Motoring: Road Test: The fine art of the estate

The new Saab 9-5 estate is not a driver's inspiration, but who cares?

The scene is bizarre. We are in the main hangar of RAF Brize Norton, Europe's largest pillarless building. Alongside a dismembered VC10, Saab's new 9-5 estate hangs from the ceiling like a lowered chandelier. The cables that winched it there are attached to the boot's aircraft-style luggage tie-downs. The point of the party trick for the assembled journalists? To demonstrate that Saabs are strong - stronger than is probably strictly necessary. There's no need for each eye-hook to withstand a 1.5-ton load, but it does.

Innate strength was the theme of an earlier briefing by a Swedish engineer, well versed in car/aircraft synergy (Saab made military planes long before it made cars). Safety was another. Never mind the regulations; Saab sets its own stringent targets and does its own thing, including fitting unique anti-whiplash front head restraints. As for that old chestnut about safety not selling cars, forget it. In the past four years, Saab sales have doubled in Britain. They started to accelerate when the the second-generation 900 (now the 9-3) was introduced in 1993. With the help of the 9-5 estate - Saab's first estate in over 20 years - the loss-making Swedish subsidiary of General Motors expects to sell more than 21,000 cars here this year. That will be one in 10 of the executive class.

From nowhere in the league for premium estates, Saab forecasts its new five-door 9-5, costing only pounds 1,000 more than the saloon, will jump to second place, ahead of German rivals from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Only the Volvo V70 ("hardly in the first flush of youth," observes Saab's sales chief Jonathan Nash) will stay ahead.

Saab asserts that the latest 9-5 is not a converted saloon but a purpose- built estate, new from the B (central) pillars back. Curious, then, that the cargo hold aft should have a "tagged-on" appearance, a la Renault Laguna. Even so, the new Saab is a handsome car with lots of thoughtful detailing. The high-lift, counterbalanced tailgate, for instance, is virtually weightless, and you can slide out the strong floor to facilitate loading. Luggage is hidden from prying eyes by a rigid folding canopy - no Merc- like plastic blinds or Velcro here - and the rear seats, split 60/40, fold flat without removing the head restraints. Saab considered offering an extra row of fold-away kids' seats, but ruled them out for safety reasons.

Ignoring unrealistic space-measuring techniques, Saab reckons the 9- 5 will out-swallow all rivals. It also has a low, spine-friendly deck, removable rear squabs and rear-seat location strong enough to take impact from crash-catapulted luggage.

Saab spent so long telling us how strong and safe the 9-5 estate was, little time remained to drive it. Not that much was needed. The 2.3 auto I tried felt like a typical Saab: solid, well-engineered, rattle-free and refined, lively. I liked its smooth, counterbalanced engine, supple suspension and generous equipment.

As a strong, ultra-safe holdall, this versatile estate (available with 2.0, 2.3 or 3.0V6 power and a choice of transmissions) has much to commend it. Saab exaggerates, though, in saying that it is "extremely sporting" and "an inspiring driving experience". It is neither. Why promote a good car as something it is not?

Specifications

Rivals

Make and model: Saab 2.3t 9-5 estate, from pounds 24,795 on the road.

Engine: 2290cc, four cylinders turbocharged, 16 valves, 170bhp at 5500rpm.

Transmission: five-speed manual or four-speed auto, front-wheel drive.

Performance: max speed 137mph, 0-60mph in 8.7sec (manual), 28.5mpg combined (manual).

Audi A6 1.8TSE Avant, pounds 26,967. Elegant looks, beautifully made (even the Japanese applaud Audi's build quality), nice to drive.

BMW 523iSE, pounds 28,315. Good but pricey. Good driver's car yet roomy and practical.

Mercedes-Benz E200 estate, pounds 28,595. Cheapest estate in the E-class range costs over pounds 4,000 more than the faster, better-equipped Saab.

Subaru Legacy estate 2.5 GX, pounds 20,800. Handsome, roomy, well-equipped estate makes Euro opposition look expensive. Volvo T70 2.5 XLT estate, pounds 23,795. Big, roomy and long in the tooth, square-cut Volvo is still the best-selling premium estate. From pounds 19,500 to over pounds 36,000.

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