MOTOR MOUTH: White-coated takeover

MOTOR MOUTH: White-coated takeover - If you told me this was a Vauxhall ... my wife said with a wrinkle of distaste in her voice. At the time she was rubbing the part of the SAAB 9/5 that, in the days when tuners were called wirelesses, was a dashboard. S

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If you told me this was a Vauxhall ... my wife said with a wrinkle of distaste in her voice. At the time she was rubbing the part of the SAAB 9/5 that, in the days when tuners were called wirelesses, was a dashboard. She was not much impressed. In matters of surface effect or material substance, Vauxhall is a place you don't go.

Apart from those terrible fringe Asians, Vauxhall is the only surviving brand that has positively negative value. Prestige, sex, delight, comfort, beauty - all the pleasant things a car can deliver - get violently sucked out of the system like the vacuum flush of an Airbus lavatory as soon as you say the V-word. Sad to say, the SAAB has indeed got too much Vauxhall about it. It has the shared ownership of General Motors, the most pea-brained, lead-footed corporation in an industrial jungle well stocked with primitive life forms.

I hate writing that because I really like SAABs. And I like Sweden. How can you not admire a country where cars are called bil and beer is ol? SAAB has a great history, stuffed with image capital that is nowhere near fully realised: whacko rally cars, quirky technology, bonkers design, a proud history of judicious safety innovations, great seats, intelligent ergonomics, first mass-market turbo ... all sorts of good stuff to make life more interesting. But since the GM takeover, things have been dull.

I said this when the 9/5 was launched, so I was anxious to try the heavily revised version that became available at the end of 2001. SAAB claims more than a thousand improvements, which might be commendable honesty, but it's lousy PR: 'Hey, guys, let's crack open an alcohol-free ol: we've only found twelve hundred things to fix!' Yet I am sorry to report that even this portfolio of remorse cannot fully compensate for fundamental shortcomings.

A part of the problem belongs to the product planners who determined a specification for the 9/5 that differentiates it only by inscrutable Heisenbergian quantums from the smaller 9/3. What it costs to manufacture two cars of similar size and specification but with different metalwork I do not know; it must be expensive. True, the 9/3 is a little cramped inside and the 9/5 is reasonably spacious, but the apparent duplication - each has four seats in similar formats - does not inspire confidence.

I mean, exactly which car do they think they should be making? Of course, Benchmark Motor Works tends to make the same car in three different sizes too, but the difference is that since (most) BMWs are flawless they get away with the nonsense of it.

SAAB is historically committed to front-wheel drive. This provides the first basket of crabs: given that prestige cars are expected to have ample power, the front-drive format has built-in penalties, because it cannot hold its horses with decorum. I tried the very powerful High Output Turbo version of the 9/5 and under hard acceleration it behaves undecorously. It's a simple truth that 150hp outback is a better deal than 250hp upfront.

Another SAAB commitment is to interesting interiors, but the 9/5 cabin is just indifferent. Once SAAB could claim the very best spatial ergonomics and instrument layout, but in comparison with, say, Audi, and even nowadays Volvo, the thing my wife was rubbing is scrappy and incoherent.

The design malaise continues outside, where the 9/5 is not even distinguished by raunchy ugliness. It is as if international teams of product semanticists had sat down to create something that had no positive associations whatsoever and succeeded. To look at, the 9/5 makes zero demands and offers commensurate visual rewards. If young boys still spot cars, they are not saying: 'Coo, Dad, look at that SAAB.' Even in today's debased currency, getting on for thirty thousand is a lot of money for sublime ordinariness.

The 9/5 does have its virtues. It seems to be well made and is not uncomfortable, although the driving position felt strangely precarious and exposed. There are plenty of safety features and a huge boot. If you're easy on the accelerator, it is a satisfying car to drive fast through twisting roads. You would not object to doing a long journey in a SAAB 9/5, but nor would you trample newborn infants in your rush to buy one and head out on the highway.

The Swedes replaced red-blooded lust with white-coated sex education and in this car that passionless competence shows.

SAAB 9/5 - From pounds 21,395 to pounds 27,695.

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