Going the distance

I’m writing this from a rooftop aerie at Skytop Lodge in the picturesque Poconos. I’ve managed to get away with the family for a week, and this venerable and rustic hotel (it dates back to 1925 and is surrounded by 5,000 acres of nature trails) beckoned. I can see a very full moon through the window and, down below in the parking lot, a still-warm Saab 9-5 sedan ticks quietly.

Earlier today, I blasted it down I-84 in what had to have been one of the most painless journeys the family and I have ever taken. And, not for the first time, I applaud the long legs of the big Saabs. For trips that cross more than one state border, there’s nothing like the 9-5 (or its predecessor, the 9000).

Launched in 1947 by a company with an aviation background that included World War II-era bombers, the Saab (like the English Bristol, which it initially resembled) at first looked like an airplane without wings. It was streamlined and used lightweight materials long before that was commonplace, and it favored clean, no-frills design statements.

Swedish modern, as it were. In the late ’70s, Saab was one of the first companies to routinely turbocharge its cars. The 99 took off like, well, an airplane.

I owned a 1972 Saab 95, complete with quirky column shift and German V-4 engine. I lusted after its cute-as-a-button station-wagon variant, which sported tiny fins. I also coveted the 9000, and used one whenever possible on long trips. The pi�ce de resistance was the huge, roomy heated seats, which cosseted my back like nothing else coming out of Europe. Whoever designed the lumbar support was a genius.

It must be said that the 9-5 is not as quirky as past Saabs, and that may have something to do with General Motors, which has owned the company since 1999 (the same year this car replaced the 9000). Even the styling isn’t all that distinctive; the 9-5 could be an Infiniti. It does, however, retain the floor-mounted ignition switch, but that’s one longtime Saab quirk I could do without.

With distinctions only Ingmar Bergman fans understand, the big Saab comes in Linear, Arc and Aero models. In an American or Japanese car, these distinctions would largely involve luxury and appearance equipment, but the Saabs all look pretty much alike, with three very different powertrains, including, respectively, a turbocharged four (185 horsepower), a turbocharged V-6 (200 horsepower) and a high-output version of the turbo four (250 horsepower). Both the five-speed manual and the four-speed automatic are good choices.

All the 9-5s are well equipped with high-end features, but the model lineup is somewhat confusing. The "entry-level" Arc actually has the same basic price (around $30,000) as the "top of the line" Aero. The Arc boasts a fancy Harmon/Kardon stereo and electronic stability control, while the Aero has very useful sport suspension and that 250-horsepower engine. The uprated suspension is a worthy addition because the 9-5 is a big car that otherwise tends to lean on corners.

The strong points of the 9000 are also evident here: a roomy and airy cabin that pampers even rear-seat passengers, logical dash layout, a great trunk (that can be expanded by folding the seats). Saabs have suffered from poor reliability in the past. While this is certainly not General Motors’ strong point, either, there is the perception of better build quality since the 9-5 was introduced. GM is certainly trying to increase Saab’s market share and give it more play in America.

The 9-5 still feels mighty European, though, and that’s not a bad thing. It loves the autobahns, and is made to order for long blasts. I found it very difficult to keep this big Swede under 80 miles per hour, so I’m lucky I made it to my bucolic retreat in Pennsylvania without a ticket.