clutch and give it some gas. Oh, I guess that's four motions. So that probably makes you twice as crazy, right? I hate to poop on your parade, but aren't you kind of missing the whole point of this car? It's to
drive, not to put your goofy lipstick on. That's what the turbo is all about. And the great suspension. This car has personality in spades, and I could care l ess if the cupholder is a little clumsy or the seat belt is a little difficult to reach. All that minor stuff fades when the turbocharger kicks in.

She: OK, wiseguy, you want to talk nuts and bolts? So I found the turbo to be rather sluggish at low rpm. And the suspension will jar your teeth if the pavement is just a little rough. And if you want to talk about styling, I think that a hatchback - any hatchback - is just about the ugliest thing on the road.

He: You're right about the turbo lag. But let's talk about the chassis for a minute. We drove the Sport Edition, which has a specially tuned suspension and low-profile Z-rated tires. The chassis is fitted with gas-pressurized shocks, which help smooth out some of the bumps, and front and rear stabilizer bars, which keeps body roll to a minimum when you're doing your best Mario Andretti impression. The low-profile tires don't help the impact harshness much, but they provide excellent grip. And the four-wheel power disc b es with antilock will pull you down quickly from speed in most conditions. As for the crack about hatchbacks, well, heck, you're a girl, what do you know anyway?

She: I feel like I'm back in the 1950s and you're Ralph Kramden. Come to think of it, he was better looking. So was his bus. But the Saab is rather bus-like if you're looking for a spacious coupe. Saab insists that it's a five-passenger car, but I wouldn't put more than two people in the back seat, even though it is roomy. But the trunk has nearly twice the room of a Taurus sedan. It just seems to go on forever. This is really a mid-size car. Considering its size and performance, the fuel economy is outstanding at 27 mpg on the highway. I just feel so much more comfortable in the Volvo C70 coupe, which goes on sale this summer, or Acura CL. Both tend to be more luxury-oriented vehicles, though. The 900 SE turns its nose up at that stuff.

He: I wouldn't say that because it's loaded with equipment. For $30,000, you get scads of stuff - air conditioning, a fancy stereo, and full power accessories. But the 900 SE doesn't pretend to be a luxury car. It's for people who crave performance.

She: You mean guys don't you? And wouldn't it be just like a guy to have performance-related car anxiety?

1997 Saab 900 SE turbo coupe

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger coupe.

Price: Base, $29,995; as tested, $30,520 (inc. $525 destination charge).

What's new for '97: Bigger brake discs and calipers, revised gear shift mechanism, redesigned front seats, front seat storage pockets, redesigned rear fog lights, redesigned "Viking Aero" three-spoke wheels.

Standard equipment: Power glass sunroof, air conditioning with dust and pollen filter, eight-way power front seats with driver's side memory, heated and reclining front seats, leather seat surfaces, steering wheel, shift knob and boot cover, power windows, telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, front and rear floor mats, illuminated vanity mirrors, power and heated rearview mirrors, tinted glass, center storage console, coin and cupholders, two-position fold-down rear seat, pass through to trunk, cargo area light and tool kit, AM/FM stereo, cassette, weatherband with eight speakers and CD ready, rear window washer and wiper, power central locking, front fog lights and rear fog light, rear side and rear window electric demister.

Safety features: Daytime running lights, dual front air bags, antilock brakes, front seat belt pre-tensioners, lockable seat belts for child seats, antitheft alarm with deadbolt and remote.

Options on test vehicle: None.

EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway.

Engine: 2.0-liter four cylinder; 185-hp at 5,500 rpm; 194 lb-ft torque at 2,100 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Competitors: Buick Riviera, Acura CL, Honda Prelude, Mitsubishi 3000GT, Volvo C70, Toyota Supra.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 10 2.4 inches; overall length, 182.6 inches; curb weight, 3,020 pounds; legroom, 42.3 inches front/34.1 inches rear; headroom, 39.3 inches front/37.8 inches rear; shoulder room, 52.4 inches front/52.6 inches rear.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,639. Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Trollhattan, Sweden.