Motoring: Auto Biography: The Saab 900S 2.3 in 0-60 Seconds

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The Independent Culture
THE reviews keep saying it's the new Saab for old Saab buffs, but I'm not convinced. I mean, I'm an old Saab buff, and I've got the old Saab, and the bills to prove it. But it takes more than mounting the ignition where the gearbox should be and sticking with traditions like big, aviation- style instruments and a clock-face light-switch to fool me. Dammit, the underneath of this car is a Vauxhall Cavalier, of all things. And though there are nice echoes of the much-loved and utterly distinctive 900 series in the design of the rear quarterlights and the sweep of the bonnet towards the regular Saab grille, the line has taken on a faintly disconcerting mixture of Nineties young-exec anonymity and the body shape of an old Hillman Avenger.

The car is a little more compact than before, and a lot more inoffensive. With the old 900s, people either said they looked permanently cheesed off with their severe, upright windscreen line, or that they were tomorrow's classics today - an uncompromised design of irresistible eccentricity. Some were confused, so they said both.

What was impossible to take away from the 900 was its reputation for crashworthiness, endorsed wholeheartedly both in Europe and in the famously demanding United States long before the car industry in general started to tighten up on passive safety. You only had to try to push the doors open on one of those fragile mornings to realise just how much steel the prudent Swedes had put into it.

The new Saab 900, produced by the now jointly-owned Saab/General Motors operation, also leaves nothing to chance. The car sports an impressive list of self-defence features, including standard anti-lock braking and driver's airbag, with a passenger airbag as an option. It also has the old 900's luggage-gulping boot, a good driving position, enough quirky eccentricities to be different - and, at pounds 17,945, it's sensibly priced.

But the new 900 may not completely convince a traditional Saabist, especially not one who might be wavering on the brink of heading for a BMW or Mercedes agency instead. By upper mid-range standards it's quite noisy, its handling isn't thrilling compared with a BMW, and it has moved closer to world-car blandness than may be entirely good for it.

GOING PLACES: Smooth and capable 2.3-litre engine, a continuing triumph of four- cylinder design; decent performance of 0-60mph and the 50-70mph overtaking sprint in around 10 secs. Auto-shift OK, variable between standard and sport settings. The manual shift has been criticised for being rather vague.

STAYING ALIVE: Saab safety standards uncompromised, with anti-lock braking, driver's airbag (passenger's optional), good build quality. Handling predictable, but rather insensitive. Ride a little nobbly. Visibility not bad, but rear window-line high.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Excellent seating, both comfortable and supportive; very good driver's position adjustment, both at the wheel and on the seat. Plenty of legroom, and a huge boot acces-

sed by low-lipped hatchback.

BANGS PER BUCK: Electric windows, adjustable steering, headlamp wash/wipe, high- level brakelight, driver's airbag. Fuel consumption

average at 20mpg in town, 35mpg at motorway speed limits. Price: pounds 17,945.

STAR QUALITY: Class-leading boot space; Saab construction standards and safety; comfortable interior.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Disappointing styling. Stereo, alarm, sunroof all extras. Characterless handling.

AND ON MY RIGHT: BMW 320i ( pounds 18,995): better looking, more athletic on the road, not so roomy but a driver's delight; Rover 623i ( pounds 19,250): very elegant, refined engine, handling average; Ford Mondeo 2.0Si ( pounds 15,800): again] - great handling, coarser engine, less space, but fewer bucks.

(Photograph omitted)

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