The design history of the Swedish company is unique and fascinating for obsessives. At the end of the last war under-employed aeronautical engineers working for the Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget were dolefully mooching over their reindeer steaks and akvavit and decided to make a car. They employed aircraft construction principles, a DKW two-stroke engine and a sci-fi magazine illustrator named Sixten Sason. The result was a completely original automobile, the Saab 92, with front-wheel drive and a gorgeous teardrop body - the work of Sason, whose portfolio also includes the Hasselblad camera.
Technically and artistically, the Saab was unique. Continuously refined, it remained in production for nearly a quarter of a century and its cheerful, wholesome oddness generated spades of brand value for its manufacturer. Saab's appeal was to responsible people, but not of the flat-earth variety. Saab buyers tended to be educated: psychiatrists, barristers, architects. They enjoyed cars, but they also wanted to advertise their ecological sensitivity.
But Saab struggled, despite being the chosen vehicle of Islington barristers and the Aspen Police Department - the first US force to buy foreign cars.
Saab was simply not big enough to generate the funds required for modern vehicle development, so collaborations were sought. The first was with Fiat on the Type-4 project. It was only a moderate success. Saab still struggled. Worse, its idiosyncratic independent character had been compromised. So it was a natural for being taken over by General Motors, the world's most boring car company.
With the manufacturing and financial enormousness of GM, little Saab had to enter a Faustian pact. Its body was saved, but at the cost of its soul. GM could help achieve production and purchasing efficiencies and could improve distribution, but at a price. The dead hand of corporate conservatism throttled initiative and innovation.
In a tradition that goes back to Sason, the current Saab 9.3 Cabrio is not beautiful, but it is very satisfying to look at. It has dignity, good proportions and an assured, grown-up presence. It's manifestly a quality product for quality people. However, apart from its exquisite hood (destined to be under-used in our unreliable climes), it is a disappointment. With 200hp turbo it can go very quickly, but its real world performance is moderated by scarily out-of-control torque steer when you put the hammer down, and by a ridiculous amount of flex from the body when you hit a bump. The potentially fast Cabrio has to be driven cautiously. Cautious is fine, but why bother with the ferocious turbo?
I also drove the new 9.5 Estate with the same engine. With its fixed roof, the Estate is solid, which leaves you free to discover the car's other fault: an underbred coarseness in that powerful engine. For this sort of money BMW will sell you similar cars with refined, but athletically feral, sixes.
The 9.5 is the type of car GM thinks a Saab should be, which is to say a mite dull. Back home, they have used similar brains to muddle the once-clear distinctions between Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick. There is nothing much wrong with the 9.5 Estate - it just leaves you with a big 'so what?'
The lack of conviction shows in the styling. Designer Einar Hareide, a Norwegian, clearly didn't have the nerve to extend the 9.5 saloon's dramatically rising hip-line so that the logical (and exciting) conclusion would have been to have a rear glass like a letter box. So the C-pillar goes in both directions at once, fitting for a car that doesn't seem to know who or what it's for.
Even the 'Special Equipment' versions are low-spec by today's standards, and Saab's once impressive interior design has fallen behind: instrument panels are a mess of uncoordinated shapes and details. Alas, this was once an area where Saab had an industry lead. The 'SRS Airbag' announcement looks as though it has been done in pokerwork.
I hate writing negatively about Saabs. I actually liked both cars, but was disappointed not to like them much more than I did. Still, the Cabrio remains one of the very few cars I would actually buy with my own money.
My friend William, a successful television producer with lots of his own money and his own plane, thinks so too. He's just got tired of his new Porsche and gone Swedish.
Stephen Bayley is an author and design consultant.