Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene H.O.T. is Cool

Saab's performance image takes off with new 9-5 Aero

By Marc K. Stengel

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  At a Miami Auto Show chock full of exotic concept cars and exotic sporters, Saab took the rather unusual step of introducing to the world a new-for-2000 flagship sedan whose savvy sophistication isn't always visible to the naked eye.

When Saab USA boss Dan Chasins lifted the veil off the new 9-5 Aero three weeks ago, the assembled automotive media spied a slipstream-tailored sports sedan with trick BBS wheels and tasteful body skirts that didn't, however, appear vastly different from Saab's existing variants of the 9-5. But it would be a big mistake to dismiss the new Aero as a mere cosmetic makeover. In typically laconic Swedish fashion, this new sedan manages to harbor beneath its demure--some even say staid--personality a performance package that fairly brims with unsuspected potential.

The 9-5 Aero is, literally, H.O.T. A marvel of smarty-pants engineering, the Aero's minuscule 2.3-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine employs proprietary "High-Output Turbo" technology to achieve a brain-boggling 100 horsepower per liter. What's more, these 230 horses are hard-charging Clydesdales, capable of lunging torque output reaching 258 ft.-lbs. The real beauty of the powertrain is a powerband as broad and flat as the great High Plains: High torque is sustained all the way from 1,900 rpm to its peak at 3,800 rpm (4,600 rpm with the automatic transmission). So pulling from a stop, passing in traffic, downshifting in the twisties--all these maneuvers take on added sizzle and verve thanks to Saab's brainy combination of computerized turbo-pressure control and direct-inject Trionic 7 fuel delivery.

You don't have to be a techie gear-head to appreciate the Aero's clever jewel of powertrain. Still, there's no denying the smug satisfaction that comes from driving a generously sized sedan, weighing in at over 3,300 lbs. yet capable of genuinely V8-level performance from a truly pint-sized motor. Excellent mileage figures of 20 mpg/city and 28/hwy. may exemplify the prudent advantages of such a car, but who won't also exult in the responsive acceleration and nimble handling that this powerful, lightweight engine affords?

Saab's 9-5 sedan has another advantage that lurks beneath the surface. The fundamental structural engineering of the chassis and cabin is innovative, complicated, nerdy--and safe. It is with a genuine glee not countenanced by other manufacturers that Saab representatives extol the crash-worthiness of their cars. "Go 'head...we dare ya," they seem to say.

A safety expos is usually the most animated portion of a Saab press conference, and the Aero's debut was no exception. Spokesman Kevin Smith regaled journalists with explanations of the 9-5's horseshoe-shaped "triple load paths," front and rear, which channel and dissipate collision energy away from occupants. Similarly clever is Saab's conception of "pendulum" door posts. In the event of significant side impact, these especially rigid pillars are designed not to crush and intrude into the cabin, but instead to hinge at top and break away at bottom. This action helps maintain a cage structure for occupants even while "venting" impact energy downward and away from the cabin. Forward and dual-stage side airbags are standard for front occupants, as are Saab's proprietary "active" head restraints for whiplash protection up front.

To confirm further the Aero's rep as techie-car par excellence, Saab has incorporated OnStar telecommunications as an option for the first time in 2000. This technology, managed by a freestanding division of General Motors, may well represent the most exciting vision of this corporation's future. The problem for now, as OnStar representative Todd Carstensen readily admits, is communicating the revolutionary potential of this "paradigm shifter" to a motoring public that still thinks "inside the box." If anybody will get it, Carstensen's thinking goes, it'll be Saab owners, whose very choice in clever cars marks them as "early adopters" of unorthodox technologies.

For now, OnStar is content to tout the push-button convenience of its satellite-and-telephone system of interactive communications. If you get lost, an OnStar rep can get you back on track. Crash the car, and airbag sensors initiate a 911 call sequence. Head out for a night on the town, and a "Concierge Service" can make dinner reservations and even buy tickets to a show. But the really cool stuff is just around the corner: Carstensen envisions OnStar as a "portal platform" for the likes of satellite radio, digital streaming video, wireless e-mail, and "audio Internet"--possibilities that he hints may be months, not years, down the road. Saab's OnStar availability is an $895 installation option with three free months of initial subscription service.

Saab's Aero cuts an unusual figure on the road with its side skirts, front air dam, and rear valance. Just the same, what it evokes in aeronautic appeal, lowered ride height, and trick wheels it somehow manages to mute with overall styling more typical of sensible shoes. Not so indoors, where Saab's alternative heritage as a fighter-jet maker renders the cockpit both classy and functional for driver and passengers. Such is the inherent split personality of this Aero in particular and of Saab in general: It's practical enough for all of us yet expensive for the most of us. The Aero is a sporty, spirited performer that is nevertheless obsessed with safety. In short, it is a dependable Swede who chases after brio and fashion--not with reckless abandon, but with a cool, sometimes square, detachment.

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