EXPERT REVIEW

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First gear was a beauty, which was unusual. Many cars in first are jerky, impatient. There is a rush to shift in search of a sweeter spot. But the 2000 Saab 9-3 Viggen sedan was different.

First gear was patient, elastic. There was a pleasant tension. Indeed, there was a temptation to stay there. But the right hand, seemingly with a will of its own, shifted to second as the left foot pushed the clutch. Whoosh!

There are moments of motorized epiphany when you know you’re behind the wheel of something special. This was such a moment.

By the time I was in fourth, I was all smiles. Unbelievable! The car’s torque band was so wide and smooth, it moved from low to high gears without the slightest hint of stress or exhaustion.

Fifth gear was flying, though I remained roadbound and well within the median speed along Interstate 66. I didn’t touch the sound system’s power button. I listened to better music, the muted hum of the 9-3 Viggen’s turbocharged, 230-horsepower four-cylinder engine; the occasional whine of the turbocharger drawing in more air to get a better air-fuel mix and power boost; the rhythmic tire-slap noises of the 9-3 Viggen’s 17-inch-diameter high-performance Dunlop rubber crossing evenly spaced highway joints.

I thought about how different this car was from the recently tested 2000 Pontiac Bonneville SSEi. Both are General Motors Corp. products. (GM owns Saab’s passenger-car business).

Both the 9-3 Viggen and the Bonneville SSEi have jet-fighter interiors. But the Viggen’s cockpit is more adult, better designed and more believable, probably because Saab actually makes jet fighters. The Viggen car is named after Saab’s JA37 Viggen military jet.

The SSEi has a tad more power — 240 horses served up by a supercharged, 3-8-liter V-6 — and its seats are more comfortable.

But the 9-3 Viggen is more exciting, more fun. What it lacks in comfort, it offers in adrenaline — more than enough to keep you alert and awake on long runs.

Then comes the matter of torque — in its simplest terms, the force that acts to produce rotation in automobiles, often expressed in pound-feet. The Viggen’s engine develops 258 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 engine rotations per minute. The SSEi’s engine develops 280 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm.

In the Viggen, however, relatively more torque is available earlier in the rpm cycle, and it is on tap longer as the car moves through the gears. The SSEi also is impressive in this regard. But the Viggen is discernibly smoother.

But things fall apart for the Viggen where the SSEi excels. This is on lousy roads, such as the rutted embarrassments that suffice as thoroughfares in much of the District of Columbia.

The front-wheel-drive Viggen sedan is built primarily for performance. It runs on stiffer springs and narrower (tread to rim) tires that offer superior hand ling on well-maintained roads. But that system dishes out jarring punishment on less-than-perfect streets.

By comparison, the SSEi swallows the lumps and bumps of the District’s streets. The ride is more forgiving and civil under such circumstances.

Still, I’d take the 9-3 Viggen and stick to better roads. What can I say? I’m a sucker for whoosh.

Nuts & Bolts

2000 Saab 9-3 Viggen Sedan Complaints: The 9-3 Viggen offers a no-compromise ride. The car is built more for performance than for comfort. If your driving is restricted to urban areas with poorly maintained streets, you should consider another car.

Praise: The Viggen offers no-compromise ride, handling and performance. If you want a car that raises driving to art, if you’re the type who doesn’t mind searching for the perfect road just for the sheer pleasure of keeping company with its curves and undulations, you want the 9-3 Viggen.

Head-turning qu otient: The Saab 9-3 line, including the Viggen, descends from the old Saab 900 series. The new cars, despite some exterior refinements, look just as quirky as their predecessors.

Capacities: The 9-3 Viggen sedan seats five people. Cargo capacity is a rather generous 21 cubic feet. Fuel capacity is 16.9 gallons; premium unleaded gasoline is recommended.

Mileage: About 26 miles per gallon on the highway — impressive, considering the Viggen’s overall handling and performance.

Brakes: Four-wheel power discs with standard anti-lock backup.

Price: Base price is $37,995. Dealer invoice price on base model is $34,575. Price as tested is $40,638, including a $575 destination charge and average sales taxes and fees of $2,068.

Purse-strings note: A wonderful toy, of which only 1,000 will be on sale in the United States this year. You want a bargain? Buy a Bonneville SSEi. Also, compare with the BMW 3-Series and the Volvo 70-series.

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