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The Independent Culture

AS THE technology to reduce or even eliminate driver error comes nearer, what will happen to the notion of driving for the hell of it? It may become something you visit a leisure park for, for an expensive three hours of thrills. But car-builders will still have to persuade customers to buy one brand of super-safe, self-navigating personal transport over another. They will somehow have to appeal to the "enthusiastic driver" who is young enough in heart and mind to know how to have a good time.

Saab, which has carved out an enviable niche as a maker of safe, rugged cars, is thinking along these lines. It advertised its new Griffin executive saloon as an eager-looking machine leaning its way around a taxing curve. But it also looked safe and well built, virtues that make it a strong contender in the upmarket big saloon bracket.

What's different about the Griffin? A six-cylinder engine is the biggest change. This three-litre GM engine, altered to slot in transversely instead of longitudinally, offers smooth, unstressed performance. Though the 9000 body shape isn't exactly racy, its square-rigged style gives it a very roomy interior. Handling is terrific, with minimal roll and sway on twisters. The down side is more wind-noise and the ride is a little firm, but the seats are so comfortable that these are minor criticisms. It isn't cheap, but a sizeable number of those who don't baulk at a £31,995 price-tag will be attracted by Saab's new flagship in 1995.

GOING PLACES: Gracefully sporty V6 engine, offering 210 brake horsepower at 6,200 revs per minute, 0-60mph in 9 seconds (7.6 for manual version). Very strong on low-rev pulling, quiet and economical at cruising speeds. Auto gearbox a bit restrictive of performance potential, but smooth.

STAYING ALIVE: Handling in the highest class, with Saab's electronic traction control device increasing stability on loose surfaces. Twitchy at low speeds, because of sporty springing and very sensitive steering feedback. Anti-lock braking, driver's airbag, rugged bodyshell, good visibility.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Very roomy, with spacious boot; excellent seats with electronic adjustments; elegant cabin design; automatic climate control; reach-adjustable steering. Driving position amen-able to nearly any anatomical eccentricity.

BANGS PER BUCK: £31,995 is a lot of bucks, but along with creature comforts there are cruise control, CD player, alloy wheels, immobiliser, electronic adjustment windows, sunroof, mirrors and all. Quite economical for size and power: 22.5 mpg in town, 33-35 mpg at motorway speeds.

STAR QUALITY: Great engine, great hand-ling, roomy and relaxing inside.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Dated 9000 body styling, hard low-speed ride.

AND ON MY RIGHT: BMW 540i V8 (£35,650) - better looking, but less for the money and cramped in the back; Mercedes E280 (£32,000) - a little more charisma and excellent performance, but most goodies come on top of the price; Jaguar XJ6 3.2 (£28,950) - great engine, better auto gearbox, but more sway. The new XJR has a better chassis, but is much more expensive.