Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rubbish!

Steven Wade has made the point recently in saabsunited.com that fuel economy numbers are “of the devil.” I took some exception to his contention, because fuel consumption matters to me, especially since I drive 35,000 miles a year. I have given this some more thought, though. Would I drive a Prius? God no, not because it’s a hybrid—it’s the rest of the car which is putrid. I drove a friend’s 2003 9-3 Linear (2.0 175 hp) to work today and noted on the fuel economy readout on SID that I had averaged 36+ mpg, which is about 8 mpg better than I average in my 1992 900T. That’s a healthy 30% increase in mileage, in a car which I like. Would I rather drive the 2003 Sport Sedan over my 900T? No, I like my car better. So while I may not agree with Swade on consumption being of the devil, it is certainly not, in real life terms, as high a personal priority as I might have otherwise contended.

That got me to thinking about other facts and figures. 1985 cc displacement. 160 horsepower. 188 lb ft torque. 16 valves. 9.0 compression ratio. 80 amp alternator. 3.67 final drive. 15” wheels. 99” wheel base. 3.65 turns lock to lock. 2861 lbs. 14.9 cu. ft. trunk capacity. 16.6 gallon fuel tank. Is all this important? No. It is rubbish. The reason I want to drive my car and enjoy it every day has nothing to do with any facts and figures.

The reason I bought this car, and, I suppose, most every Saab I’ve owned, is that I loved the experiences of owning and driving them. I derive some semblance of pleasure or satisfaction, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t keep on driving these cars. Note that though I’ve owned lots of Saabs, I’ve kept most of them until they were used up, like the 1988 9000T we had, because I enjoyed them to the end. If I had stopped enjoying them, stopped deriving some satisfaction or pleasure from the experience of driving and owning the cars, I would have sold them and moved on.

What does any of that have to do with any of the tangible specifications of the car? Nothing. Specifications are rubbish.

I like looking at all the Saabs in my driveway. Not every Saab is beautiful, but I think we have a handsome collection, from André’s Laser Red 2002 9-3 (even with its bare steel wheels/studded snow tires), to Pascal’s menacing 9000 Aero, to the guys’ SPG project in the garage, to Sue’s quietly understated 9-5, to my flat-out good-looking 900T, replete with 1996 Super CS wheels. Then there are the interiors. Some are better than others, but I enjoy all the interior spaces in a Saab, even with their splendid eccentricities. What does this visual appreciation of a Saab have to do with facts.? Nothing. Facts are rubbish.

All Saabs have a different sort of appeal to them when you drive them. Some are long-legged and prefect on super-highways. Some, like my 900T, are happiest charging the roads less taken. In all Saabs, though, there is something that compels me to stay engaged as a driver. That makes me smile. That experience actually makes me happy. What do happiness and pleasure have to do with weights and measures? Nothing. Weights and measures are rubbish.

I was nearly killed once by a fool in a bald-tired 4Runner who crossed into my lane after hitting black ice. My driver training gave me the instinct to brake and turn away, so an offset head-on crash was turned into a severe glancing blow. Though the glass and airbag turned my face to hamburger (and there is no greater joy than having glass picked out of your eyes), I was essentially unharmed and literally walked away. Do I care that Saabs are equipped with passive and active safety features which I could innumerate which helped save my life? No. Enumeration is rubbish. I’m just happy knowing a Saab is safe and hope I never have to prove it to myself again.

Let the BMW guys talk about 0-60 times. Let the Audi guys talk about RS horsepower. Let the Porsche guys brag about the G-s their 911 or Cayman can pull. I might suggest that Saab try something new. Get rid of all mention of numbers. Number of cylinders? Who cares. Displacement? Ditto. Horsepower and torque figures? Not relevant. Valves? Boost pressure? Brake disc diameter? Rubbish. All you need to know is on the hood: it’s a Saab. Saab should simply invite people to drive the cars, customers should pick the Saab they like and forget all that irrelevant minutiae. Minutiae is rubbish!

Apply this notion elsewhere. When I drink a wine, I want to enjoy it. I care not a wit what Parker score it has, the year, or frankly, the appellation or varietal. If I like the wine, I like the wine. If I don’t, off it goes into the cooking pot. Do I care that in my favorite recording of Lohengrin, that 40 trumpets were employed? No. But I am stirred when Roger Voisin puts the horn to his lips and vanquishes every other musician in Symphony Hall. Do I judge a chocolate by the cocoa’s country of origin, or the cocoa content percentage? No. Just take me to the Maison du Chocolat and let me eat it all because it’s that good.

At the end of the day, in my Saab, I smile when I step on the accelerator. I smile when I carve a corner. I rejoice in knowing that a Saab saved my life. I’ve long stopped thinking in quantifiable ways about the total experience of a car. Either I relish that experience, or I don’t. Every other consideration is…..rubbish.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Musings on the 2010 Boston Auto Show

I had long ago become bored with the Boston Auto Show. There was rarely anything compelling to see, and the production value of this show has always been a bit meager. I did attend last year, with my only motivation being that I wanted to see the 9-5. I feared that if the Saab sale collapsed, and there was plenty of concern at that time, that it might be my only chance to ever see the car we had heard so much about. I was impressed not only with the car but the entire Saab display, as it was clearly the only bright spot in an otherwise depressing show.

I believe that prior to 2009, the last Boston Auto Show I attended was in 1998 or 1999 at the Bayside Expo Center, when Saab had the area closest to the main entrance, and the focal point of their display was the pair of offset-crashed 9-5 sedans, with a loop of the video running behind the cars. That was an attention-getter.

While I had some curiosity about the 9-4x, I didn’t feel all that compelled to attend the show. However, with a 14 year old car nut at home, I thought it would make a nice outing to take him and my wife, Susan, and we arranged to attend on Saturday. As Saturday approached, we got a calls from sons André and Pascal, who informed us they would drive in from Amherst to see the Auto show, so we had a rare outing where the entire family participated.

First Things First
I made a bee-line to the Saab display. It wasn’t hard to find. The SAAB sign was hanging high enough to be seen from almost everywhere in the convention center. My reactions to the display, which I had heard much about:
It was visually compelling and the most engaging and attractive display, again, at the BAS.
The goofy leaf blower and video wall were good additions to the display.
The illuminated white floor totally transforms the display.
The cars looked fabulous. I’ve always liked white Saabs. Owned several. In this setting, they were brilliant.

The 9-4X in black sounded like a good idea to offset it from the current cars….but I just didn’t like it. I did not like the wheels. They will be fine for a production car, but I think at a show you want to dress your cars in their Sunday-best. I was put off that of all the cars, this one was locked. I know that Luke and others got inside, so I don’t know what the deal was.

The rest of the time in the Saab display was spent eavesdropping. There were a lot of people at the display, crawling in and out of cars. I heard many positive comments, few negatives. People couldn’t help themselves around the white Aero convertible. That car is just plain sexy; we had one in the show room and I never tired of looking at it. I tried taking a rest in one of the poofy swivel chairs they had in front of the video wall. Uncharacteristically, they were miserable to sit in, as squishy comfortable as they looked. It was while I was sitting there, though, that I heard something that gave me more hope than anything else at the show. A child walked up to his parents and proclaimed, “Saabs are REALLY cool.” Kids know when an emperor has no clothes, and are not fooled by masquerade. I agree with that kid. When you stopped and looked at the product, relative to all the other mass production cars at the show, the Saabs did come off as being quite cool.

Back Seats
Youngest son Marcel, though soon to be of driving age, turned his attention to passenger accommodations and managed to climb into the rear seat of seemingly every car at the show. With the peak crowd, it was hard to get seat time at the wheel, so his plan made some sense, and he started to formulate rankings of cars’ rear seats. Marcel’s criteria included the comfort of the seat (he is 5’8”), the comfort of the armrest, the appearance of the door panel, and the equipment provided. I think his choices are surprising, but knowing him and his deliberate and contemplative methodology, I am sure he would easily defend his choices.

The Marcel Awards for Rear Seating are:
Best Overall Rear Seat: Cadillac CTS-V Wagon (9-5 was second—he cared not for the armrest or styling of the door panel)
Most Comfortable Rear Seat: Subaru STi Sedan
Best Rear Seat for a Long Trip: Hyundai Equus

Biggest Gaff
Speaking of the Equus, I was interested to see this car. I have no interest in that sort of car, but along with many others I have been impressed with the meteoric rise of Hyundai and the quality of their portfolio. [Impressed, but not surprised. A few years ago, one of the companies where I do crash prevention training supplemented their fleet of Volvo S40s with four Kia Spectra Sports. The instructors all looked askance at these cars. However, we grew to like these cars a lot. While not quite as nice a place to spend the day as the S40, they were easy fun to drive, and stayed together nicely. That’s when I knew that the Koreans were verging on a break-out, which has now arrived.] As we walked through the Hyundai display, we did not spot the car. How could you miss a car like that, right? I thought I spotted the car, but then noted it was under a large Nissan sign, so that couldn’t be it. Or could it? When we finally walked across the display, in fact, there was the Equus, right under a Nissan sign. Nisaan had set up a wall around their exhibit with pictures and logos all over the exterior. The Hyundai display abutted this wall, and the Hyundai flagship happened to be right under a Nissan logo. Shame on them! That car should have been in the forefront of the display, not stuffed into a corner!

Sexy Cars
I commend the dealerships who brought their exotics to the show. The most gasp-inducing car there was the Aston Martin Rapide. It was across the isle from the Maserati Quattroporte, another of my favorites. The Rapide, though, takes the same concept and cranks it over the top. I did like the R8 convertible. A lot. With so many manufacturers making really boring (if competent) cars these days, it’s nice to see one making the effort to stretch and make interesting and exciting cars, even if they are a dreaded competitor.

Single Best Idea I Wish Saab had Thought of
In the Subaru display, there was a placard announcing their “Badge of Ownership” program. Subaru will provide owners with the badge, which in the center displays how many Subbies you’ve owned, and on the wing displays the lifestyle message you want to share—100k miles, 200k miles, Rally, cycling, etc…and this badge affixes to the rear of the car. Good stuff. Good enough to copy!

Most Over the Top
The Cadillac Escalade, with its folding running boards and FIVE video screens screamed excess like nothing else at the show.

Most Disappointing Manufacturer
Honda. I used to really like Hondas. Last new car I bought was a Honda Wagon in 1987. Then I had kids….Honda never had attractive cars, but there was always something good about the design, and the interiors were intrinsically easy to acclimate too, even if the seats were horrid. But now? Honda, including Acura, seems to have two styling modes: dreadfully boring, and ghastly. Most of the Honda cars fit into the boring category. Civic? Yuk. Accord? Yawn. The Acuras are most ghastly. I thought that perhaps the visual insult would stop if I got inside one of them, so I got behind the wheel of a ZDX. The interior was laughably ugly.

Worst Steering Wheel
I don’t go around grading steering wheels. In fact, most steering wheels, even in boring cars, are rather good, so you usually only notice the exceptionally good ones. The base Chevy Camaro has the single worst steering wheel I have put my hands on in years, especially in light of the car it was in. The wheel is off centered or bulbous on top, so the radius at 12:00 is much greater than at 6:00. The rim of the wheel is thick front to back, but really thin from the inner edge to the outer, almost like grabbing a bicycle rim. The cross bar is too low. The material is of the worst plastic. By contrast, the 6-speed shift knob was wrapped in leather and had a nice tight throw. I hate the whole car anyway, but there is no excuse for such a lousy steering wheel.

Overall the Boston Auto Show is a bit of a snooze. Many of the cars on display were boring—manufacturers could have done a better job in bringing better wares. The show itself lacked any overall charisma, and the Convention Authority was remiss in allowing for such long queues to buy tickets while not having the staff to open all the available ticket windows. Still, our family had an enjoyable outing, and I saw enough to make me think I’ll want to go again next year.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Breaking and Entering at Saab Headquarters

I am a member of the Saab Cars North America Aftersales Vision Team, which is a group of service managers, general mangers, dealers and SCNA employees who meets once a month on a teleconference to exchange ideas and concerns regarding Saab service and parts. At our November meeting, it was decided that we would have an in-person meeting in January in Detroit. I just got through contacting Gary Dagesse, who is in charge of the group, asking him to try to move the location of the meeting from the Westin hotel at the airport to the SCNA headquarters in Royal Oak. I want to see the Mother Ship!

I had been to the Saab Cars USA (as it was then known) headquarters in Norcross, Georgia a few times. The last time was as part of the same Vision Team in 2001. In those days, many of the meetings were held in person, and only a few by phone (teleconferences weren’t quite as easy then) and this worked well until 9/11, when non-essential travel everywhere came to a stop.

The most fun I ever had at the Norcross location was my first visit there. In the mid-1990’s Saab initiated a program called “Saab Way.” The first year was the most intense. Every manager and service advisor was required to attend, and the session was four or five days long (in later years the program was truncated). Beyond indoctrination into the pillars of the brand and its history, there was a lot of time spent on team building. Anyone out there remember the “trust fall?” Saab Way was presented in the Saab training facility not far from the corporate office. However, we were never invited to see the Mother Ship, and our hotel was some distance away and we were carted from hotel to training facility in a shuttle bus.

The second year, I attended with Einar Fjeldallen, a former technician at Charles River Saab who was the newly appointed Service Manager at our Framingham Saab location (later to become Saab City Framingham, which closed in 2007). We both felt that we wanted to take the opportunity to see the corporate offices. While the Saab Way schedule was tight during the day, once 5:00 came we were on our own. That year we had rented a car, so we drove ourselves to the International Way to find Saab Cars USA (SCUSA, to insiders). When we arrived, the front door was locked and there was no receptionist, but we could see lights on in the building. We wandered to the back and found a loading dock door open and went inside. There we found a very nicely appointed repair facility, and we could see three gentlemen hovering over a convertible. We then found our way into the offices where we were greeted by those working the phones in the Customer Assistance Center—it was still business hours on the west coast. They were very cordial and showed us around the place. We were both taken at how small it was!

Einar and I went back to the shop and introduced ourselves to the men looking at the convertible. They were engineers from Sweden. Rather young, and looking perturbed; not by our presence, but at trouble they were having with the car. Einar chimed in, with his heavy Norwegian accented English.
“Do you need some help?”
“How to remove DICE (dashboard integrated central electronic module)?” one of the engineers responded with a very thick Swedish accent.
“Give me the screw driver,” Einar responded, not wanting to give them any actual information.
Einar reached under the dash, a few quick turns, and DICE was in his hands. He handed it to the Swedes with a smile that reeked of disdain.

I know that Norwegians are not always fond of Swedes, and Einar had told me lots of stories about his time working for Saab as a field engineer in Norway, and I think he had had issues over the years with various engineering types from Trollhattan. He absolutely delighted in the belittling of these guys. Afterward, we all chatted and had a lovely time, and if memory serves me well I think they joined us at the hotel bar that night..

Hopefully, seeing the SCNA headquarters in Royal Oaks will not require such surreptitious maneuvers on my part this time around. If I am able get there, I will be reporting on my visit!
(photo courtesy of saabhistory.com)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Commuting in a 2010 9-5 = Joy!

Now that we have some 9-5 Aeros in loaner service (special conditions apply to these loaners—see our service advisors for details), I have had the opportunity to do a real life evaluation over the course of my substantial commute.

My initial impressions have held up. The power train is first rate. The V6 engine always feels strong, and automatic gearbox, other than some slightly odd feeling downshifts, works very well in tandem with the engine, and together they really feel "of a piece.” Steering is fabulous. Same for the Aero seats. I did experiment with the thigh extensions. As short as I am, I still benefitted from the extended support. Audio sounds great. Chassis solidity and quiet are still impressive, and I love the bias of the suspension.

I will admit that I did prefer the “Comfort” setting in Drive Sense as it diminished the thwap from expansion joints on I-93 and the banging from the potholes around Boston's suburbs. I can’t say that I ever felt any deterioration of handling in this mode, and would likely have to be driving in a really spirited (stupid?) way to realize any difference. Once in New Hampshire, where the pavement is just plain better (someone will have to explain this to me), I did switch out to “Sport,” and when I got on a twisty back road for the last ten miles of my commute, I kept switching modes and couldn’t tell any difference in the handling. Again, I wasn’t driving anywhere near the limit of the car or my sensibility.

After 120 miles in the car, I do have a few more thoughts. I do like that when the climate control is managed, that the display on the infotainment system displays the change, helping to keep your eyes high. I am not completely keen on the array of switches. Night Panel was hidden from view (a Saab tradition to hide some switches from view), and the HVAC controls were just too small. I like the HUD more than I thought I would. Steerable headlamps, on twisty, dark roads are wonderful. I like controls on the steering wheel, so that hands can be kept at 9 and 3 at all times. However, I don’t like that the information display in the center of the speedometer requires a twist on the end of the directional stalk to change screens. That said, the display is terrific. It reminds me of the display on the 9000, only better. I could do without the third speedometer, though that one will please fans of the early Toronado. I do like having a volt meter, and especially like the fuel consumption screen with both instant and average consumption displayed together.

My only ergonomic complaint is with the dead pedal. It is just too small. I have smallish, if wide, feet. Yet, I always felt like my left foot was falling off the pedal. There is plenty of room between it and the brake pedal, so I wonder why it was left so narrow. In an emergency or evasive maneuver, I wonder if I would be able to plant my left foot hard on that pedal. Perhaps Hirsch will have a fitment that will resolve this.

Lastly, my fuel consumption was reasonable. This was a complete mix of driving. Getting to and from the interstate from Charles River Saab involves heavy, slow traffic. Then thirty five miles on the interstate, followed by seventeen miles of state highway and back roads driven at moderate speeds with few stops. I averaged 25.3 miles per gallon. By comparison, the other cars in our household, all four cylinder Saabs, most with manual transmission, will average around 28 miles per gallon. Given the heft of this car, the larger engine, automatic transmission and XWD, it’s a surprisingly small penalty.

The final test was to have Mrs. Belperron sample the car. She was instantly complimentary of the seats. This is no mean feat. Having previously owned a 9000 Aero (which will spoil you—if you’ve owned one you know what I mean), she doesn’t usually get enthusiastic about seats in the cars I bring home. She’s also driven Saabs for so long that she doesn’t realize that compared to other cars, all Saab seats are wonderful. But the 2010 seat was a standout—well done. She also liked the steering wheel feel. She generally liked the car and the substance it conveyed. Having the opportunity to be a passenger at night, I noted that the door handles and foot-wells have a faint glow of green light—nice and unexpected touch. Youngest son Marcel, who has spent much time in the back seat of many Saabs, said he was very comfortable and that the size difference between our 9-5 and the 2010 was noticeable. I did try sitting there, and can state that with the exception of the outboard rear seats in a 9000 Aero, that this is the most comfortable rear seat I’ve experienced in a Saab.

Next, I must sample the 2.0 version of this car!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This Saab Lover's Favorite Road Tunes

I spend a lot of time in the car, and most of that time the radio is on. I’m a bit old-fashioned, and drive an old-fashioned car with an original radio, so it is broadcast radio. I will confess that most of the listening is to talk and news programs. Usually, the news programs get me depressed and the talk shows get me irritated after too much of either. I do like the Saturday fare on the local NPR station—Car Talk, This American Life, Wait-Wait Don’t Tell Me—but that doesn’t help with the 125 miles a day of commuting Monday through Friday. So at some point during my ride, I will resort to music. Ah, but what music?

Some might be surprised that in the car I don’t listen to much classical music, despite my being a cellist. There is a preset on my radio and I will occasionally check what’s on, but rarely will stop and listen (though I was treated last week when I happened upon Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky which I adore). I do have a nifty iPod set up for the 900, and Marcel has been kind enough load it up for tunes he thinks his dad wants to hear. He did a great job, and there is little I would cull. Mostly, I just set the shuffle and let the tunes spin out, occasionally hitting the skip button.

Sometimes, though, there is a craving for a particular song/artist to compliment the driving you are doing or want to do, not unlike deciding that you want a particular wine for a particular meal. All driving is not the same, so my favorite road tunes come down to two categories: tunes for spirited driving, and tunes for “sensuous” driving. By spirited driving, I don’t mean fast or stupid. I do mean, though, that you are focused, full of positive energy, and really engaged in the drive. By sensuous driving, I am referring to those occasional drives when things are more relaxed, you open the windows, open the sunroof or lower the top, take note of the scenery, the smells, the sounds….warm summer nights with starry skies are perfect for this. Different drives. Different music.

Picking favorite anything is hard, because you know you’ll leave something out. With apologies to those artists and songs I have forgotten, here are the bizarre selections that I enjoy when driving my Saabs.

For spirited driving:

Artists—
Foo Fighters
Cake
Weezer
Green Day
Apocalyptica
Offspring
Korn


Songs—
Own Worst Enemy, Lit
Flagpole Sitta, Harvey Danger
Octet for Strings, Felix Mendelssohn
Souvenir de Florence, Peter I. Tchaikovsky
Honey White, Morphine
Demain le Monde, Patrick Bruel
Amsterdam, Guster
Tubthumper, Chumbawumba
Politically Correct, SR-71

For sensuous driving:

Artists—
Portishead
Cesaria Evora
Patricia Kaas
Simon and Garfunkel
Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto


Songs—
Elsa’s Procession [Lohengrin], Richard Wagner
Stewball, Hugues Aufray
Untouchable Face, Ani deFranco
Rouge, Fredericks, Goldman and Jones
Good Vibrations, Beach Boys
Blurry, Puddle of Mudd
Les Berceaux, Yves Montand
Holberg Suite, Edvard Grieg

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wood
I like wood. I like it a lot. I appreciate the various wood in my life, from the stands of hemlock, oaks and maples in my yard, to the wood inside my home, to the instruments I play, to the wood inside a car. I don’t want to see it everywhere, but I want to see it.

While there is much wood in my home, I am not the sort who would want to see every floor, wall, door, window casing and stick of furniture in wood with the grain revealed. Too much for me. I do enjoy, though, my oak floors (though my favorites were fir floors in a former home), maple cabinets, and even the birch-veneered IKEA furniture. I like wooden baseball bats, and I swear a preferred (when I played tennis) a wooden tennis racket to any composite or metal. There are places I don’t want to see wood, however, like a bathroom, and wooden cutting boards give me the creeps.

Playing an instrument like the cello gives you a different perspective on wood. To spend so much time with so much of your body connected to all that wood really makes you rather intimate with it. I love all the wood on those instruments, from the rosewood used on pegs and tailpieces, to the ebony fingerboards, the spruce of the top, and most of all the maple used for the back, ribs, neck and scroll. Here is the back of a cello made by a friend of mine, luthier Gary Davis. Even if the exquisite shape doesn’t turn you on, how can anyone resist the beauty of that flaming maple?

In the previous post I complained about the “wood” in the 2011 9-5. Saab could have and should have done better. Consider a 1990’s 9000 with a wood dash. To my eyes, this wood compliments the colors and textures found in the rest of the interior, and amplifies the luxury and beauty of the interior. The particular hue and grain are a favorite of mine, but this is not to say that Saab couldn’t find a different look for the 9-5 that would be just as complimentary and attractive.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Aesthetics Matter
Cars can be viewed and judged from many perspectives: performance; comfort; safety; economy; reliability; utility; and appearance. Our first 2011 9-5’s arrived today, and the first one which I came across made some “first impressions” on me. Since I didn’t drive the car, I gauged my reactions purely on how I perceived the car through visual and tactile experience.

Since I had spent some time in a 2010 9-5, I was eager to focus on the differences. When I first saw the car, technicians had the hood opened, and I went to join them to check out the business end of the 9-5. This was the “Turbo-4” variant. First impression under the hood: this looks AWFUL. The top of the engine has a completely goofy looking plastic bonnet adorning it. It looks especially ridiculous because the ribs in the center are lateral, as if to mimic the intake runners in a longitudinal engine. Perhaps worse is the front face of the engine, which is unadorned has an appearance that makes me think the engineers were expecting it to be covered; it ought to be. Once the cover is
lifted off the engine, things actually improve. I like a purposeful look, and even the ungainly, messy frontal area recedes a bit once all that nice cast aluminum is exposed. It is clear that there is a purpose to the engine hat—there is a fair amount of insulation inside, ostensibly to diminish unwanted engine noise. By comparison, the 9-3 2.0 has a cover, but only to hide those ugly bits on the front of the engine. The cam cover blends right into this, and again, all that cast aluminum looks lovely. Thumbs down on the Turbo-4 engine bay!

Upon entering the 2011 9-5, my eyes were first drawn to the console and the shifter for the six-speed transmission. It is beautiful, and feels great. High marks for tactile heft and shape. (I did note, and this was echoed by a technician, that the reverse lockout knob on the front side of the shifter does have a rather sharp edge to it which is not pleasant to the touch.) Then I got to looking around. This car has the pale beige-taupe-parchment-butter cream color which I do not like. To make matters worse, that color is carried to the carpeting. Nightmare. I can’t imagine living with an interior where I felt I had to remove my shoes (though driving barefoot is a guilty pleasure) lest I stain the flooring. This car is brand new, and from just the transport personnel, look at the condition of the foot-well.

Another change for 2011 is the addition of wood-grained material on the dash, console and doors. I like wood. I’m a cellist; I appreciate beautiful wood handled in an artistic way. I like wood in a car. I don’t like fake wood. Saabs of old, say, 2001 and earlier, used a beautiful wood sealed in epoxy. More recent cars have had fake wood, albeit pretty good. The material in the 2011 9-5, especially in the shapes to which it is modeled, is so clearly plastic as to verge on the offensive. If this were a Rolls or Bentley, I might believe that hunks of wood were carved into exotic shapes for the application on the console. Not only does the shaping of this plastic convince one that the material is not wood, but the seams in the console pieces have gaps which amplify the tawdry result. Even the Lacrosse handles the fake wood thing better.

This interior had a cocoa brown color to compliment the butter-cream of the doors, carpets and seats. My only complaint here is that the application of the brown goes too far. I rather like it on the dash top, and maybe even on parts of the console. I’m not so sure about the steering wheel. I know, though, that when you start to bathe everything in a color, down to the dash vents, their toggles, the clamshell on the steering column, and even the wiper/directional switches, that this is too much. I can only think that as the years go by, between the brown and cream colors, that the interior will look dreadful much before its time.

Lastly, I discovered a nifty storage container on the left knee pad of the dash. This was a disappointment, not because it looks cheap--it looks fine. But when unlatched it swings down with a thud, with no dampening at all. That makes it feel cheap in a way that would barely acceeptable in a Camry, let alone a Saab.

The next step for me will be to drive one of these front wheel drive, Turbo-4 9-5s. There, I’m sure, I’ll have much less carping to do. While I have done nothing but complain here, I should mention that the overall effect of the interior is still handsome and the cockpit would be a lovely place to spend time. These quibbles are with details, and while the details aren’t everything, they do matter. A lot.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Ralph Bockoven adds to his Saab stable

At Swedish Car Day in 2008, our own intrepid Ralph Bockoven was approached by Andy Pickett, who admired Ralph’s Sonett and invited Ralph to check out his Saab, a beautiful 1971 96. Ralph was smitten. The car was identical to Ralph’s first Saab, right down to the mink silver color, though Ralph’s hand-me-down 96 was nowhere near as beautiful as this example. As they spoke, they came to realize that they had gone to high school together in Lincoln, where Andy still lives. When Andy learned that Ralph was a technician and well versed in vintage Saabs, he asked Ralph if he’d be willing to do some work for him in the future.

The call came one day. The clutch hydraulics had lost their integrity, and the 96 was delivered to Ralph’s home for inspection and repair. As Ralph spent time repairing the clutch and a few other miscellaneous problems, and came to appreciate this car’s condition. It was flawless. The car had 32,000 miles on it. Andy had owned it since 2002, and drove it almost not at all. There were two previous owners, including, it is believed, the original dealer (who we have not yet been able to identify) who apparently kept the in his showroom for many years, and subsequent owner who cared for the car well and used it as a daily driver.

Ralph commented to Andy that should the day come when he wanted to part with the car, Ralph would entertain its purchase. That day came just recently. Andy had decided to sell the car to purchase another toy. He had received an offer from someone who intended to cut the car up for its many fine parts. When Ralph was offered the car, he couldn’t match the lofty price offered by the other bidder, but convinced Andy that rather than see that car destroyed, it would be preferable for it to have a good steward. None could be better than Ralph.

Ralph is now the proud and happy owner of this 96.
Two of my favorite films, both set in my favorite city

Trying to pick a favorite movie is like trying to pick a favorite food: there are just too many favorites from which to choose. But if you narrow the field to movies with great automobile presence, it starts to be easier to pare one’s selections. There are lots of great movies which showcase cars and have great chase scenes, but two of my favorite are C’était un Rendezvous by Claude Lelouche, and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin.

I discovered Ronin in the late 1990s. Our family had been making due with a 20” television, and with the advent of larger, flat and 16:9 screens, we decided it might be time to update a bit. I went into the Tweeter store (Tweeter, before its demise, had long been on my list of favorite retailers) in Harvard Square (or HV2, as the Tweeter insiders referred to the location) to explore what was new in television. As I went from screen to screen, some conventional tube, some projection, I came to a widescreen television that caught my attention; not because of the quality of the picture, but because there was a BMW tearing through Paris, being chased by a Peugeot driven by Robert DeNiro with Jean Reno at his side. I was transfixed. A salesman came by, saw my interest, and offered to start the scene again. I think we watched it another time or two, and finally I asked him what it was. I left Tweeter knowing two things: I was going to buy a widescreen television, and I was going to buy Ronin. Within weeks I had both.

Watching the entire movie brought additional surprises. More cool chase scenes, and lots of views of Paris and Nice. That would have done it for me right there. But there was more. In fact, this movie had everything going for it: directed by John Frankenheimer, screenplay by David Mamet, starring Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno (my favorite French tough-guy actor), Natascha McElhone and automotive stars including a BMW M5, Audi S8, a Mercedes 6.9, and a Citroën XM. Intrigue, fire-fights, deception, betrayal, and yes, the fabulous chase scenes, all make for a delightful cinematic escape.

If one knows Paris, there is some humor in watching the BMW chase scene. While the scenes flow nicely together, when one studies the locations of various scenes, which as sewn together look contiguous, they create a path through Paris which would be impossible to navigate without the aid of worm holes. This was pointed out to me by my cousin, Jean-Philippe, who grew up in the 8th Arrondissement and knows Paris even better than I do. Of course, once I realized this, I spent too much time figuring out the hopscotch, when I should have just enjoyed the show. Some things you just shouldn’t over think!

Here’s a teaser, the scene that first got my attention. Watch it here if you’d like. But do yourself a favor—go find Ronin and watch it on a big screen with a great sound system.


C’était un Rendezvous (1976) is a different sort of film. Nine minutes long. No actors. No dialogue. Even the car which is the star never appears on screen. The premise is simple: a car is driven through Paris from the Boulevard Périphérique / Porte Dauphine to the steps of Sacré Coeur, in under nine minutes. One take. No edits. One camera, mounted on the front bumper of the unseen car. The opening has a statement which declares that no tricks or acceleration of the action were used in creating the film.

If you’ve never scene C’était un Rendezvous, hang on. I have not seen it in DVD, but even on the small screen it is breath-taking. If you don’t know about the movie, don’t read about it first. You’ll have lots of curiosity, as I did, and if you research too hard and long, you may walk away a bit disappointed when you discover the “man behind the curtain.” There is great legend and debate surrounding this film. What was the car? Who was the driver? Was Lelouche really arrested after the first screening? Who cares? Just watch the film! If you’ve ever driven in Paris, you’ll be especially impressed. The making of C’était un Rendezvous was perhaps the most egregiously irresponsible and sociopathic act (try counting the red lights which are blown through) ever taken by a film maker. Even knowing now that nobody was hurt or killed, can we imagine that anyone would ever have the insane creative courage to do something like this again?



Friday, October 15, 2010

The Forgotten Saab

I noted at the most recent Swedish car Day that there was one car absent from Saab’s recent history—the first generation 9000. While the occasional heavily modified one might show up at some Saab events, these cars have largely disappeared from the landscape. Many in this area would have suffered rust problems, especially in the rear quarter panels and the doors. The 9000 was also just complicated and expensive enough to repair to scare some off. Perhaps the biggest reason these cars are forgotten is that they are overshadowed by the 1993-1998 9000, especially in Aero trim, which has become a darling of enthusiasts.

I recall that when the 9000 debuted, there was a hew and cry that it was not a “real” Saab. It had a transverse engine, a transmission mounted off the end of the engine instead of underneath it, MacPherson struts, and—horror of horrors—the ignition cylinder on the steering column cover. Still, there was plenty which did look familiar. The engine was the same 2.0 liter engine found in the 900, the solid rear axle with 4 links and a Panhard rod was similar, many of the switches, the steering wheel and the basic design of the seats were also carried over.

What carried over most of all was the way the car embodied the Saab brand pillars. It was safe. It was fun to drive. It was fuel efficient. It was comfortable. It was practical. In every respect, the 9000 carried out those traits better than any Saab which preceded it. Plus, it was enormous inside, while still shorter overall than the 900. It got better mileage than the 900. The 9000 had electronic gadgets never before seen in a Saab. It was just plain better in every measureable way, and in many subjective ways as well.

Not only was the 9000 the best Saab of its day; it might have been the very best all around car on the road. This was 1986. Manufacturers were just starting to figure out how to take all the restrictions created by emissions laws and turn them into performance features. Saab already had that one figured out. Have a modern Bosch fuel management system, install an APC managed turbo, and all of a sudden you have a car that will outrun not only every BMW and Mercedes, but most Porsches as well. Fold that rear seat down, and your BMW killer suddenly swallowed things like couches and refrigerators. All the while, you enjoy mixed driving fuel economy in the 20’s and get 30 or more mpg on the highway. The seats were the quintessential iteration of Saab seat design. Having just a bit more thigh support than the 900, these seats allowed one to travel endlessly in comfort.

One of my favorite stories regarding the 1986 9000 came from a customer. He recounted how he was on his way to New York, and was travelling on I84 between Massachusetts and Hartford. For those who don’t know the route, it is wide, has some curves, and long straights over rolling hills. And lots of sneaky enforcement. Our intrepid customer, tempted by power and stability of his new 9000 and lots of endless pavement, opened it up over the rolling hills. As he crested a hill, with the speedometer needle long past the final marking (135mph), there was a Connecticut state trooper with his radar gun. Knowing he’d been had, our customer let off the throttle, slowed down and pulled off into the breakdown lane to await his doom. Eventually, the police car pulled in behind him. As the trooper approached the car, he bellowed, but not what you’re thinking. “What the hell kind of car is this?” he wanted to know. “Do you know how fast you were going?” Yes officer, about 140. The trooper was more interested in the car than he was about writing a citation. Our customer gave the trooper a walk-around of the car, opened the hood, etc. The officer was duly impressed. At the end of their encounter, he advised our Saab driver that he really had to slow down, thanked him for the information on the car, and let him drive away without so much as a warning! There’s a lesson there, I’m just not sure what it is.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The (not so) Good Old Days
At times on various blogs and Saab fan sites, there is a wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the lack of distinction in the current Saab line-up. The cars look ordinary (if handsome) compared to Saabs of old, there is too much GM in current cars, Saabs need to be hatchbacks…..the complaints are bountiful.

Let us not forget, though, the price we paid for having such “distinction” in our old Saabs. No one can question my adoration of the Classic 900. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve owned, and a 1992 900T is my current ride, so I know of what I speak. As much as I love the 900, one of its distinctions was the litany of common problems those cars had, many of which we are inured to when looking back at those cars through rose-colored glass.

I’ve compiled a list of favorite complaints for the Classic 900. I experienced these not just as a service advisor, but as an owner:

· Heater control valves. They liked to fail in two ways. In the summer, they wouldn’t shut off so you always had heat. At any time, they might decide to leak coolant all over your feet and pedals.
· Ignition lock cylinders. Real Saabs have to have them between the seats, right? In the 900, with its funnel down to the cylinder, it meant that every bit of dust, dirt and moisture found its way into the cylinder, and eventually they would stick or seize. The best failures were the ones where the key stuck in the start position—if this ever happened to you, you might recall that your radio, wipers and other electrical devices wouldn’t work, there would be an odd noise, then a cloud of smoke and the car would stop and not be able to start because the starter motor had stayed engaged and spun along until it fried.
· Exciter wires to the alternator broken. You’d be driving along, and slowly you’d lose all electrical power and the car would die. Your only clue might have been that the battery light on the dash didn’t illuminate when you started the car. Even better, if the battery light bulb was out, you got the same result: stuck on the side of the road.
· Water pumps. Saw lots of these fail at 40,000 mile intervals.
· Noisy engine drive belts.
· Steering rack failures. These got better over time, but the early ones all suffered from “morning sickness.”
· Parking brakes that stick. This was on the 1979-1987 900, which had the parking brake on the front wheels. The pivot in the caliper would eventually stick, and the parking brake would not release, thus causing damage to the pads and discs.
· Those early brakes also liked to clunk during parking maneuvers, especially in reverse.

-If the brake calipers didn't clunk, then the front wheel bearings would from shifting.
· Cruise control. Disengagement switches on the pedals were always out of adjustment or just failed.
· Speaking of pedals, was there ever another car where the linkage pivot on the clutch pedal wore so severely that the clutch wouldn’t disengage, thus forcing replacement of the pedal and linkage?
· Oil leaks. They leaked from everywhere.
· Headgaskets. Some variants were worse than others, with the 2.1 l being the worst for leaking coolant.
· Wiper racks. The cable would break and render the left wiper dead.
· Power window switches. These accumulated lots of dirt, and eventually the points in them would burn up, or the switches would just stick in one position or the other.
· The universal joint on the steering column would seize and make steering heavy and eventually impossible.
· Horn buttons. I don’t know how many hundreds of these we replaced.
· Taillamp circuit boards. On sedans, these would overheat from poor grounding and melt, thus causing comical combinations of lighting.
· Rattles. Some of the later cars weren’t too bad, but in the 1980s? There were hatch rattles, rear seat-back rattles, the support rod on the rear parcel shelf in the sedan, creaking door seals…..
· Pinion bearings. These failed at an alarming rate until a redesign made them more robust, and required rebuilding the transmission.
· Antenna masts. Always broken. On the power antennas, the masts would break internally, they wouldn’t retract, and then they’d get broken. Does anybody even notice that cars don’t have antennas any more?
· Bent wheels. I don’t know what alloy was used in those days, but it was soft as butter, and more cars than not had bent wheels, and this was before the days of low profile tires.
· Bumper extensions and bumper trim strips that came off during routine contact.

This isn’t to say that modern Saabs don’t suffer failures, but they occur far less frequently. We can see it in our data, that each Saab in service comes in for repair and maintenance fewer times per year. So why did we love the classic 900, with all its warts? Because it was, and is, one of the most visceral of driving experiences, and always engaged the driver’s senses. From the unique smell of the interior (if you owned one, you know what I mean), to the mechanical sounds of the power-train, to the feel of the steering, brakes, clutch and shifter, the 900 was like nothing else. Some sports cars may achieve this, but I cannot think of any sedans or coupes in the past generation which felt so….analogue!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

2010 9-5: A Fresh Look

The following was submitted by Mike Bugda, a regular at CRS for many years, after spending some time with me in a 2010 9-5.

First, everyone who reads this should understand that Pierre and I go back to at least 1990, when I had a 900 Black turbo (may it rest in peace), where we extolled the virtues of this car from its exhaust note, to its wonderful utilitarianism, to its total embracement of what Pierre has been known to refer to as “Swedishness,” which includes practicality, only adding what you need and little more, safety, innovation and driving fun. Who else had turbos in 4-cylider hatchback cars with FULL fold-down seats back in 1981?

On to the car:

My original concern was focused around a fear that the new 9-5 was somehow a “saabified” version of a Buick Lacrosse, as SAAB/GM had done with the 9-7x, which I do not care for at all, as I am decidedly NOT an SUV type person. Furthermore it seems to me that an SUV is somehow the antithesis of what SAAB is about.

Okay, so that’s where I initially started from.

Today, I met with Pierre to go for a test ride and engage in some form of a Point-Counterpoint discussion on the whole SAAB 9-5 from every aspect we could come up with, in the hour or so we had time to share driving around with one and chat about it all. Here’ s what I recall thus far from what we did today.

1. Sleek. This 9-5 has to be the sleekest model they’ve ever come up with period. The roofline is lower than I expected, I do like the overall shape although both Pierre and I have previously likened it to a Camry. Once up close, I could also see some of the Aero-X design elements, such as the side window treatment. It really does look much nicer up close than in any pictures I’ve seen.
2. Engine. Yuk. Why would they start with a six cylinder when a true SAAB would begin with a turbocharged four? Isn’t that what makes a Saab a Saab after all? Pierre suggested a couple of possible reasons, which were acceptable, but I still want my four banger! [PB—I don’t think I’d have started with “Yuk.” I’m a four cylinder kind of guy, too, but there is certainly a market which demands this level of performance, and besides, it’s nice to see Saab start with the haut de gamme, and have the more pedestrian version come later.]
3. Sitting in the damn thing. Well, I had to admit I liked sitting in it, but challenged my good friend as to what makes this whole interior deal “SAABish”. We looked around and could agree that the cockpit wraparound thing for the driver was SAAB inspired as was the start button on the console – which is essentially unimportant now except for being a legacy type of thing, which Pierre had to demonstrate had a “no accidental shutoff” feature when the car is running and in drive. Pierre later noted the black plastic of the console wasn’t so good, but aftermarket choices could fix this easily. [PB—I don’t want the aftermarket or Hirsch to fix this. Saab should, and I believe I’ve read that there is a change coming.]
4. Driving (Mike). I liked the HUD, but we discovered later that this was not a uniquely “Saab thing”. I did however like the ride, “the cockpit feel”, and the seats. Pierre however posed the question that if everything was covered up, could you tell it was a SAAB by just sitting in it – something we both recognized we used to be able to knowingly expect to say yes to categorically. The only thing I could for sure say, was that giving the seating I could tell it was probably European, but not necessarily “SAABish”. Acceleration was decidedly smooth, but doesn’t give a good sense of how fast you’ve gotten up to high speeds like previous SAAB’s. No “grunt” factor, which may not be bad. Excellent “SAAB Like” steering response as well.
5. Driving PB--There more I drive the car, the more I like the balance in the suspension. I like the Drive Sense, but need more time in the car to really understand the differentiation in a visceral way . Next, I noticed how quiet it was internally. Not very Saab like—but a welcome improvement! I like the feel of some of the controls, irrespective of their origins. I decided I didn’t like the placement of the “SID” (or whatever it’s now called) control on the turn lever stalk. I much preferred these controls on the steering wheel. The steering wheel is great, and I love the heft and feel of the gear selector, though Mike thought it was way too erotic…..but that’s Mike.
6. Gizmos. No real unique Saab gadget per se as we also later learned that many of the stalks on the steering wheel column and such are pretty much standard GM now as well. However I did notice later the logical layout of the controls on the console, which IS a SAAB thing, but I’ll be damned if we could find an “AUX” input for an iPod or such. [Ed—I did locate it later—both the jack and USB ports are in the rearward center console. I would have preferred to see them in the more forward covered console along with the power port.]
7. Surprise Visit: As we were returning, I swung into a Buick dealership to do a quick “comparo” with a Buick Lacrosse. You’da thought I dropped Pierre into Nazi Germany in broad daylight during the war the way he slunked down in his seat and carefully slithered around the place. Geez. Well he was wearing SAAB emblems everywhere that day, but the guys, all retired and overweight linebackers from some second string college team didn’t care a hoot anyway. So we sat in the Buick, and there’s the HUD, the same steering wheel stalks, but crappy seats for overweight 60 somethings, and a lot of plastic in what I thought was a crappy rendition of a console. It felt like I would be driving my living room and not a contemporary “world car” like the 9-5. Pierre of course was kinder about the whole thing, being French and all I guess, or maybe he was afraid they’d take him prisoner or something.
8. Driving Back. So after Pierre bee-lined it back to the 9-5 to launch outta’ the Buick lot, we talked about the higher belt line which kind of bothered him as can suffer claustrophobia here and there. I thought sitting in the back seat would have more of that effect due to the diminishing window size form the Aero-X window treatment. I didn’t mind the belt line as I felt more secure and safe with this configuration, and saw it as a plus, but not a “SAABish” thing. Trunk Space is huge, but both Pierre and I felt that making this thing into a hatch looks like it’s almost already done now with the way the tail slants back. THAT would be “SAABish” – and we both felt that would make us happier with the car overall. A Hatch is SAAB legacy if you ask me. [PB—Nobody’s asking you, Mike.] What I want then, is what I would describe as a SAAB designed version of the BMW Series 5 Gran Tourismo, which I would NOT pay $75k for.

Summary: Is it “SAABish” enough? The answer is yes. But here’s the thing; some of the things we’ve become accustomed to in these cars have evolved into something better, leaving behind some things we loved so much in these cars. Pierre tells me the four-banger is coming, so that would be important to me, and 220 HP would be enough for me even for a car of this weight. God is it heavy! The innovative things we admired in the car, like the HUD, although also shown in the Buick would seem to me to be inspired by SAAB, so I think they’re SAABish enough in the gadget side. Logical controls layout – check, Saab put them in there. Turbo charging – check, just like downtown! Good drivability and road feel, check! Front wheel drive. Check! (Although the Buick has that too now!) So yes, there’s enough in this car for me to recognize it as a SAAB, some things I’ll have to adjust to, as the product has evolved well (meaning improved) from what it was, even if I loved those things, including the exhaust note!

I, of course, will want to drive a four-banger and manual shift version before I’m willing to consider writing a check, and if it came with a hatch, then I’m sure I’d be sold on the car, but yes, I liked more than I thought I would thanks to my friend Pierre, but I would need to drive it more to become better acquainted with what it is now, and adjust my thoughts some. [PB—In my first few weeks at CRS in 1989, Felix Bosshard, the owner, gave me a draft of his quarterly newsletter to proofread. I took a red pen and marked it all up, noting that he had written a number of run-on sentences. He then gave me one of “those” looks over the top of his glasses and said, in a deliberate and perturbed tone, “I LIKE run on sentences.” Ergo, I will not comment on Mike’s refusal to use more than one period in the last paragraph.]

SAAB could also use a better ad agency as the “Time is now” thing they have going. Pierre and I both laughed at how his son thought it was an IKEA ad. [PB—I’m not sure being mistaken for IKEA is such a bad thing. It just can’t be the only thing.] I can’t make the connection with the moose and the pine tree the engineer pulls out of the paper sheet – how does that translate to the car I drove today?

PB—I had great fun tooling around with Mike in the 9-5. Mike has all the requisite traits of a good and loyal Saab customer, and has become a real friend of ours over the years. We enjoy seeing him come in, even if his jokes aren’t what they used to be. Whatever I think about the 2010 9-5 doesn’t matter in the least. Saab’s first challenge is to convince customers like Mike that the 2010- 9-5 is worthy of their consideration (which I think we’ve accomplished) and then Saab needs to deliver that vehicle in a configuration which satisfies those customers not just as a Saab loyalists, but as automobile purchasers. Then Saab needs to find a way to attract all those who once were proud Saab owners, but who have wandered away for one reason or another, and there are many of them out there. Finally, there is the dream of conquest, of finding customers among those who have never owned a Saab. If asked, I would counsel Saab to concentrate wholly on its current and former client bodies until a new cadre of Saabs is on the street to attract attention of the uninitiated. Then again, like Mike, nobody’s asking me.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Better Late than Never

With all that has happened here in the past month, one of the casualties has been that I have not had time to drive the 2010 9-5. I was all amped up to drive the very first one, but it was sold so quickly that I lost that opportunity, and by the time a larger batch arrived I was still coping with post-Swedish Car Day catch up on a number of fronts.

After a few aborted attempts in recent days, this morning, I had the keys and a plate on my desk, and I got a chance to drive the car with longtime customer and friend Jon Chomitz. We didn’t stay out very long in the car, as I still have much to keep me otherwise occupied, but long enough to get some firsthand gut reactions to this much anticipated car.

While I had learned how to operate all the gadgets back at a training session in the spring, I felt a bit lost when I got in the car. I dismissed trying to re-familiarize myself, and focused instead on just driving the car and getting an initial impression. I wanted to know what the tactile, visual, auditory and visceral reactions would be to driving the 9-5.

First strong impression—the seats are really firm, almost hard. Not uncomfortable in any way, but as someone who has spent a lot of time in a lot of Saab seats over the years, these felt different, and I would not have recognized them as being Saab seats. Second impression—the suspension is marvelously firm. I did have the selector in the “I” position (for “intelligent,” meaning adaptive). Third impression—I felt small inside the car. I am diminutive, and enjoyed how I could sit fairly high and enjoy a low belt line in older Saabs. In the 9-3 Sport Sedan, one does sit low, but the greenhouse is very airy. Not so in the 9-5. It is very large so there is no claustrophobia, but the side windows are so short, the belt line is so high, that by the time I lifted the seat high enough that I felt I could see well and be comfortable (Saab has always accommodated us short folk with plenty of vertical seat travel), I found myself with my head almost to the ceiling.

On the roadtest, I found the car to be exceptionally quiet and refined. On smooth or rough pavement, the 9-5 felt very substantial. The engine note, while not my cup of tea (I have never heard any V6, even the TurboX, which I enjoyed listening to) is properly masculine in timbre. The steering felt properly weighted, and not overly assisted at low speeds. The brakes were predictable and easy to modulate, and while I did not do any severe braking, given the massive size of the brakes, I am certain that they will be very powerful. Acceleration was reasonably brisk and completely linear. This is one of those cars where you need to watch the speedometer to really gauge your acceleration, because it is carried out so smoothly and progressively that there is little sensation of acceleration compared to the actual acceleration.

One let-down was in using the shift paddles to manually shift the automatic transmission. While I often find that such inputs are often ignored by a car’s computers, today I found the “upshift” command completely ignored. 500 rpm before redline on hard acceleration I started calling for an upshift, and after three clicks of the paddle, and a few bumps off the rev limiter (actually seemed to hover at the limit), then the belated upshift finally occurred. Put the shifter back into drive. I should mention the shifter. It’s one of those pieces you always touch in a car, and this one feels terrific. Like the rest of the car, it feels of quality and substance. The “key,” or fob, is much the same. Less bulky than Saab fobs of old, it is nonetheless heavy and substantial, not plastic or cheap feeling.

Last disappointment is the parking brake. It is a pushbutton affair on the console. I am sure that as a parking brake, it is fine, though I wonder what happens if the car needs to be towed with a dead battery and the brake is set. My complaint is that a parking brake is a very good tool to use when driving in snow to initiate oversteer in tight corners. This may seem adolescent to some, but I rather like drifting in the snow, and between safety systems and this parking brake, I fear the only way to do it in this car is to drive way too fast.

My overall observation is that I was surprised, much as I was surprised by the 1999 9-5. Then, I was comparing that car to the 9000, and it took me quite some time to appreciate the chassis dynamics in a car that otherwise felt way too soft. In fact, I believe that it might be less of a stretch to come out of a 9000 and go directly into the new generation 9-5, much as our first 9-5 purchaser did. I will learn to forgive some of the minor irritations, as one does with any car, as I learn to appreciate subtle refinements which I have yet to realize. The most fundamental impression the 9-5 made with me is that it is grand and substantial. I can’t wait to spend more time in one!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Reflections on Swedish Car Day 2010

Swedish Car Day 2010 has come and gone. It is strange to look up at the wall calendar and realize that it is September and that I don’t have to do anything for Swedish Car Day, when for the past ten years, September was the month of anticipation and get-ready. Of course, that all changed after SCD 2009, when we were treated to horrific weather—rain, snow, gale—such that I lobbied the Larz Anderson Museum incessantly until they bequeathed us an earlier date. Thus, 2010, while the eleventh SCD, was the first one in August.

Besides the change in date, we knew long ago that this was going to be an extra special SCD. The Saab ownership change was finalized months ago, and this was the first SCD to take place with a future devoid of the uncertainty that cast a pall in past years. Then there was our special guest, Steven Wade, aka Swade of
www.saabsunited.com , a key player in the saving of Saab, not to mention the many-times-daily news updates he reported as the melodrama played out during 2009 and early 2010. His presence certainly added a lot of luster and excitement, and brought Saab fans to SCD who likely would not have attended otherwise.

I recall that in 2000, I was given the task of putting this event together by my predecessor, Tim Martino, whom I must credit with birthing this event. I had no idea of what I was doing, or even where the museum (then known as the Museum of Transportation) was. I was given a date. I went to the museum and a lawn events director and I sent about arranging it as best as I could. October 15 arrived. It was a cool, sunny day. The foliage had started to turn. The setting was perfect. The lawn events director had recently departed, and a newbie replacement, Elln Hagney, did her best, though there were certainly logistical issues. [This played out again this year, where the lawn events director left a few weeks before our event, and his replacement didn’t quite have all the protocols and procedures ironed out.] Best of all, people showed up! There were forty-two Saabs and twenty-two Volvos, and while that may seem paltry, the museum told us it was the best attended first-time event they had had. The only difference in my roll in 2000 was that I didn’t have to MC the event that year—Tim Martino did. In later years, I would not only produce behind the scenes, but be the guy at the microphone as well.

So what of Swedish Car Day XI? Certainly, it was a success. Some will say that it was too hot, but in the shade, and even in the museum, it was pleasant. While a small minority pines for a return to an autumn date (including me), it will not happen. There was a LOT of anxiety leading up to SCD XI, mostly for me. There were the logistical concerns regarding Steven Wade, his flights and his accommodations. Ray Ciccolo asked me to put on a rally, as I often had done in the past, and I knew that I just didn’t have it in me to organize one. They are easily as much work if not more than SCD itself, and to the benefit of a couple dozen people.

Instead, we linked a date of advanced driver training with In Control
www.driveincontrol.com for Saab and Volvo drivers and held that instead. That wasn’t without its own anxiety. After an initial strong booking, we took a number of cancellations. Then, we never got ANY Volvo participants, so I cancelled out the Volvos and made this an all-Saab event, but was still short on participants. In the last days, we took a few more registrants, including a Volvo-driving couple whom we informed would be converted by the end of the class since we had no provision at that point to have a Volvo at the school. That said, the class was a smashing success. The weather was superb. Steven Wade mingled with class and had a great time learning and exploring the Saabs’ capabilities. All the participants left with big smiles. Good.

Next on the agenda, on the early evening of August 28, was the reception and cookout which I had advertised as a reunion point for those arriving early for SCD, and for anyone wanting to meet Mr. Wade in a more intimate environment. We had a good turnout—about forty people, I believe. Peter Vincent did yeoman’s duty at the grill to keep everyone fed, and other than spreading out a few chairs and having some soft-drinks and popsicles, those in attendance largely entertained themselves. Barbara, a Saab newbie from Ohio, arrived in her Viggen. A contingent from New Hampshire, including Carl Levine, were on hand. Blogger Gunnar Heinrich was there, along with “Eggs ‘n Grits” from saabsunited (aka Mike Hickman), vintage Saab aficionado Chip Lamb and a number of Charles River Saab employees. One highlight that evening was to watch Ralph Bockoven take Steve Wade for a ride and drive in Ralph’s 1968 Sonett II. Mr. Wade returned so impressed that he seemed rather intent on finding one for himself, even threatening to take a detour on his way back to Australia if an opportunity arose to do some scouting on one for sale in California. Though this event was scheduled only until 7pm, it ran well past 8:00, and I was tired. I hated to do it, but we had to gently nudge everyone to move along in one of those “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here” situations. By the time I was done cleaning up and locking up the building, there were still some stragglers hanging around. Again, everyone who was at this reception was smiling. Two down, one to go.

Swedish Car Day on Sunday got off to a rocky start. I was thrilled to see my helpers, including a number of volunteers, here bright and early. Same for Boston Volvo and Volvo Village of Norwell. I was a bit anxious when the museum coordinator did not show at 7am as promised, nor did the Volvo club members who had promised to stake out their portion of the upper and lower lawns. Alas, we were largely unprepared when the first cars arrived. We then set to doing what we do best—improvise! We directed everyone to park first, then come back to register. This, as it turned out, was much more efficient than the plan I had, which was to have a number of registration volunteers with clipboards going up to the cars as they entered the approach to the lawn. In fact, this may have been the smoothest registration process we’ve pulled off.

I had been frightened that we would be overrun with cars. We had over 120 preregistrations, and I was estimating 250-300 cars which would have been unmanageable. In the end, we registered 202 cars (133 Saabs, 69 Volvos), and there were 225 cars on the lawns. This may have been the most cars (memory tells me that we did have slightly more registrations on one previous occasion). The mix of cars was excellent, and what the Volvo group lacked in numbers it made up for with brilliant quality and condition.

Our guest speakers were David Burnham and Steven Wade. Mr. Burnham was apparently not apprised of that fact, thinking he was only displaying his car in the museum. This is not his fault—this had been arranged through the Volvo club and somewhere along the way this was not communicated to him. He did his best, and his 1971 140 GT was indeed wonderful. Steven Wade delivered a terrific speech. While not divulging too much new information, he summarized his involvement with efforts to sell and save Saab in a cohesive way that tied the entire drawn out affair together quite nicely. He did reveal that Victor Muller was one of his secret sources, which is why he knew that things were not quite as dire as the rest of us thought in those late December days. He should have trusted him more and panicked less!
After completing the rituals of counting ballots on the People’s Choice balloting, handing out awards, and distributing raffle prizes, I finally had a chance to run around and look for friends, old and new. It was wonderful to see former Saab employees Paul Hartman, Jorgen Weikert and Bill Wolf. I was buttressed all day long by so many terrific volunteers and employees who worked so hard, including Linnea, Stephanie, Scott, Seth, Marcel, Kyle, Alfredo, Ben and Rudy. Thanks to John delRosario for his picture taking. My apologies to anyone I left out! Everywhere I looked, people were smiling! By 3:00 the lawn had emptied and it was time to leave, but not quite for home. Attendee Curvin O’Reilly, who was involved with Saab advertising with McCann-Erickson back in Saab’s heyday, wanted to review some advertising history and concepts with Mr. Wade, and since it was so hot, I suggested we all go back to Charles River Saab to take advantage of the air-conditioning.

Until nearly 6:00, Mr. O’Reilly made his presentation to me, Chip Lamb, Mr. Wade and Mike Hickman. At that point, Mike headed for the airport, Chip aimed his SPG toward Virginia, Mr. O’Reilly headed to New York, and Mr. Wade and I jumped in a car and headed north where my wife had assembled a feast for us, a few employees and Saab friends. Finally, I could relax!

I must say that this was the most exhausting Swedish Car Day. The preparation, general level of anxiety, the effort required at the events themselves, all conspired to really drain me, and I am still not quite recovered. But I am happy. All the smiles I saw during that weekend even got me to smile, and I am not prone to such things! In near proximity retrospect, this Swedish Car Day was as close to perfect as I could have hoped for. Great, right? Here’s the problem: how do I follow this up next year? I will confess that if I had my druthers, I’d never do this event again and go out on top. However, we all know that won’t happen. There will be a SCD XII, I contacted the museum the next morning to reserve next year’s date, and we’ll have to work really hard to make the day compelling. For now, I will relax, and put this great day behind me!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Simpler Times
Last week CRS service advisor Seth Wonkka flew to Portland, Oregon and bought a 1977 Saab 99GL which he then drove back to Boston over the course of four days. This past weekend, he came up to my place, where he got to look around the new house, and I got to take his new car for a ride.

In 1977, I was in high school, and I can’t say that I had much knowledge about Saab, other than what I read in car magazines, and certainly no passion for them. I lived in southern Connecticut at the time, and while there were some Saabs around, my automotive aspirations lay elsewhere. Porsches, BMWs, Mini Coopers, Fiats, and even some muscle cars from the late 60s to early 70s were my cup of tea. Despite the differences in all these cars, the one thing they share, and share with the 1977 99 is that they were quality automobiles, yet they were simple.

Sure, there were cars available in those days with lots of extraneous stuff, but you could also buy a bare bones high quality car, like a Mercedes-Benz with roll up windows (remember them?), a four speed manual transmission and no radio. I know—a friend had one. It was so nice to get into the 99, which is not that different from my 1992 900T daily driver, and marvel in its simplicity. The 99 has those clever roll up windows, multi-adjustable manual seats, no air conditioning, no sunroof, steel wheels, and not even power steering. Can you even buy a car now without power steering? Having owned a number of cars with manual steering, it can attest that it is delightful to have so much unadulterated steering feel.

I recall that when I started working with Saab that the 900 “base model” retailed for $11,400, or just a little more than a fully equipped Honda Accord or Chevy Celebrity. That was in 1984. The car did have power steering, but no power windows, power locks, alarm, radio, air conditioning, antenna, or floor mats. These were analog cars at the dawn of the digital age. Would anyone buy a stripped down version of a Saab today, if it was available, in order to save a few thousand dollars? I’m just not sure. While the simplicity and mechanical nature of the 900 and 99 were endearing in their nakedness, more modern cars would fail to impress in that condition. Even the 9000, a car I love dearly, was just a dullard in its “base” form (which was still rather richly appointed). I can’t even begin to imagine a 9-3 or 9-5 in “light” form. Perhaps we are destined to drive ever more sophisticated and clever cars. While certainly better than the cars of yore, they do lack that mechanical transparency that made the old cars, like the 99 and 900, so endearing.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Swedish Car Day is only Three Weeks Away!

This sounds so strange to say given that we just flipped the calendar over to August. For the uninitiated, Swedish Car Day is a lawn event at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, which was created by Charles River Saab and Boston Volvo in 2000. At that time, it was the best attended new lawn event ever, with sixty some cars in attendance. SCD has grown over the years and has pulled in over 200 cars at times.

2009 was a bit of a disaster. The weather was horrendous. It was bound to happen. October can have the best weather of the year, and it can also produce perfectly miserable conditions. In the ten years of SCD, last year’s weather was the worst. It was so bad that many wanted to cancel the event. I refused, given that so many people come from far away from this event. Besides, I stated, SCD is like Christmas—you can declare it cancelled, but it comes just the same. So there we were, in ankle deep mud on the Larz Anderson lawn. It was pouring and about 38 degrees. Some areas around Boston were getting snow. The wind was at full gale. Still, sixty hearty souls showed up. The caterer donated all his sandwiches left. We did the only reasonable thing we could do: we moved the entire show into the museum.

If you’ve never seen the Larz Anderson, both the park and museum are worth the effort. In the dry, warm comfort of the museum, our few remaining vendors set up their wares, our guest speakers had an intimate audience, and the Saab and Volvo crazies rejoiced in the close proximity of their Swedish car loving compatriots on the museum floor as awards were given. While the smallest SCD since 2000, this may have been the most fun!

Alas, the powers at be tried to remedy the bad weather situation and the Larz Anderson came up with a late August date. August 29, 2010 will see SCD XI kicking off at 10am. What remains to be seen is how well Volvo and Saab owners adjust to this shift in the automotive calendar.

For more information, see the SCD facebook page, and to register for the Lawn Event, Click here for Swedish Car Day Registration

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Rumors of my Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

This famous quote by Mark Twain might well apply to Saab today. As I passed through life in the past year, people I knew would always inquire about the state of Saab, and somehow the only news that would stick in peoples ears was the bad. It stuns me that months after the Spyker deal that I am still getting questions about what we are going to do now that Saab is out of business. Huh?

We hear this multiple times a day from customers at the service desk. How did people miss all the good news about the sale to Spyker? The general population with no connection to Saab might get some understanding from me, but I always take notice of the status of companies I like doing business with, and presumably if you drive a Saab, you’ve got a reason to pay attention to at least some of the news surrounding the company. Another example: I was at the dentist last week. The hygienist said how sad she was that Saab was going out of business, because the 1986 900T that she previously owned was one of her favorite cars of all time. These are always odd conversations, when one person talks, and the other has a mouth full of suction tubes and dental devices and is left grunting. I held my thoughts, because I had to make sure that when I could speak again that she knew that Saab was not dead, and in fact had a promising if not brilliant future. She was surprised!

Some of this fault lies with the dealer body. We could have done more to tell our constituents about the new Saab ownership situation. In fairness, we had planned to do a large campaign to inform our clients, but decided to tie it to the launch of the 9-5. That was a mistake. Now the 9-5 is still not here and we have lost several months of opportunity to declare the great news, which now hardly seems like news, but clearly would be to some.

Most of the blame has to fall with Saab Cars North America. I understand that they had to preserve the miniscule capital they had to launch the new car, but there should have been something out there that simply stated that they were still in business, and that the future of Saab would be something for all to behold. This especially frustrates me, because an outstanding video/ad has been circulating since last year and it would have gotten the message out and touched a lot of present and former Saab enthusiasts.


Monday, July 19, 2010



















New England Forest Rally Newbie

In an earlier post I had carried on about rally racing, then had to come back to that post because my son, Pascal, had “gotten the call” to step in at the last moment as a replacement co-driver/navigator for rally driver Kevin Hans of Team O’Neil Rally School for the vaunted New England Forest Rally in the Western Mountains of Maine. Such a coincidence that was!

Pascal got together a fire-suit, head restraint system, helmet, etcetera and headed north last Wednesday to start preparing the car with Kevin. They showed me a picture of the work shop at Team O’Neil. Kevin and Pascal were working on the Audi Quattro in one bay. In the next bay was the Ford Fiesta of Ken Block being serviced. You may not know Ken Block, but I bet your kids do. Block is an absolute rock-star. Understand, this whole scenario would be like having a ticket to a Red Sox game, then getting a call from the Red Sox asking if you could play right field that day (since you were already going to be there anyway) and then going into the locker room and seeing your locker next to David Ortiz’. With the car prepared, Kevin drove it across New Hampshire to Bethel, Maine; no trailer-queen, that Quattro. On Thursday, the teams were permitted to drive all the stages. These stages are spread throughout that corner of Maine and New Hampshire, and bring to mind all the books of Louise Rich, with her vivid descriptions of C-Pond this and Middle Dam that. While driving the stages, an all day affair, Pascal had to familiarize himself with all the course “notes” which are written in hieroglyphs for his narration to driver Kevin. The book was an inch and a half thick!

Friday was the first day of racing. My wife, youngest son Marcel (aspiring rally racer) and I headed to Bethel. We found Kevin and Pascal with their car in the parking lot of Sunday River Ski Resort, which in rally-speak had been designated the “Parc Exposé.” All the teams had converged, cars were inspected by the race organizers and tensions mounted. World renowned Travis Pastrana was there, along with Ken Block, and they mingled freely with all the other drivers and the hoard of rally fans. Right next to team Hans-Belperron was one of the two Saabs entered in the event, a 1975 Saab 99 with a 900 turbo engine. I noted that the car, which hailed from Pennsylvania, garnered lots of fan attention. A great majority of the cars were Subarus and Mitsubishi Evo’s. But there were plenty of curiosities, too: a Volvo 240, a Datsun 280Z, a BMW 3-series and a vegetable oil burning VW Golf diesel. The “sweep” vehicle, which checked each stage prior to the racers, was also a Saab—a 9-7X.

The first few stages were short sprints, and were designed with spectators in mind. One of the beauties of the event was that there was no expense, and spectators could freely mingle with participants. Though some might deem the exuberance of some of the spectators as unruly, it was truly an egalitarian crowd just out for fun, with fun defined in many ways. What you didn’t see was spectators becoming a danger to themselves or drivers. Rally America, the sanctioning body, did an excellent job in designating spectator areas which were close enough to be exhilarating while still maintaining order and safety. That said, my wife did get pelted with stones on one corner, including a good sized rock to the throat. Not to worry, she’s sturdy and shrugged it off.

By the end of the first day, the red Audi of Hans-Belperron was in 21st position out of 65 cars, and given that it was one of the least powerful cars there, this was quite a feat. Things didn’t go well on day two, however. During the fourth stage of the day, near Richardson Pond, the red Audi started losing its punch. It seemed the fuel pump was delivering less and less pressure, and Kevin eventually pulled the car off and dropped out of the race. An ignominious end to be sure. But not as impressive as the ending to Ken Block’s, as his suspension failed at full speed and his car cart-wheeled into the woods, coming to rest on its side.

The Block connections abounded this weekend. Ken Block’s wife also ran a car in this rally, a Mazda Speed-3, which she rented from Team O’Neil; she also finished, unlike her famous husband. The Mazda she piloted was originally going to be the ride for team Hans-Belperron. Very much a different animal, being front-wheel drive and very powerful, it would have been interesting to see how they might have faired in that car. Most likely they would have finished. As it was, they were with plenty of company, as a total of twenty-four cars did not.

In the end, it was a very satisfying experience. Even if I divorce myself from being the father of a participant, I can attest that this was about as much fun as you can have for almost no money. The festival atmosphere, the goodwill of the spectators, and the bringing together of friends and strangers to cheer EVERYBODY was wonderful. Who won? Who cares!