It is normally my habit, when cars display hardly a drop of sporting blood in their veins, to hate them passionately. Much to my surprise is it then that I rather like this Saab. I suspect the engineer in me is calling this shot, and he can't help but respect, even like, such an effective tool for the job at hand. That job, of course, is moving a lot of people and stuff to somewhere far away--quickly, safely and in silent comfort.
This car is an amazing high-speed tourer. The only real way to tell the difference between 70 mph and 95 mph is by checking the speedometer. Since L.A. traffic flow can vary from 60 mph to 85 mph, it is of little help. What engine noise makes its way into the cabin provides little indication of speed or load and, with the windows up, there is no noticeable wind noise at any speed I have experienced. Aero, indeed.
Some of my colleagues at a magazine across town frequently praise the all-around coolness of big, domestically built station wagons of the 1960s, citing their unparalleled comfort and practicality. As in many areas of car appreciation, those guys don't know what they're missing. This sexy Swede has all that, but with all the modernity of big, bad, 12.1-in. front disc brakes, Swedish safety, a factory Harmon Kardon stereo, and a reliable, low-emissions, turbocharged torquemonster under the hood. Plus, it is reasonably fuel-efficient. Les Bidrawn got 29 mpg cross-country; my last tank came up at 21 mpg in around-town and heavy-footed freeway driving.
As a wagon, this one delivers. It can comfortably haul four 6-plus-footers, plus all their accessories. The sliding rear cargo floor is rated for a decidedly non-sissified 440 lb. Consider this for perspective: If your Ford 302 V8 has aluminum heads, you're golden. We haven't used the Saab to haul any engines yet, but someone took the bike rack off the roof, and we can still fit two or three mountain bikes in the back, giving resident SUV-haters a reload.
Rear visibility is good, though I am always aware of how much car is really back there, following me around. The ready torque of the high-output turbo makes acceleration lively, and the minimal turbo lag is not noticed when coupled to the inherent softness of the automatic transmission's delivery. To Saab's great credit, its own Trionic engine management controls throttle and boost pressure with utter transparency. I have observed none of the overshoot behavior that many drivers find irritating in Volkswagen's and Audi's tuning of Bosch's Motronic system.
The seats are big and soft. One editor described them as "all-day-comfortable." They could be likened to an 85-mph sofa, just the thing for crossing eight states. I note, however, that one doesn't often go around turns quickly on a couch, and when cornering enthusiastically, occupants often feel they are about to slide off the flat, smooth leather cushions.
This car's suitability for going straight is evident in other ways, perhaps emphasizing its spiritual ties to those "Wonder Years" conveyances. Though the ultimate cornering limits are suspiciously high, putting it around an on-ramp enthusiastically causes steering feel to decrease, rather than increase as in the best manual-rack cars. Perhaps, though, this is also related to torque steer (with 243 lb-ft of torque on tap) being completely manageable.
The Saab fits into that broad category our resident suspension geeks refer to as "bump-stop cars," a troublingly large group that also happens to include ec's long-term Volvo S60 sedan. Bump-stop cars universally have soft springs, and their dampers are generally tuned with inadequate compression, controlling body oscillations with more rebound damping. This serves to soften the harshness of impacts such as potholes, and I imagine it may work well in Michigan and places with similar road conditions. However, it also makes turn-in soft and slowish, while hard cornering uses up travel on the outside. When a large bump is encountered under cornering, the long-travel bump stop, which has an effective spring rate much higher than the damper is able to control effectively, is engaged, resulting in uncontrolled oscillation.
This (admitted) diatribe, however, is just about suspension tuning, an area of modification that shouldn't trouble any regular reader of european car. It is only fair to note that many otherwise fine cars can be improved considerably in this area. Yes, my wrench hand does tend to twitch uncontrollably when I get around stock machinery.
I have one other complaint, and that is of cost cutting being evident in nearly every piece of injection-molded plastic trim. Starting with the outside door handles, parting lines are glaringly obvious to both eye and hand. Notable interior culprits include the door-lock buttons and in-dash vent grille detailing. While this level of fit and finish, surpassed by many Japanese compacts, might be tolerable to me at the $34,695 base price of an entry-level 9-5 Wagon 2.3t, the Monroni I found in the glovebox of our fully-and-then-some-loaded 9-5 Aero Wagon has a bottom line of $46,285. An extra $100 or $200 spread around the interior on the production line should bring it up to the level that price suggests, and I suspect the same investment would only encourage many buyers of the more basic models. As Ford is blamed for cheapening the interior of Jaguar's S-Type, GM may be guilty of diminishing Saab's.
At the end of the day, the real question is, which car do you want to take home? For me, home is at the end of a four-lane, more or less straight freeway from the office to the beach, 35 miles west. And back. Just like yesterday and tomorrow. Yesterday, for that matter, was illustrative. At 5:00 p.m., the keys to both the Saab and the Boxster S were in my hand. I wanted to ride my bike today, so the other guy drove the Porsche home. Throw a big pile of points on the board for cargo volume.