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'Subtle' Saab? Not this 9-5 Aero Wagon

By Marc K. Stengel

MAY 1, 2000:  Certainly there is every justification for dismissing an overtly domestic car like Saab's new 2000-model 9-5 Aero Wagon, which purports to convey kids and cargo in tidy security. With the family pooch displayed in at least one magazine ad for Saab's 9-5 wagon, the warm, fuzzy idea of "Lassie, commute home" suggests itself more or less naturally.

It is with special glee, then, that I am prepared to rip the mask off Saab's subtle imposture. When careening at the limit of traction through New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the heights above Santa Fe, I can attest that domestic passivity is the last thing the 9-5 Aero Wagon brings to mind. One is simply too much distracted--seduced, enthralled--by the 100 horsepower per turbocharged-liter; by the broad, responsive torque curve; by the flat, low cornering feel to contemplate any other identity for this Saab besides that of sports car.

At the heart of the matter is Saab's fascinating, tiny 2.3-liter inline-4 powerplant, whose rating at 230 horsepower suggests a typo until it is experienced. We've seen this motor before: in the 9-5 Aero sedan (reviewed here October '99) and the 9-3 "Viggen" coupe (January '00). So the word is already out about the proprietary variable boost technology that Saab dubs High-Output Turbocharging (H.O.T.). What bears repeating is that this minuscule motor impersonates V8s twice its size thanks to a 32-bit engine management computer known as the Trionic 7. In a world where 16-bit processors are still commonplace, Saab puts four times the number-crunching power to the task of not only making big horsepower but also civilizing it.

In simplest terms, Trionic 7 monitors load conditions, driving style, and even altitude to regulate continuously variable turbo pressures from 15 psi to 20 psi. Trionic's deft manipulation of an electronic throttle banishes the traditional bane of turbocharging, dreaded "turbo lag," to near nonexistence. For 9-5 Aeros with an optional automatic transmission, the telltale snap of a turbo's heady rush is further attenuated by the hydraulic torque converter. But it's not for me, thankyouverymuch. Along with this Aero wagon's standard five-speed manual comes an "overboost" mode that permits up to 20 seconds of surcharge power, raising the rated 230 horsepower to 236 and, even more importantly, the 258 ft.-lbs. of torque to 274.

I've another reason to prefer the manual in this unconventional sporter. Racing through the ascent to Angel Fire Mountain's 9,500-foot altitude from Santa Fe's already lofty 7,000 ft., the Aero Wagon maintained its full ration of power despite the thinning atmosphere. The broad, even powerband in the manual transmission's third gear was gorgeously ideal for the New Mexican mountain twisties--even as rival wagons from Volvo and BMW were convincingly demonstrated to go gasping ineffectually for rare air. Retracing the route later in an automatic version of Saab's wagon, however, yielded annoying spells of "gear hunting," presumably as Trionic, turbo, and transmission frenetically outguessed each other in terms of rpms, boost, and gear. During one particularly tight, fast climb, there was no alternative but to settle, manually, for second gear, which eliminated the hunting but wound this motor up tighter than a top.

Whenever possible, I like to hold out the Saab aesthetic in cockpit design as a benchmark for integrating performance and luxury. The Aero Wagon is yet another case in point. The driver is surrounded by an attractive sweep of controls and readouts that leaves no doubt about what switches perform what tasks. And as a passenger for long stints during a nearly 300-mile day, I found the front seat bolsters supportive enough to accommodate the sporting pretensions of my auto-journalist colleague even while offering rare comfort in the form of fan-ventilation at both back and bottom of the seat.

For a base price of $40,175, the 9-5 Aero Wagon is certainly not cheap; and in fact there are less expensive, de-tuned variants of the 9-5 Wagon for other budgets, including a so-called "value package" Gary Fisher model (dedicated to mountain bikers and other outdoor adventure partisans). The Aero's window sticker, however, is packed with every available Saab goodie except three: The only options are the aforementioned ventilated seats and automatic transmission, as well as General Motors' OnStar "telematics" system comprising satellite navigation and interactive communication. To emphasize the Aero Wagon's sublime aggressiveness, Saab has even chosen special, two-part BBS wheels that give this car's lowered, flared stance a nearly irresistible allure.

High tech also finds its way into the cargo box, where 37 cubic feet can swell first into 73 cubes by folding the rear seats, then to 77 cubes when the seat bottoms are removed. Saab borrowed the very clever CargoTracks tie-down system from its own aeronautics division. Removable cleats slide up and down the tracks in myriad combinations for cinching cargo or luggage securely. There's even a proprietary body harness for the family pooch that uses the track system both to restrain and to protect. Then, within the CargoTrack rails, it is possible to insert a sliding floor that holds up to 400 lbs. even when it is retracted to its fully cantilevered position over the rear bumper for easy loading.

Of course, I am not one to enjoy being deliberately deceived. In the case of Saab's invigorating 9-5 Aero Wagon, however, it's clear who the real culprit is: I have plainly deluded myself into expecting that a car resembling a traditional station wagon must, of necessity, have certain domestic aspirations--and no more. Saab has convincingly cured me of this particular myopia by conspiring to seduce me with its H.O.T.-mama new Aero Wagon.

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