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Nashville Scene Foreign Relations

Chrysler, Saab seek sporty fans for new sedans

By Marc K. Stengel

JULY 19, 1999:  The grass is always greener on the other side of the ocean. That's why it's hard to get too worked up over Chrysler's earnest insistence that its new 300M is the American-made sport sedan Europeans have been longing for. I remember similar expressions of ebullience surrounding the redesigned Cadillac Seville STS that the Euros are presently yawning over. Seems to me, if the Europeans really wanted an American Eurocar, they'd build one themselves. Come to think of it, maybe that's what these DaimlerChrysler shenanigans are all about.

As for the Euros selling their wares over here, well, if you're not named Mercedes-Benz or BMW, who are you? These, at least, are the two glitter-encrusted nameplates safely guaranteed to peg the status-meter of folks who only want a car to make a good impression in the driveway. As a result, credible alternatives like Saab are left to ponder how to find an American audience without resorting to claims of regal status. The Americans are a clever and practical people, the Swedes must be thinking. Let's send them a clever car that's also very safe. And since the Yanks have just won an all-air war without suffering a single casualty, let's send them a car that feels like an airplane inside. Yeah. That oughta fly.

Chrysler 300M

Now, don't go thinking that Chrysler's curious 300M sedan is just a Euro-flavored hype job in search of a rube. This odd-looking sporty sedan is preternaturally powerful for both its class and its price. Its bulbous styling represents a deceivingly compact exterior that enfolds a truly cavernous interior. Its surprisingly precise steering and road feel belie its otherwise homely American provenance. Chrysler has managed to sneak a ringer into the lineup with the 300M. But there's no mistaking its Yankee twang for anything European, that's for shore.

In fact, the Euros wouldn't even dare confuse the two. Here's a 253-horse monster of a motor, featuring 3.5-liter displacement, V6 layout, and single overhead cams attacking 24 valves. On a continent of 4-buck-per-gallon petrol, no middling commuter would ever assent to that much go-power from a $29,000 family sedan ($30,045 as tested). Even if the 300M's mileage ratings of 18 mpg/city, 27/highway seem pretty decent over here, only those Europeans who drive a $45,000 to $50,000 car--at the least--can afford such fuelishness.

Then there's the matter of girth. If tiny cars the size of Plymouth's Neon and Ford's Contour already have to skinny and squeeze their way through Europe like Gulliver in Lilliput, what chance has a car that's 26 inches longer, 7 inches wider, and 30 percent larger inside? Stateside, however, the 300M's packaging is indeed what any Frenchman would call a tour de force. Although based on the same platform and 113-inch wheelbase as Chrysler's big-daddy LHS and Concorde full-size sedans, the 300M is significantly shorter and wider overall while preserving virtually the same roomy, five-passenger interior. If absolutely necessary, there is perhaps at least one Britishism that pertains to this car. From the side and rear, the 300M's "boot" is absolutely the most dominating styling feature of this car's unusual--some say weird--overall design. It is, indeed, one big boo-tay.

The point, you see, is that pose and pretense make unwelcome options on the 300M's window sticker. Chrysler hasn't succeeded in besting the Euros at their own game. Instead, it has built an All-American champ for value and performance, albeit in terms better suited to suburban highways than to medieval alleyways.

Saab 9-5 SE V6

Seat belts secure? Check. Driver ready? Check. Ignition?

Hey, where's the key go in this car anyway?

Don't feel ashamed if you're among the multitudes who can't seem to remember Saab's trademark, oddball placement of the ignition switch in the center console between driver and passenger. The party line is that the key is thus safely removed from a risky position where it might damage the driver's knee in the event of a crash. The real poop is that Saab is just defiantly, admirably different in its automotive design choices. So much for catering to an American mainstream that just wants to go with the flow without any riffles upsetting the ride.

Not that Saab hasn't tried to Ouija its way into the American psyche. If it's power they want in those wide-open prairie spaces, OK, let's give 'em power. So the spiffy, new 9-5 sport sedan comes with a V6 making a decent 200 horsepower--thanks to something predictably unusual that Saab calls asymmetric turbocharging and Trionic fuel injection. Um, couldn't you just make that vanilla?

Fact is, the 9-5's gutsy torque curve yields throttle response that makes this motor's output feel appreciably greater. Some residual turbo-lag still produces the telltale one-two punch of acceleration that renders this type of induction system an acquired taste in the land of plentiful V8s. Saab, however, is defiant about its turbos--which all their cars will wear for the foreseeable future, be they four- or six-cylinder versions. Many people like the turbo feel and don't mind its inherent complexity. Many Saab owners also wear Birkenstocks and make their own granola. I wonder if there's a connection?

Well, many Saab owners also have families, and here the connection is much less tenuous. Saab's well-earned acclaim for safe, survivable cockpit design is taken to a new level of panache within the stylish 9-5. Highlights include the "Saab Safeseat," which incorporates active head restraints in front and "anti-submarine" architecture throughout (so you don't slide out from under your seat belts). A web of collateral safety features, moreover, is tastefully woven into an interior layout that consciously derives from Saab's "other life" as manufacturer of military jet fighters. The inescapable overall sensation is one of command and control, efficiency and precision. We are going to the movies; we are comfortable; we are proceeding securely--Sir!

Saab's hard sell in the good ol' U.S. of A., however, is that safety has a price. The V6 Saab tested here is a $40,000 car with the single option of ventilated front seats for $950. In a marketplace full of notable contenders, the 9-5 may be a little too safe to be sexy, too responsible to act devil-may-care. And besides, we're Americans: We like playing close to the edge--especially when it costs less than playing it safe.

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