- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2001

Saab has always been a gutsy car company.

Way back in the late 1950s and turbulent 1960s, when it struggled to gain a foothold in the United States, it was unique. Though its main model, the 93, sold for a few hundred dollars more than a Volkswagen Beetle, and was similar in size, the resemblance ended there.

Where the Beetle was a rear-drive small car with an air-cooled rear engine, the Saab 93 and rally-oriented Monte Carlo models had front-wheel drive common now but an oddity then.

Moreover, they were powered by a three-cylinder, two-cycle engine that required the owner to dump a quart of non-detergent motor oil into the fuel tank for every fill of gasoline.

Many times, service-station attendants would come running out of their cubicles, shouting at Saab owners to tell them that they shouldn't be pouring motor oil into their tanks.

Other times, the attendants would point and laugh when they saw the snow tires mounted on the front wheels. They were usually met by smug smiles.

The uniqueness of those Saabs didn't end there. The starter was a T-handle under the dash that you pulled to start the car. A window-shade device could be pulled up to block airflow through the grille for faster winter warmups. The radiator was behind the engine.

A three-speed stick shift was mounted on the steering column and you could downshift from third to second without using the clutch because you mostly drove with the free-wheeling engaged.

With free-wheeling, the car coasted when you lifted off the gas pedal. The reason was to allow the engine to idle while you slowed down. That kept it lubricated because the oil was in the gas.

Then as now, Saabs also had a reputation for safety, with a roll-cage construction that could withstand a rollover and doors that were so sturdy a 200-pound man could jump up and sit on the top of an open door without bending anything.

Saabs came from a Swedish company, Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, which started out as an aircraft manufacturer and continues to manufacture Swedish warplanes.

Over its more than 40 years as a fixture in the American automobile market, Saab has continued to produce cars with unique features, though they are becoming fewer as the car business has become increasingly homogenized.

Now, with America's General Motors as the owner of Saab, it may be only a question of time before the average Saab becomes, well, average.

But that hasn't happened yet, as the 2001 Saab 9-5 SE four-door sedan can attest. It still has some unique features for a car in its class, and it still takes a gutsy approach.

Most gutsy is the fact that it sells for more than $40,000 with small four- and six-cylinder engines as its main motivating force. Fortunately for Saab owners, Swedish automakers are still enamored of turbochargers as a relatively simple and economical way to boost power.

The result is that the test 9-5's 3-liter V-6 engine pumps out 200 horsepower. That's not particularly ambitious, given the price tag and the cars against which it competes (Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, BMW, Infiniti, Cadillac, Lexus, Lincoln and Acura), but it's mostly adequate and likely will not deter people who like Saabs.

Though it's no drag racer, the 9-5 is not embarrassed in the stoplight sprints. The four-speed automatic transmission shifts unobtrusively, and there is only a hint of a hesitation off the line as the turbocharger spools up.

The handling and ride are classic European a bit on the stiff side because of a slight bias against softness and in favor of precise steering and cornering.

What the 9-5 showcases is cushy luxury and large-car interior space. The leather-covered front bucket seats are deep, comfortable and supportive. Both have eight-way power adjustments, and the driver's seat also has memory settings.

The back seat is just as comfortable for the two outboard passengers. But as is the case in many cars of all sizes, the center passenger suffers.

At its base price of $39,225, the 9-5 SE comes equipped with traction control and anti-lock brakes, side air bags, the General Motors OnStar communications system, automatic climate control, a power sunroof, burled walnut trim on the dash, heated outside mirrors, remote locking and a security system, front and rear fog lights, a stereo system with CD and tape players, and even a cooled glove box where you can stash a couple of cans of soft drinks on a sunny day.

Aside from the modest power, there are few things to criticize. One is the daytime running lights. Instead of installing separate running lights, the 9-5 simply burns the headlights and taillights all the time. That could get expensive down the road when the pricey bulbs burn out.

And in its final nod to its quirky past, the 9-5, like other Saabs, still mounts the ignition keyhole down on the console instead of up on the dash or the steering column.

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