When it comes to writing about Saabs, I feel obliged to write what everyone else has written about Saabs: they're different.

In this age of automotive brand managers, where former Pampers pushers are trying to sell you the latest in automotive blandness by saying "It's different," Saabs really are different.

Certainly that's true of the automakers top level offering, the 9-5.

Few cars are designed by aircraft manufacturers, and it's influence has always been strong in Saab's cars. The exterior of the 9-5 looks much like that of the notchback 9000, which the 9-5 replaces. But the 9-5 is more aerodynamic with a co-efficient of drag of just 0.29. This means that the engine doesn't have to work as hard to push the sedan down the road. It also means no wind noise.

But that's not so unusual. It was that way when Saab started. But other eccentricities show up. The most famous is the ignition switch, located between the front bucket seats. It allows the driver to start the car, lock the doors and release the hand brake in one, efficient motion. It's also a location that the longtime Saabophiles hold close to their heart.

Look elsewhere inside. There's a small console just above the rearview mirror. Just as in an airplane, the "fasten seatbelts:` light comes on, just next to a light that swivels. There's a button labeled "night panel" on the cockpit-like dash. It kills all dashboard lighting except the speedometer at night, lighting other instruments on a need-to-know basis only. Taken from Saab's aircraft, this idea helps the driver concentrate at night. Once you use it, you'll miss it on other cars. Finally, there's the air-conditioned seats. This idea comes from premium trucks, buses and construction equipment where driver alertness is considered important. A small, flat three-speed electric fan in each front bucket seat pulls air through the perforated leather seats. The result is a nice cool seat. It's an industry first.

The glove box is refrigerated, keeping items chilled down to 45 degrees.

See? Different.

Under the Saab's clamshell hood lies one of two turbo-charged engines. The base engine is a 2.3-liter twin-cam, light pressure turbo four-cylinder, producing 170 horsepower. This is a holdover from the old 9000 model and was fitted to the test car.

Also available is a 3-liter turbo-charged V6, good for 200 horsepower. Techies will note that this engine is an asymmetrical turbo -- another first for Saab. It mounts the turbo on the front bank of cylinders only, using only the exhaust gases from three of the six cylinders. This allows engineers to make the whole system more efficient, boosting torque by 15 percent while increasing fuel economy at the same time.

But the old 9000 engine proved to be a fine power-plant. There's little to no turbo lag, and power comes on strong and smooth. The engine is quiet enough, but emits enough noise to let you know when it's time to tango. The power on tap comes wit h good fuel economy, in this case 22.3 mpg.

No matter which engine one chooses, a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic is available. The automatic has three modes: normal (which always goes for the highest gear and best fuel economy), sport (geared to increased responsiveness) and winter (after the ice storms of January you know what this one is for).

Of course, unlike that other Swedish automaker, Saabs have always been front-wheel-drive. This means that Saab is expert at balancing a sport-driving experience with the demands of foul-weather traction. Unlike some previous Saabs, this one had tires that did a fine job of balancing both demands.

Road noise was a bit higher than some Asian competitors, but I'll gladly trade this for the extra character this car provides.

Braking is progressive, with good modulation from the four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. Other safety features include three-point belts for all passengers, front and side airbags, re ar headrests and the world's first active head restraint. A plate in the backrest measures the force with which the driver is forced against it. At speeds above 10 mph, the headrest will move up and forward in a collision to prevent whiplash. The system was developed by Saab and GM's Delphi Interior & Lighting Systems Division.

So the car is safe and drives well, but is it comfortable? Of course.

The chair-high seats are firm and supportive. The cabin has a lot of storage spots, including pockets on the front of the front bucket seats. The dash and console are decorated in wood. The ignition is just in front of the handbrake. A multifunction computer resides in a stack just above the climate control and the audio system.

The automatic climate control is also unconventional. It roasts you, unless you intervene manually. It also needs to be reset every time you start the car. Ugh.

The Harman/Kardon stereo is also unconventional, with an amazing ability to pull in distant stations. This is unmatched by almost any other audio system I have tried. In New York City, I was able to pull in Philadelphia stations clearly. But its signal power was superior to the overall sound which was good, but not exceptional. It includes a weatherband radio, which is very convenient.

In the entry-level luxury league, there's an overwhelming sensation of sameness. While this box may seem bland on the outside, its Saab-ness shines through. If you've never tried a Saab, the new 9-5 is the most normal one ever produced, yet its character remains its strong suit.

It's different.

1999 Saab 9-5 SE Engine: 2.3-liter 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder Transmissions: five-speed manual or four-speed automatic Tires: 215/55VR-16 Standard: Power anti-lock disc brakes, front and side air-bags alloy wheels, active head restraints, anti-theft alarm with remote, power locks, headlamp washer/wipers, front and rear fog lamps, power sunroof, power windows, dual automatic climate control, night panel, leather-seating surfaces and steering wheel, cruise control, burled-walnut dash, floor mats, cargo-area light and tool kit, Harman/Kardon audio system with weather band, refrigerated glove box. Options: Automatic transmission, front and rear heated seats, front ventilated seats. Base price, base model:$29,995 Base price, test model $33,495 As tested: $36,605