What I'm Driving At: Flight of Fancy

My favorite Saab is a nighttime Saab. If it's dark out, you can flick an innocuous little button labeled "Night Panel" on the dash of the new 9-5 sedan, and all the auxiliary instrument needles seem to drop with a sigh while every idiot light fades to black. Only the speedometer remains visible, illuminated by an adjustable, spectral glow of fiber optics. Should any other matter require your attention, the appropriate readout gently reappears.Out on a dark, lonely stretch of back road, you're apt to feel like a fighter pilot guided by laser-like headlights, serenaded by the faint sibilance of the intercooled turbocharger. It's a flying, soaring experience -- and an entirely selfish one. Your consciousness hardens upon itself into a kernel of concentration. You are quite literally venturing solo into a tunnel of darkness in pursuit of the seldom seen.There are, in fact, many ways to interpret the experience. Saab, offshoot of the Swedish maker of war jets and passenger planes, is perhaps North America's best-known minuscule auto brand. In all of '97, the company sold only 5,375 of its flagship 9000 models throughout the entire U.S. This car's replacement craft, the 9-5, leap-frogged over '98 to touch down as a '99 model. Industry savants and Saab devotees alike admit that the 9-5 is a make-or-break car for the company. Seldom seen must no longer be the predictable summary of annual sales results. General Motors, which now owns 50 percent of the car company, will not stand for it and is displaying uncharacteristic vigor to whip Saab back into shape. As if on cue, Saab sales for the first four months of '98 are up almost 10 percent.Nevertheless, there are many other facets of the Saab driving experience that steadfastly remain seldom seen -- in other vehicles at least. The obvious one, which everybody loves to gush over, is the ignition-key-in-the-center-console setup. Over the decades, this eminently practical arrangement has become the lightning rod that attracts every charge of unorthodoxy regarding Saab's "quirky character." Actually, it's a fairly bright and obvious idea: The key lives next to the shifter and the parking brake. Moreover, it lives quite far away from your right knee in the unfortunate event of a crash.There is also Saab's innovative "Active Head Restraint" system for the front seats. Complementing standard front and side airbags, this unique feature combats whiplash by surging forward upon impact to cradle the head on its way backward. Then there are the ventilated front seats, which employ fans and intricate, capillary-like ductwork to draw heat away from occupants stymied in traffic under a blazing sun. This system requires optional leather seats and so, unfortunately, was not included in the velour-upholstered model I drove for evaluation. Ironically, the optional front- and rear-seat heaters were included -- just in time for Memorial Day.Saab, indeed, seems to revel in the eccentric and offbeat. In some instances, this is quite literally true; consider the "aspherical" right-side wing mirror, which uses two convex surfaces (instead of just one) to increase the field of view by 30 percent. Buyers who opt for the optional V6 powerplant, moreover, will find that the world's first "asymmetrical" turbocharger makes 200 horsepower by exploiting exhaust gases from only one side of the engine to provide turbo-boost to both sides. The result is a lighter, simpler engine that delivers a better power-to-weight ratio without penalizing torque or fuel economy.Turbochargers represent a virtual trademark for Saab, in fact, and for '99, every 9-5 sedan wears one. Although my tester came equipped with the base four-cylinder instead of the V6, it displayed a lively and attentive personality. It was unblemished by the dreaded turbo-lag, which gives lesser designs a semblance of nodding off in class. Actually, it represents quite an accomplishment that a mere 2.3-liter motor can enliven such a large sedan. The 9-5 weighs 3,500 lbs., and its 99 cubic feet of interior volume exceeds all obvious competitors, including BMW's 5-series, Mercedes' E-Class, Audi's A6, and the Volvo S70. Still, this 170-horsepower Saab jets along at a much-more-than-respectable 8.1 seconds zero-to-60.The car's aeronautical attributes are more than metaphorical. An all-electronic, "drive-by-wire" accelerator right out of Top Gun guarantees instant throttle response. This, combined with a redesigned suspension that mixes front struts with rear multi-links, gives the 9-5 superb handling feel. The car's wide track and firm springing minimize body roll; but the way the suspension articulates over variations in road surface renders ride quality supple rather than harsh. Starting from scratch, Saab's engineers have conceived an aficionado's sedan that is able and willing to sport about all the livelong day -- say, from 9 to 5, if necessary.Considering the 9-5's fresh, new design, I can't help but regret that its exterior makeover is insufficiently dramatic. The discerning eye will detect sleeker aerodynamics and a slightly more squat and aggressive stance than the 9000 it replaces. But the new car still looks well-combed and buttoned-down when a little more mischief -- a suggestive stylistic taunt here and there -- might have better favored the car's spirited mechanicals.The 9-5 is based on the same platform from GM of Europe that undergirds the Opel Vectra. Coincidentally (or not), Saab USA's new president, Joel Manby, hails from a previous port-of-call at Saturn, whose own imminent midsize offering, code-named the Saturn Innovate, derives from Opel as well. Manby has suggested in the trade publication Automotive News that Saab "needs dealers and owners who are enthused about the product." If this connotes a marketing campaign of cultishness akin to Saturn's, Saab might want to think again. Among true enthusiasts, quirks trump cults any day.Any doubts about the matter are dispelled in a night flight behind the wheel of a Saab 9-5. Nestled into the eerily authentic fighter-style cockpit, bathed in the wan light of the car's "Night Panel," the driver speeds through the darkness. Everything commonplace becomes vaguely mysterious, until quirks seldom seen dawn into familiarity.

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