EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

We cracked up watching Frasier during the week we drove the 1996 Saab 900 SE Turbo five-door hatchback.

“Hatchback,” sneered Niles, Frasier’s effete brother. “Why would they name a car after its worst feature?”

If Niles had been in the 900 SE, he might have had a higher opinion of hatchbacks. This is a new model – a five-door with a turbocharger – and it’s spiced up with lots of luxury features. Besides, what other company besides the Swedish automaker crash tests its products into an 860-pound artificial moose?

He: Call me a sentimental slob, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Saab Turbos, especially the hatchback variety. So why do I feel so ambivalent about this new Saab?

She: Maybe because it’s the only luxury sport sedan in its class that’s a hatchback. Maybe it’s because the ignition switch is not on the steering column, but on the center console. Maybe it’s because the Saab is not a car for people with generic tastes. People who like Twinkies and Toyotas. Like you, dear.

He: I gave up Toyotas for Lent. I feel kind of guilty about this Saab because it has so many great features and yet some days it was a real pain in the butt to drive. The biggest problem is the size of the four-cylinder engine. It’s only two liters, and the car weighs more than 3,000 pounds. So until the turbocharger kicks in at about 2000 rpm, it’s a real slug. Combine that with an extremely grabby clutch, and you’ll find yourself stalling the car embarrassingly often, at least the first few days you drive it.

She: Not only that, when the turbo does kick in, the 900 SE tends to pull to one side, which I know can be a problem with some powerful front-wheel-drive cars. It’s a very disconcerting feeling, especially in a car that seems to have the soul of a Volvo when it comes to safety. The Saab’s got sensible safety features, including daytime running lights, anti-lock brakes – even the headlights have cute little wipers. And the company makes it a point to investigate all Saab-related accidents in Sweden to find out what went wrong. They’ve checked into almost 5,000 since the early 1970s.

He: It’s kind of incongruous, isn’t it? I mean, a really safe car that’s also supposed to be a blast to drive. What I’ve always loved about the Saab turbos is that rush you get when the boost comes on – sort of like a whoosh and a kick in the pants as your head snaps back into the seat.

She: Is that why you have that soft spot?

He: I’m just going to ignore you, as usual. It’s totally unlike the feeling of brute force you get with a big American V-8. On the plus side, the gas mileage is exceptional, thanks to the engine’s small size. The EPA rates the 900 SE Turbo at 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 on the highway.

She: Let me tell you when I got my greatest rush. Not when I floored the accelerator. But when I looked at the suggested retail prices for Saabs and noted that the more pedestrian, non-tur bo 900 three-door costs $6,000 less than the Turbo five-door which lists for $29,695. I think a lot of women would find the plainer version a good compromise. You get the sportiness and quirkiness of a Saab, which can be fun, but you also don’t have to get edgy worrying about the steering stuff that goes along with the Turbo. Let guys with soft spots have their fun, though.

He: You know, now that you mention it, I WOULD rather have the V-6 engine in the 900. It’s got much better low-end torque and a broader power band, both of which seem better suited for driving on U.S. roads. Too bad you can’t get the six on the 900 three-door. It’s only available on the five-door and the convertible.

She: You can make an argument for the V-6 because it’s got standard traction control, but it’s still pretty expensive. The five-door version costs over $31,000 but that also includes an automatic transmission, which is the only way you can get the V-6.

He: Speaking of loads of mone I was really impressed that we managed to squeeze $300 worth of groceries – that’s two big shopping carts full – into the trunk of the 900. I wonder what Niles would say to that?

She: I’m sure the servants do the grocery shopping in his house. But you will feel pretty pampered if you do go for the 900 SE. It’s decked out with a leather interior, a tinted-glass sunroof, a multi-function trip computer and three-spoke alloy wheels.

He: I like the cabin because there’s so much space inside. Did you know, by the way, that the Saab 900 has more headroom in front than a Buick LeSabre? It sure doesn’t look like a Buick either.

She: Not with that metal plate screwed into the front bumper that says “Find Your Own Road.”

He: AWK! I HATE that stupid slogan that looks like it was scrawled by a Barney lover.

She: I think it’s kind of sweet. Combined with the hatchback styling and Saab’s mythological griffin-heraldry badges all over the car, it lets the world know that an eccentric is approaching.

1996 Saab 900 SE Turbo

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger four-door hatchback.

Price: Base, $29,695; as tested, $30,190 (inc. $495 destination charge).

What’s new for ’96: New SE Turbo 5-door model, revised antilock brakes, adjustable lumbar support, leather-wrapped shift knob, reflective rear panel.

Standard equipment: Automatic climate control with anti-dust and pollen filter, power tinted-glass sunroof, 8-way power front seats with driver-side memory, heated front seats, leather upholstery and trim, multi-function computer, power windows, telescopic steering column, cruise control, lighted vanity mirrors, heated power mirrors, tinted glass, center console, AM-FM stereo with cassette, power disc brakes, power locks, headlamp washer/wipers, rear washer/wipers, rear and side defoggers, Michelin radial tires, alloy wheels.

Safety features: Antilock brakes, dual air bags, side-impact door beams, child-proof rear door locks, daytime running lights, anti-theft alarm.

Options on test vehicle: None.

EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway.

Engine: 2.0-liter I-6; 185-hp at 5500 rpm; 194 lb-ft torque at 2100 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Competitors: Acura TL, Audi A4, BMW 325i, Mazda Millenia, Nissan Maxima, Pontiac Bonneville SSE, Toyota Avalon, Volvo 850 Turbo.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 102.4 inches; overall length, 182.6 inches; curb weight, 3060 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: $1,481.

AAA Michigan 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: Trollhat tan, Sweden.

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