Once-dull Saab wheels out some high performance

The Saab has a reputation for being a dull car -- safe, yes, but dull. Anyone who says that today is not talking about the Saab 900 Turbo. In fact, the 900 Turbo, despite some annoying features -- even the Rolls-Royce or Ferrari have some detractors around, no doubt -- is a very roomy, high-performance, comfortable vehicle that just happens to bear the name tag Saab on the sheet metal.

Because the No. 2 Swedish car company -- Volvo is first -- builds fewer than 100,000 cars a year, it really doesn't expect to make a big noise among carmakers. And it doesn't. Saab has built its reputation on a wee segment of the automobile population because not too many car buyers around the world think of Saab before putting down the money for the car of their choice.

Nonetheless, the Saab has a well-established reputation for being a car that's almost as safe as a car can be in this age of high-speed output and constraints on cost. Also, the handling capability of its cars is well known.

I remember a few years ago being driven around the Saab rally test route in Trollhaten, some 50 miles north of Goteborg, by Eric Carlsson, Saab's award-winning rally driver of the late 1950s and early '60s. Seated in the passenger seat beside him with a helmet on my head, I saw that even at high speed on tortuous, twisting roadways, a Saab will perform with all the consummate agility and dependability of some of the best road cars around.

The Turbo, which comes as a three- or five-door hatchback, is one of six Saabs on the road in the United States for 1980. A manual sunroof, power steering, aluminum alloy wheels, and high-performance tires are standard. The price: $12,000.

It uses a two-liter, 4-cylinder engine that gives the performace and pickup of a V-8.

Clearly, the 900 Turbo makes driving a lot of fun again for anyone who wants to take away control of the car from all the automatic gimmickry that is found on most cars today.

Be that as it may, the 900 Turbo is not perfect. It has a bunch of annoyances that call for a forgiving driver who can appreciate the pluses, while overlooking some of the negatives.

For example, the car I drove for week had a disturbing vibration, or rattle, in the front end which came and went with perplexing regularity. Certainly that can be corrected with little effort, I would expect.

But there are some other things that are part of the design of the car. I don't like the floor-mounted ignition switch at all. I found I had to make two movements almost every time I got into the car and wanted to start it. First, my right hand, key extended, went instinctively to the usual spot for the ignition key -- at the right of the steering post -- and then to the floor. Only the French-built cars with the ignition lock on the left side of the steering column caused a similar sigh of annoyance.

Also, having to put the gear shift into reverse to remove the key from the lock is bad. More than once I put the key in the lock and turned it, only to have the car lurch backward as I jammed my right foot on the brake. It's an unsettling way to start away from the curb.

Of course, like everything else, I guess, you get used to the pecularities of a car after you've had it for a while. A new car doesn't become a friend in a week.

And then there's the windshield-wiper lever that sticks out much too far on the right side of the steering post. It's too easy to brush it as you turn the wheel; suddenly you're wiping the windshield whether it's raining or not.

All of that said, the Saab Turbo is a delight to drive, and I was sorry to see it go out the garage door after a week-long test.

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