Once deemed safe but frumpy, now it's gaining classic status. Suddenly, everyone wants a Saab, says Oliver Bennett

IF THIS CAR was a woman, as Jeremy Clarkson might say, it would be a French actress: kind of stylish, kind of subtle and - crucial, this - it makes the admirer feel a ripe flush of connoisseurship. For Saabs, in particular the Saab 900 and to a lesser extent its younger sibling the Saab 9000, have joined the hallowed ranks of those tasteful things that have been transformed from merely functional to fully-fledged Objects of Desire. Last year was a record year for Saab in the UK. They can't make them fast enough. Meanwhile, older Saabs, with pleasing Seventies styling even on the early Nineties models, are edging their way towards fully-fledged classic status: suddenly, every urban trendy wants to own one.

But why? "They are particularly popular with professionals: self-employed, creative people," says a Saab spokesman. "It's the kind of car that won't pigeon-hole you. The Saab says the right things, but is understated. We think Saab is for individuals who make their own decisions in life." Or to put it another way, as one motoring writer says, "You wouldn't see a Saab owner washing their car on Sunday."

Ulrika Jonsson, showing admirable loyalty to her Scandinavian homeland, drives a yellow convertible Saab 900, the raciest of them all. As does Yasmin Le Bon, who has shown her loyalty to the low-slung soft-top by unveiling new models at motor shows and declaiming the 900's proposition of "safety without sacrificing flair". Heather Mills, the model who came to prominence after losing a leg in an accident, is a Saab enthusiast. Linda La Plante, Helen Baxendale, Jack Dee, Nigel Havers and yes, Des Lynam, the stylish sports commentator, are all Saabies. Saabs inspire loyalty: once a Saabie, always a Saabie.

Saab 900s also have a huge and curious following among photographers, and Mark Harrison, a Brixton-based snapper, explains why. "It's a combination of a deep desire to be a little bit different, their rugged, can-do feeling and a monster boot, which is not something you usually get in a stylish car," he enthuses. "I always get asked, 'Why do all photographers have Saabs?' And that's what I tell them." Lots of people think they are ugly and slug-like, he says. Not Harrison. "They are unusual, graceful. slightly dated, perhaps, but very attractive. In fact, it is difficult to get a good old one because people don't want to sell them." Richard Bell, a promo producer and a Saab enthusiast, says: "I love Saabs. Hmmm, a nice 900 Turbo S with a humpy look. Lovely."

Even though they come into the "performance" bracket, Saabs are not aggressive like BMWs or nouveau riche like Mercs. And with their heavy doors and cockpit feeling, they give off an aura of aeronautic engineering. Never mind the scary price of repairing them and the lousy rear vision.

Prices have started climbing: a sought-after 1992 convertible will set you back around pounds 9,000, a humble 1990 three-door hatchback, around pounds 3,500. But alas, there are signs that later models might have lost the marque's earlier lustre. "The 9000 is the last of the great Saabs," bemoans Harrison, and Bell adds "I particularly love the older shape, but definitely not the newer ones, which are starting to look like any old executive car." For the Saab set would feel it a violation if the lesser grey-shod sales rep were to start ploughing the ring-roads in their favourite make of car.