What I'm Driving At

In an influential book of essays titled Art, the modernist critic Clive Bell declared that the most difficult sort of painting to appreciate is a realistic one. For Bell, writing in the post-impressionist heyday of 1958, art was a matter of emotion, not of accurate depiction: "I have no right to consider anything a work of art to which I cannot react emotionally." The "emotional success" of art depended, in his view, upon Significant Form--shorthand for an ineffable, subjective quality that contrasted with objective, superficial appearance. Nowhere in Bell's provocative yet precieux commentary on the postwar state of the arts is there even a glancing reference to automobiles or to the pastime of driving. Of course. Nevertheless, I couldn't help thinking of his strenuous position regarding Significant Form when SAAB's 9000 CSE sedan arrived recently for an evaluation. With apologies (and a certain deference) to Mr. Bell, I submit that no type of car is more difficult to appreciate fully than an extremely safe one. For that is what all SAABs both purport and are widely judged to be: among the world's safest cars. Since its founding in 1947, the Swedish manufacturer has championed safety engineering above all else, even though this focus has sometimes earned its cars an eccentric reputation. SAABs were among the first front-wheel-drive cars (because that layout is safer on icy Nordic roads), and the automaker has pioneered three-point seat belts, driver and passenger airbags, daytime running lights (DRLs), cute little washer-wipers for the headlights, and anti-lock brakes. Convenient as it is, SAAB's use of automatic, thermostat-controlled heating and air conditioning is motivated by safety considerations: With set-and-forget temperature control, there's one less thing to distract a driver's eyes from the road. Ditto for the stealth-fighter-style "Black Panel" switch for the dash. At night, you can zap out every single readout, gauge, and indicator except a dim display of the speedometer; any warnings or alerts illuminate on a need-to-know basis only. The effect on a dark, lonely stretch of highway is at once eerie and alluring. For a safety engineer, crumple zones provide the sizzle for the steak. Unsuspecting as they may be, the five passengers in a SAAB 9000 ride in an elaborate, extremely rigid cocoon surrounded by "deformable structures." The idea, of course, is that fenders, hoods, and trunks will smush and decelerate even the nastiest blows, leaving the cockpit relatively unscathed. SAAB's literature is nothing short of exuberant about the way its cars can endure 21 different crash tests--11 more than the laws of most nations require. The torture testing is positively procrustean; and in the case of impact simulations using an 860-pound "artificial moose," you'd think it was all a kind of big game--albeit one with profound implications for the real world. In spite of--and, for more than a few people, because of--SAAB's overwhelming reputation for safety, its cars all too often elicit mere yawns of acclaim. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," is a typical refrain; "I know they're safe and all that, but..."--and the ghost of Clive Bell whispers into the speaker's ear--"...I have no right to consider a car to which I cannot react emotionally." But, of course, emotion is where you find it, if you'll only bother to look. As my week with the turbocharged 9000 CSE did attest, SAAB's flagship "big car" sedan can be both spirited and exotic, although in distinctively nontraditional ways. A particularly unexpected appeal is the car's twin personality. By its exterior dimensions and appearance alone, the 9000 ranks among intermediate-size sedans. (Its 105.2-inch wheelbase, for example, is identical to Toyota's Camry.) Open the door and slide behind the wheel, however, and you feel as if you've passed through Alice's looking glass into a sort of, well, lounge on wheels. The cockpit is huge; you're surrounded by airy sweeps of glass that only enhance the sense of space, and you're ensconced in supple and supportive seating worthy of a blue-chip boardroom. For this reason, in fact, the 9000 is assigned to the "Large Car" category by EPA regulators, placing it amongst Lexus LS400s, Cadillac DeVilles, and S-Class Mercedes. As one of just 300 "Anniversary Edition" CSEs imported to the U.S. for SAAB's 50th birthday in 1997, the model I tested featured a few special cosmetics, such as a two-tone leather interior, a sporty wheel-and-tire package, and "Aero" body cladding, including spoiler, side skirts, and front air dam. A lustrous "Amethyst Violet" paint scheme is exclusive to the Anniversary Edition as well. But it's the CSE's "everyday" features that impress as much or more: standard power sunroof, 10-speaker Harmon/Kardon CD stereo, walnut trim, and, best of all, a powerful yet well-mannered engine making 200 horsepower. Marvelous, really, is the ability of a mere four-cylinder to produce this kind of power--enough to muster 0-to-60 acceleration in seven seconds. Intercooled turbocharging is the key--another SAAB specialit--and dreaded "boost delay" is minimal during acceleration. A non-turbo 3.0-liter V6 is an available option, but it's unclear why. The smaller turbo makes 19 percent more torque at roughly half the RPMs--and costs $2,500 less. The car's chief distinguishing--and enticing--feature is certainly not its exterior styling. Handsome as it is in basic outline, the angular 9000 now seems arch-conservative after 11 unaltered years. (In mid-spring '98, a more softly sculpted replacement, the SAAB 9-5, will update the company's big-car lineup.) Instead, I was charmed by the 9000's aviation-style driving position--appropriate enough, considering the aerospace consortium of which SAAB is a part. This, combined with what's best described as a sport-touring feel for ride and handling, means you don't so much drive as pilot the car. The landscape spreads out before and beside you, and the car traces its sweeping trajectory over hill and dale. You're sitting relatively high to the windscreen and back from the wheel, and all vital instruments and controls are within fingertip reach. The experience is engaging in a way that no other car precisely duplicates. It's safe to say, in fact, that flying along in SAAB's 9000 CSE is its own Significant Form of entertainment.

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