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SASSY NEW SAAB PACKS PLENTY OF ZIP AND OFFERS IMPECCABLE PERFORMANCE

SHARE SASSY NEW SAAB PACKS PLENTY OF ZIP AND OFFERS IMPECCABLE PERFORMANCE

I've been eager to get my hands on the wheel and my foot on the accelerator of the new 1994 Saab 900. It took a few months, but I'm happy to report that it was worth the wait.

For those of you who are not devotees of the marque, the 900 is the "original" Saab.By that I mean it is not the upscale Saab 9000 series, a competitor to Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti and Cadillac. The Saab 900 is the real article, the one whose heritage derives from that odd, turtle-shaped transport of a couple of decades ago. You know, the one with the ignition switch on the floor.

Ah, yes, now you remember. Maybe your brother-in-law had one of those Saabs. It was covered in decals declaring "U.S. Out of Vietnam!" and "Eugene McCarthy for President." He drove it as little as possible because he thought cars were a blight on the planet and internal combustion a capitalist conspiracy.

The '94 Saab 900, all new except for its monicker, still looks like nothing else on the highway, but this capitalist thinks the "eucalyptus green" five-door hatchback 900 he's been driving this past week is a beautiful piece of machinery.

Past 900s were powered by either a four-cylinder power plant with adequate but uninspiring performance, or the same engine with a turbocharger bolted to it that boosted the output considerably but with the tradeoff of added expense, questionable reliability and the phenomenon known as "turbo lag," a slight delay between the time you ask it to go fast and it complies.

My '94 test car had no such tradeoffs. Although a 2.3-liter, 16-valve four-banger is still the standard motivator for the 900, my test car had Saab's new 2.5-liter V6 with four cams, 24 valves and 170 horsepower.

This is Saab's first attempt at a V6 engine and they hit it dead solid perfect right out of the box. Docile around town or cruising at 55 mph on the freeway, the V6-powered 900 leaps into action like Superman out of a phone booth immediately upon mashing the go-pedal.

I confess I would sometimes do just that, for no reason other than to feel the rush and to hear the lovely LeMans-like song of those four camshafts singing away under the hood.

There aren't many sports cars that deliver as much sport as the new 900, and none of them comfortably seats four adults in a car that has all the style of a true sedan but, by simply dropping the rear 60-40-split seatbacks, converts into a pretty good impersonation of a station wagon - 24 cubic feet of cargo space that doubles to 49.8 cubic feet with the seatback down.

If you are getting that early summer itch that says it's about time to trade in Ol' Betsy, you might want to give the new 900 a look. I hate to claim that any car costing more than $20,000 is a bargain, but in today's marketplace, I believe that, at $26,990 for the SE model, the new V6-powered 900 easily qualifies.

If you can bring yourself to pass on the hot V6 engine, the 900 S model's base price is an even thriftier $20,990, but don't do it. With the V6, 60 mph is only about 7.5 seconds away and top speed is 140 mph. Sure, being a sane, law-abiding citizen you will never actually test that top speed, but it's fun to fantasize that on some lonely night on I-15, out on the Nevada desert . . . .

My test car was an S model but had some of the goodies found on the SE, not the least of which was the V6 engine package, a $2,295 option. It also had the SE's power sunroof ($980) and leather upholstery ($1,195). The automatic transmission ($895) is an option on both the S and SE. The added attractions put the bottom line of my test car at $26,355, only $550 below the SE.

You may recall that General Motors bought 50 percent of Saab Scania in 1990. The 900's new engine is built by GM in England to Saab's specifications. A five-speed manual is standard, but my test car's 4-speed automatic is the way to go for most people.

The auto tranny has a traction-control switch for winter driving (the car starts in second gear to reduce wheel spin) and a "sport" shift mode that holds it in each gear longer for those times when one feels like doing one's impersonation of Emerson Fittipaldi.

Being a fan of Emmo, I preferred the sport mode, but the transmission defaults to "normal" each time the ignition is cut off.

Speaking of the ignition, you will be relieved, as I was, to know that Saab engineers left it where Odin intended: on the floor between the two front seats.

Well, not exactly on the floor, as it was on the old 900s. Because of the new transmission console, the ignition is placed well above floor level, rather easy to reach, actually, which will disappoint true Saab aficionados but which I found quite convenient. Come to think of it, where is it written that the ignition switch must be on the steering wheel column?

The 900's handling is impeccable. Fast is only fun if you feel safe and secure while putting a car through its paces, and the Saab sticks to the road like Crazy Glue. Fit and finish? It felt as well screwed together as any German road machine I've driven lately.

Having said that, I should note that last month, auto research firm J.D. Power and Associates, in its 1994 Initial Quality Survey, reported that Saabs had 180 problems per 100 cars, second to worst after Hyundai. That compares with an industry average of 110 problems per 100 cars and only 54 for the first-place Lexus. One can only hope the new 900 will improve on that performance.

As noted above, on the outside, Saabs don't look like anything else. That goes for the inside as well. The word "unique" is misused a lot, but it might apply to the 900's instrument panel. Happily, unusual doesn't mean bad in this case. Former Saab owners will feel right at home because while it's better in the details, the basic look remains the same.

Especially pleasing is the way the sound system and climate controls are all within easy reach; you don't even have to lean forward to change radio stations or turn down the AC. Its angled design puts the dash closer to the driver than in most cars.

Unusual touch: the Saab has a "blackout" button that, when pushed, cancels all of the dash lights except the clock (which, happily, is analog and separate from the radio display) and the speedometer. This is supposed to be soothing on long night drives. Seems strange to me. Why would they want to encourage people to fall asleep at the wheel?

Idiosyncrasy No. 2: The turn signal on the Saab makes an odd clicking sound like no other car I've ever heard. It's not unpleasant, just unusual.

I like the way Saab has the safety warning flashers and beepers set up in the Saab. If you remove your seat belt for some reason while under way, the Saab doesn't start nagging you. Also, the radio works without the ignition key. I like that. And you can leave the key in the ignition without being buzzed at. I like that, too.

All the cutting-edge safety equipment is on duty in the new Saab. Dual air bags, aircraft-strength, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and a firm suspension system are all standard.

Saabs have always had excellent seats and my test car's were firm and supportive. I didn't use the individual seat heaters in June, of course, but they would be nice to have in January.

The Saab's overall interior ergonomics rival the best of the Japanese and that's high praise. Everything, from the knobs and switches to the shifter and emergency brake, are perfectly placed. Saab has sweated all the details with this car.

Fuel mileage is EPA rated at 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, not overly thrifty but pretty good for a car that offers so much performance and utility.

Saab says the front and rear bumpers are "self-restoring" in that they recover their shape after collisions of up to 5 mph.

The 900 is available as a three-door hatchback. A turbo is also available with the four-cylinder engine and a convertible is on the way.