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Broadening Its Buyer Appeal

April 16, 1993|PAUL DEAN

Today's automobiles are not so much new models as they are role reversals.

Volvo commercials use a tank as visual anchor for a campaign to gently persuade that the new 850 GLT is softer, sportier, a little wilder and certainly no armored commuter carrier.

Chrysler's advertising and publicity team recently became dedicated to scuppering the hoary public image of its large luxury automobiles as rolling, floating, pitching battleships and barges.

Jaguar offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee that implies its 1993 models are as reliable as a royal marriage . . er, sturdier than Stonehenge.

Now Saab--the Swedish car builder that brought us two-stroke sedans and ignition switches between the front seats--says its puissant, luxurious, very handsome 9000 Aero is proof positive that Saab is trying to broaden its buyer band by losing its weirds. By yiminy .

The company is hardly off to a rational start by designating the Aero's model year as 1993 1/2. Who remembers that the 1965 Ford Mustang and the 1987 Nissan Hardbody once carried demi-dates? Does anyone care?

Further oddities: The 1993.5 Aero is a $38,235, high-performance luxury sedan with only a driver's air bag. For around $20,000 less, you get two bags and a Chevrolet Camaro Z28.

In this potent era of V-8s in $16,000 domestics, when even Volkswagen and Honda are stuffing V-6 engines into their little nippers, the Aero is stuck with a turbocharged, four-cylinder engine. Four-bangers are for subcompacts and driver's-ed dropouts. Turbocharging usually produces dual boost--one to manifold pressure, the other to insurance premiums.

The Aero comes with an expensive CD player but no $5 cup holders. A remote trunk release is not alongside the seat where it belongs, but in the door. There is no remote release for the fuel filler door.

Still, this is the most explosive Saab ever. Its four cylinders have been fed enough roughage and bee pollen until they punch out 225 horsepower. That's good for 0-60 m.p.h in less than seven seconds and a top speed nudging 140 m.p.h.

It slips into and around traffic like a bodkin through muslin and the passage is deceptively fast. Such is the bonus when quiet but lusty power is coupled to a combination of steering and suspension set-ups providing optimum car balance and handling responses.

That, however, is when the car is up on the step and rolling hard. Getting there isn't quite so much fun.

The engine is cursed with a horrible turbo lag--a low-end power pause while the turbopuffer fills its lungs--that allows almost enough time to think about rotating the tires.

The only antidote is to keep revolutions high and the turbo spinning, but that's quite a lot to ask of the average suburban motorist.

All that horsepower--25 more ponies than the current 9000 CS or CD models--is dropped directly on front wheels also used for steering the car. So standing on it from rest can produce alarming torque steer--the tendency of front wheels to momentarily jerk and go their separate ways under hard acceleration.

But if you can tolerate these shortcomings, if you can live with a sedan that visually is yet another burnishing of a 9-year-old look, if you are willing to invest in the last of the Nordic Mohicans pending an expected redesign for 1995 1/2, then the 9000 Aero has many positives.

It has space for driver and four passengers because it is roomier than an Airstream trailer. The seats are high-backed with orthopedic pillows for headrests and contours that will cuddle curves and bumps of the oddest bods. Glove-leather upholstery is standard on these chairs built for 500 miles of nonstop lounging.

There's 23.5 cubic feet of trunk space, or 15% more storage space than a Cadillac Fleetwood. If that's not enough, the rear seats fold down to create 56.5 cubic feet.

Despite the paucity of cylinders, despite the fact 2.3 liters must propel 1.6 tons of metal, glass, rubber and recyclable plastics, the engine neither buzzes nor vibrates like a four cylinder. That the power plant sounds and pulls like a V-6 without once quivering through overwork, is high tribute to Saab engineers and their stubborn, continuing faith in turbocharging.

Credit also their wisdom and skill with Saab's Trionic engine management system that automatically, and on the run, tweaks ignition, fuel injection and turbocharger boost. The result is optimum power plus high fuel efficiency--28 m.p.g. on the highway.

There is little doubt the 9000 Aero--so called for an aeronautical panache that may exist only in corporate imaginations--is more performance than luxury.

The platform has been lowered front and rear to reduce those airflow forces that tend to lift and slow a car. Engineers have played with stiffer spring rates, fatter stabilizer bars and heftier front strut piston rods for a tighter, yet less-rumbly ride.

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