Saturday 13 April 1996 23:02

THE CENTENARY celebrations of the automobile a few months ago attracted ecstasy and abuse in just about the anticipated proportions - though the sight of Coventry clerics intoning litanies over the wonders of the horseless carriage, while enraged dissenters relieved themselves of their emotions and their clothing in the house of God, raised an eyebrow even among the clairvoyants in the trade. But if 100 years of the car made the world ponder the implications of a relationship that it appears not to be able to live with or live without, it has also given techno- buffs further cause for reflection on how much like its earliest ancestors, give or take a few electronic bells and whistles, the contemporary automobile still is.

Since 1991 the Saab company (now generously supported but inevitably compromised in its old charms by General Motors) has been addressing itself to one particular aspect of this curiosity - the traditional clutch, a mechanism that remains obstinately at the mercy of the concentration and skill of the driver. Tommy Lindholm, a Saab project leader, recently declared his ambitions as being: "to automate the transmission while keeping the driver in control. We want to develop the manual transmission to a higher plane. In modern engineering terms, a clutch pedal is really quite agricultural."

Saab now offer their 900 turbo model with a new system which they call the Sensonic clutch. The idea isn't unique of course - the closest relative is Volkswagen's Golf Ecomatic diesel with a an orthodox gearshift but only two pedals, and there are more distant (and more expensive) members of the family available from Porsche, Audi and Honda. Saab's version supplies you with the same five forward gears and reverse the standard model would, and allows you to change up or down whenever you feel it's appropriate, but it does the clutch legwork via a microprocessor that senses the instant you begin to move the gearshift. It's the most successful solution to combining a gearstick arrangement that keen drivers continue to like, with the sense of control over the vehicle in all conditions that doesn't oblige you to suffer cramps in your left leg in the rush hour. You can't stall, you can still downchange quickly for snap acceleration, there's less clutch-wear and you don't have to perform that delicate seesawing act with the pedals on hillstarts, but above all it brings to heavy traffic driving much of the relaxation usually associated with an automatic.

Does it have any drawbacks? A few minor ones in the the mechanism itself, possibly more major ones in terms of the chassis it's fitted to. Since you're controlling low speed manoeuvring with the throttle pedal only, you need to develop a feathery touch with the right foot to stop the vehicle from doing a kangaroo hop - particularly noticeable while reversing. Automatics require a similar delicacy, but because they creep slightly once the parking brake's released, this built-in movement can be used to assist control - with the Sensonic, nothing happens until you hit the gas. Though you get used to it, a little more electronic tweaking would help. The other irritant is the audible and visual display that fussily lectures you about engaging a gear if you try to cheat by performing the last stages of parking in neutral, or if you don't shift a gear when the computer thinks it's time.

The Saab 900 chassis, which broke the hearts of Saab diehards by using Vauxhall Cavalier parts, isn't quite in the league of the BMW 3-series, the Audi A4, Ford's Mondeo, the Citroen Xantia Activa or Peugeot for mid- market handling talent, and that might prove another reason why the virtues of the Sensonic system won't be as widely shared as they deserves. But it's a practical and innovative development, and that's right in the ballpark of traditional Saab virtues.

GOING PLACES: very punchy four-cylinder turbo engine remains the most Saab-like feature of the "new" Cavalier-based 900, giving 30-70mph overtaking margin in approx. 7.0 seconds. "Sensonic" clutch a pounds 750 optional extra on the standard turbo prices, an almost perfect solution to the clutchless orthodox gearchange, though parking skills need a little reinventing.

STAYING ALIVE: strong bodyshell, GM having sustained Saab's safety reputation with twin front airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners, anti-lock brakes, high- level brake lamp. Handling not quite up to the demands of rivals for feedback and quickness of response. Visibility and driving position good.

CREATURE COMFORTS: agreeable interior, comfortable seats (electrically adjustable front seats an optional extra), fascia design and ignition switch positioning all echoing traditional Saab 900 layouts. Boot space pretty good, rear armrest, split/folding rear seats, tight for legroom at the back. Ride quality knobbly in town.

BANGS PER BUCK: Air-conditioning standard on turbo SE models, stereo, electric windows and mirrors, central locking, optional electric sunroof. Average fuel consumption around 35-38 mpg on motorways, 25mpg in town. Three-year/60,000-mile warranty. Price: pounds 23,445 (inc. Sensonic)

STAR QUALITY: fine engine, ingenious Sensonic clutch.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: dull handling, appearance lacks old Saab charisma.

AND ON MY RIGHT: no other comparable mid-range cars feature semi-auto transmission, but strong 900 rivals include the BMW 325i (pounds 23,000): legendarily deft on the road, glamorous, cramped; Audi A4 1.8SE (pounds 19,524): beautiful looker, slower, great handler; Ford Mondeo 24v (pounds 20,175): less refined, but fine handler and more spacious.

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