The Morning Call and's view

Saab lovers have always been a breed apart. They like the oddball Swedishflavor for which Saab has been famous.

So there was some trembling when big ol’ GM gobbled up half of Saab’sautomotive division. Would Saab survive with its uniqueness intact? Or wouldSaabs start sporting stand-up hood ornaments and twilight sentinels?

It scared some loyalists when the new 900 arrived on an Opel platform withan optional V-6 engine in S and SE trim levels, three- or five-door. (Opel isGerman for GM of Europe). But Opel is one of Europe’s best automakers. So, ifyou look closely under the hood, you’ll find GM parts with the name Saabplastered over it.

However, there’s one part that truly makes this car a Saab: its 2.0-literturbocharged four-cylinder engine.

This potent little mill grinds out 185 horses at 5,500 rpm and 194foot-pounds of torque at a low 2,200 rpm. This four-valves-per-cylinder powerplant features an intercooled turbocharger and direct ignition. What all thismeans is that this engine has no turbo lag. Its bite off the line is virtuallyinstantaneous. Faster than you can say “Sorry officer,” you’ll be doingtriple-digit speeds.

You won’t have to worry that the car can’t take it, either. Thisfront-wheel driver includes a rear spoiler, lowered sports suspension and16-inch Michelin Z-rated tires (meant for sustained speeds of more than 149mph). The steering is quick, precise and loaded with enough feel to let youknow what’s going on.

The handling is typical for a fine European sports sedan — a tight ridewith little body lean and a neutral feel that belies its front-drive powertrain. Torque steer is well-managed, showing up only when you load theaccelerator in mid-corner. You’ll feel the bumps, but the shock is easilyabsorbed.

A five-speed manual is standard, a four-speed automatic optional. The testcar featured the latter, which has three modes: normal, sport and winter.These modes adjust the shift points depending on your mood. The sport modehustles along a bit faster than normal. The winter mode starts out in third,so you’ll move “bog slow” in sloppy weather. You’ll need it — the Z-ratedtires are not very adept in snow. But you knew that.

Saab has long been known for its safety. It boasts dual air bags andanti-lock brakes. The steel safety cage and crumple zones are all standard.But Saab goes a step further in its safety tests than most automakers. Itseems that too many moose and deer wander onto the highway up in Scandinavia,where Saabs are built. So they crash test their cars into an 860-poundartificial moose made of heavy electrical cables.

That offbeat approach to automaking permeates this car.

Look for the ignition switch. You won’t find it on the dash. It’s betweenthe seats. When you turn off the car, it literally locks the transmission.

Light from the instrument panel bothering you? Hit the button labeled”black panel.” It shuts off all gauges, save the speed ometer. Other minorcontrols are still lighted, but most turn off. An innovation from Saab’sairplane division, it allows you to concentrate on driving and is a wonderfulfeature. If a particular gauge warrants your attention, the light will go onfor that particular gauge.

Wonder what the weather will be like? Hit “WB” on the standard 160-watt AM/FM cassette and you’ll find the weatherband radio built in. Neat.

Other amenities include the usual array of power conveniences you’d expectin this class of car. Power windows, locks, mirrors are included. The steeringwheel telescopes but does not tilt. The seats are chair height and supportive.A six-hour drive without any fatigue or backache is possible. There’s noadjustable lumbar, but none is needed. The leather seats are heated and smellsinfully rich. Back-seat space isn’t so plentiful as it once was, and headroomcan be tight with the power moonroof. But the seats are just as supportive inback as they are in front. Built-i n child safety seats are an option.

The automatic climate control worked well, although the settings have to bereset each time the car is started. The trip computer is also convenient touse.

Speaking of convenience, this car hauls in more ways than just speed. Tothose of you who think the tortoise-like look of this car is ugly: The beautyis that it allows this car to haul 49.8 cubic feet of stuff.

Not very convenient were the cup holders. It’s best not to drink in thiscar. But then, you’ll have too much fun driving it.

As you can gather by now, this turbocharged leather-lined hatchback is forthose who like the road less traveled. Only there can you delight to thewonderful sound of the Saab’s turbo spooling up as you carve through a corner.

There are few cars that are as much fun to drive as this one. And that issomething unusual.

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