THE SAAB STORY

THE 25-YEAR-OLD communications executive and night MBA student has just spent 15 minutes explaining why, after testing a Renault, a Chrysler, a Ford and two Mitsubishis, he bought a Saab.

“The front-wheel drive is one reason,” he says. “It handles well in the rain. It has a good resale value. It looks pretty good, but it’s not flashy.”

Then he pauses.

“Don’t use my name,” he adds in a whisper, “but I speed a lot. At 95,I can take my hands off the wheel and it won’t drift to either side.”

Meet the Saab, a car with a dirty little secret: It’s fun to drive at 95. Once strictly the property of woodsy backpackers and other whole-earth types, the Saab has joined the Krups coffeemaker and the home Soloflex on the list of basic Yuppie necessities.

Last year Saab’s U.S. sales grew by 27 percent, behind only Audis and Peugeots in the near-luxury car category. The big reason, of course, is the proliferation of young, rich, image-conscious doctors, lawyers and MBAs. The average buyer of the three-door 900 Turbo is a 35-year-old single male who makes $70,000 a year-a relatively new model himself.

The Saab isn’t popular everywhere, however. “It’s dead out here in Los Angeles,” says George Peterson, the director of automotive programs at J.D. Power Associates, a market research firm. He says that only three percent of the people who own European near-luxury cars in L.A. own Saabs; Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs reign on the West Coast.

But because of its snow-handling abilities, Saab sells well in Colorado. Denver is Saab’s best big-city market, and the car is the official police vehicle in Aspen and Vail-900s for routine work, turbos for high-speed chases on the interstates.

And Dallas, like Denver, is catching Saab fever. Whereas five years ago, the market was nil, the local WO. Bankston Lincoln/Mercury/Saab dealership is the fourth largest in the country. “We sell everything we can get our hands on,” says one Bankston dealer.



IF L.L. BEAN made a car, it would be a Saab; it seems sturdy, like those two-toned rubber duck boots and canvas skirts. Svenska Aeroplan AB started making the car in 1950, and for 17 years afterward its design hardly changed. It looked like a Volkswagen Beetle wearing earth shoes.

“When we started selling, back in 1961, you’d have to get out of the car at the gas station and put oil in the gas tank first,” says Thelma Koopman, who heads Saab sales at Euro Motorcars in Bethesda, Maryland. In 1967, Saab introduced its second model, the 99; 10 years later it paired the 99 with a turbocharged engine.

But in 1978, Saab saw the emerging market for luxury cars and brought out the 900, which was bigger, more powerful, more comfortable and, yes, sleeker than the 99. Ads compared the Saab to the Mercedes, Volvo and Audi. Sales took off.

Today, Saab sells three variations of the 900: the basic model, the 900S (it has luxuries such as power windows, a cassette stereo and cruise control) and the 900 Turbo.

But the Saab’s design changes have not altered a basic fact: The almost vertical, curve-around-the-side windshield gives it a boxy appearance. “The three-door models look like cockroaches,” says one Saab owner. “The four-door models aren’t as good-looking. It’s neat in its own way, like Woody Allen-he’s a total nerd, but you really like him.”

For Saab buyers, however, the car’s understated, peculiar appearance is a virtue. “Saab drivers don’t want an obvious display of wealth, like the wood-grain, crushed velour and vinyl roof of the luxury American cars,” says market researcher Peterson.

But they also wouldn’t drive a car that screams speed, like a red Porsche. “We call Saab buyers ’car cynics,’ ” says Peterson. “Ask them what they like about a car, and they don’t admit to liking anything.”

So Saab promotes itself as “the most intelligent car ever built”; its ads stress its performance and safety features. In case of an accident, the motor drops to the ground instead of going straight back into the driver’s knees. The steering column collapses in a serious crash. The roof is reinforced to keep it from being crushed if the car rolls over.

But the Saab got only average marks for safety in the Department of Transportation’s most recent test. In a head-on crash at high speed-the only kind of test the department ran-the front-seat passenger suffered “head injury in excess of our limits, with a high probability of injury or death,” says a program analyst, Tim Shaffer. “It was not what I expected, considering its reputation.”

One thing that Saab’s ads don’t stress is that the 900 Turbo is only an intelligent car if it is treated intelligently; owners must change the oil frequently and idle for 30 seconds at the beginning and end of a drive.

The Saab’s reputation for being a practical car allows owners to pretend to themselves and others that they spent $12,000 for the 900 or $22,000 for the 900 Turbo with the “exclusive appointments group” (electric sunroof, leather seats, fog lights) because it drives well in rain and snow and has lots of safety features. No one seems to want to admit the Saab’s real attraction: It’s fast.

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