MOTORING / Auto Biography: The Saab 9000 Aero in 0-60 seconds

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The Independent Culture
SINCE the Seventies, you've known where you are with a Saab. They've been safe, stable, responsive and comfortable. They've even kept their distinctive character (slightly odd body shapes; aircraft instrumentation; simple, sober furnishings) despite the arrival of General Motors - though whether that virtue will survive into the era of the Cavalier-like new 900 has yet to be seen. But the Aero is at the top of the Saab range as a state-of-the-art sports saloon, a powerful, flat-handling rival to BMW's 500 series. It is also only a token gesture or two short of pounds 30,000.

You either like the nose-diving, hump-booted, square-doored look of the current 9000 series or you don't, but this version makes the best of it with its slinkier body styling and wide wheels. The Aero has a lot of rally-car echoes to quicken the pulses of chuck-it-around enthusiasts (Saab's Griffin model is the limo version). The black leather seating is sporty enough in its wrap-around construction - and bucket-like in the back, too, which isn't so much fun for a centre passenger.

In most respects, the Aero is a fine performer. The company has pursued a course of revolutionary conservatism in sticking to four- cylinder engines but making their supply systems so good they can outperform power units with twice as many bits banging up and down inside. The Trionic engine management system that Saab now uses, run by a brain as powerful as an office computer, not only maximises output and economy. It is also so eco-efficient that independent tests have shown the air coming out of the exhaust to be cleaner than that sucked in at the front (the test was done in London traffic, not a country lane, but it's still essential progress).

Aero acceleration is spectacular, and the up-rated suspension (stiffer dampers and anti-roll bars, tougher springs) noticeably bumpier but still a source of confidence-boosting stability. Pulling power is maximised very low in the rev range, turbo-delay is only slight, and brakes and that characteristic Saab feel to the steering are superb. The floppy gearshift, however, is a turkey in a pounds 30,000 investment.

GOING PLACES: Quick, powerful four-cylinder turbocharged engine, giving 258ft lbs of torque at a low 2,000 revs per minute, 50-70mph overtaking speed in 7.3 seconds, and 0-60mph in 6.7 seconds. Slight delay in throttle response. Poor gearshift.

STAYING ALIVE: Saab build quality and safety standards comfortably maintained. Reinforced safety beams in the doors and rigid body shell, anti-lock brakes, traction-control system to minimise wheel spin, driver's-side airbag, pre-tensioning seat belts. Lowered chassis and up- rated suspension give excellent handling - complemented by postive- feel steering - though suspension firmness is noticeable. Parking visibility around big seats and head rests limited.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Well designed, high-quality but rather dark interior, with the 9000 Series' slab- like central console. Switchgear and controls well laid out and practical. Sports-style leather seating standard on Aero. Electronic driving-position adjustment suits all physiques. Excellent interior space. Boot voluminous. Good sound system and full air conditioning.

BANGS PER BUCK: Alloy wheels; anti-lock (ABS) brakes; traction control; central locking; electric windows, sun roof and mirrors; automatic air conditioning; cruise control; leather seats; driver's airbag. Fuel consumption approx 22.5mpg in town, 32mpg at constant motorway speeds. Price: pounds 29,995.

STAR QUALITY: Powerful, safe, distinctive, environmentally advanced and fine-handling sports saloon.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Cost, loose gearshift, gloomy interior, poor parking visibility. Likely higher depreciation than for some rivals.

AND ON MY RIGHT: BMW 530i ( pounds 29,750) - the opposite approach, with lots of cylinders (V8) and rear- wheel drive. Smoother, more charismatic, a little more presence in hard corners, but less roomy. Jaguar XJ6 3.2 ( pounds 26,200) - slower, thirstier but recently face-lifted and very refined. Still a car in a class of its own.

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