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900 COUPE IS MILES APART FROM SEDAN, BUT ITS TURBO HANDLES WELL ON FREEWAY

Those of you who fall into the category of what horror novelist Stephen King terms "Constant Reader" will recall that earlier in the year I evaluated the all new Saab 900, a four-door hatchback with automatic transmission and Saab's first V6 engine.

I was delighted with that automobile and, despite its $27,000 price tag, declared it something of an automotive bargain, a statement that probably angered half of you and made the other half laugh out loud.Sorry, but all these years of driving fancy-schmancy new cars have immunized me against sticker shock. When compared with its semi-upscale peers, the extremely versatile sedan/station wagon/ sports car that is the new Saab 900 easily qualifies as good value.

The 900 is the "original" Saab, not to be confused with the upscale 9000 series. But compared with the 900 sedan I reviewed in June, the 900 coupe I've been driving this week is a horse of a different color. Well, not so different, actually. The 900 SE coupe's "Scarabe Green Metallic" paint was merely a shade darker than the "Eucalyptus Green" 900 sedan I tested in early summer.

But the differences in the two cars are more than skin deep. It is rare to come across two cars with the same name and model designation that are so dissimilar.

The reason is their different drive trains. The four-door sedan I drove in June had Saab's new 2.5-liter V6 with four cams, 24 valves and 170 horsepower, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. This week's coupe was motivated by Saab's veteran 2.0 liter, four-cylinder, 185 horsepower, turbocharged powerplant, linked to a five-speed manual shifter.

The sedan is Dr. Jekyl, smooth, sophisticated, easy to get along with. The coupe is Mr. Hyde, hard-edged, balky, unpredictable, antisocial.

Which do I prefer? It depends on my mood or the driving situation. If I had to choose only one for my daily driver, the V6 sedan would win. It's much easier to live with.

But for those times when I'm feeling frisky and aggressive, such as driving a twisty two-lane back road, or when I need a burst of unexpected power to blow off a kid in a Camaro or a trucker who wants to occupy my piece of the freeway . . . at those times I'd take the five-speed turbo.

Driving the turbo coupe smoothly is not easy. The clutch requires enough effort to give Arnold's left leg a workout and he could pump up those famous biceps wrestling with the heavy steering, especially at low speeds. Even the five-speed manual shifter takes more effort than it should.

Then there is the turbocharged engine; this is not something you master in a quick test drive around the block. Driven "normally," in traffic, the turbo seldom gets spooled up enough to come into play, due to what is called "turbo lag." Driven aggressively, it requires some skill.

From a stop, the four-cylinder doesn't have the grunt to really leap off the line, so you usually trail the pack across the intersection when the light turns green, even when you floor it. Then, when the turbo comes on, the car surges forward like a scalded cat. If you continue to hold the accelerator down and don't immediately shift into second gear, the engine quickly redlines, at which point the automatic rev limiter kicks in and the power is cut off, leaving you looking like someone taking his or her first driving lesson.

With practice, you get better at this, but the fact remains that the turbo does its best work after you get up to speed, in situations where you can anticipate a need for a power surge, such as in passing or merging onto the freeway.

Incidentally, with the manual transmission you must put the shifter in reverse before you can take the key out of the ignition, a fact that has probably driven a lot of people crazy who didn't know the secret. Which brings up the location of said ignition: It's on the floor between the seats. This quaint oddity is a "tradition" with Saab.

That's the thing about Saabs, especially the 900, (the 9000 series has its ignition key in the conventional place on the steering column), their quirks have evolved into a sort of automobile counterculture that goes back to 1949 when the Saab 92 debuted and immediately found a place in the hearts of people who really didn't like cars but needed some way to get around. The strange, turtle-shaped vehicle from Sweden fit the bill: It was transportation that protested everything that Detroit stood for.

So, unlike most auto siblings in which the only difference between the sedan version and the coupe version is that the latter is missing a couple of doors, the two Saab 900s have very distinct personalities.

For the record, Saab calls its two-door coupe a three-door, counting the hatch-back trunk as a door. Completing that logic, the sedan is a five-door.

I admit, I am prejudiced in favor of four doors for any car that has a back seat. People riding in back should have their own escape hatch and they should not have to perform gymnastic feats to get in and out. Having said that, I will concede that entry and egress from the 900 coupe is about as easy as it gets for a coupe and, once ensconced, it is sufficiently roomy and comfy for two adults or three kids.

With both the sedan and coupe, the 900's trunk is a truly cavernous affair of 24 cubic feet with the parcel shelf removed and a van-like 49.8 cubic feet with the rear seat backrest flopped forward. The back doors of the sedan make that cargo space even more accessible.

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.

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 adjust the automatic climate control. Its angled design puts the dash closer to the driver than in most cars.

Unusual touch: The Saab has a "blackout" button that 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.

Unusual touch 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.

Unusual touch 3: You cannot unlock the car from the passenger's side door, as courtesy dictates when you want to let your passenger in first. You have to leave him or her there and walk around to the driver's side.

Base price of my test car 900 SE Turbo was $27,280. It comes with all the usual luxo/convenience goodies, including wonderful leather seats, sunroof, stereo cassette, ABS, even seat heaters, a welcome addition in January while you're waiting for the heater to warm up. Only a CD changer is optional. With a $460 destination charge, bottom line for my test car was $27,740.

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 for the coupe is EPA rated at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, pretty impressive for a car that offers so much performance and utility. The fuel tanks holds a generous 18 gallons so you can count on getting nearly 500 miles on a tank if you stick to the freeways, keep it in 5th gear most of the time and enjoy living on the edge.