by Bob Storck

Saab gets around to offering a wagon -- and gets it right.

MARANA, Arizona - Long celebrated as the car company that enjoyed breaking the mold -- two-stroke engines and front-wheel drive, not to mention ignition switches on the floor -- Saab now has cars that may seem mainstream. That is, until you look below the surface.

The new Saab 9-5 bridges the gap between innovation and mainstream goodness. Entirely new for 1999, the 9-5 is also a showcase for three world-first technologies: the Saab Active Head Restraint system, ventilated seats, and an innovative, asymmetrically turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine.

Production of the V-6 engine began this fall. This unique design uses an integrated low-pressure turbocharger on the front cylinder bank, one that feeds compressed air to the entire transverse-mounted V-6 engine. The engine's usable power band is both broad and low. And when matched to an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with economy, sport, and winter driving modes, it's a pleasure to drive.

However, the base 9-5 doesn't come with that engine. A four-cylinder turbo is the base powerplant, with 170 horsepower and a quick-footed feel, especially with the five-speed manual transmission. You may not even miss the six-cylinder for all the base 9-5's features: it includes an air-conditioned glove box, six powerful windshield wiper nozzles, an in-dash CD player and cassette audio system, dual-zone automatic climate control, four cup holders, double divided sun visors, and much more.

If you'd like, you can add a four-speed automatic transmission ($1,110), a power glass sunroof ($1,110), an integrated rear child seat ($270, and a front and rear heated seat package ($500), a leather interior package ($1,315), or the industry's first ventilated front seats, packaged with the leather option and adding driver-side memory ($1,800).

Of course, if you won't settle for less than the V-6, Saab can put you in the top-of-the-line Saab 9-5 SE, with the 225-hp high-output V-6 and automatic transmission, plus a leather interior, a premium Harman Kardon nine-speaker audio system, a Saab Car Computer that performs multiple trip calculations, a power glass sunroof, and memory/power front seats. The price for the Saab 9-5 SE is $36,800.

Standard on both four- and six-cylinder models is Saab's excellent safety equipment package. Saab uses frontal and two-stage side airbags, as well as a new force-reducing front seat belt and pretensioners. Anti-lock brakes are standard as well The newest safety innovation is the Saab Active Head Restraint system, which uses the force of the upper body in a collision to brace the seat headrest, reducing whiplash injuries.

Though the 9-5's interior is among the roomiest of any sedan we've driven in its price range, a new wagon variant will be offered this year. It's aimed at individuals who live an active lifestyle and require versatility and cargo capacity but prefer the sporty feel of sedan driving -- and would prefer driving a Saab to the competition from Audi, Mercedes-Benz or BMW.

The Saab 9-5 Wagon accommodates both needs by providing performance, exceptional safety, and flexible cargo capacity. An aircraft-inspired CargoTracks(TM) metal load rail system allows owners to transport everything from pets to heavy, oversized packages -- all securable with one-grip locks and special belts. A broad range of accessories, like cages, dividers, nets, cargo guards and other securing mechanisms, make the CargoTrack system an extremely flexible transport feature. An optional sliding load floor, able to accommodates up to 440 pounds and extendible to almost 20 inches, makes the loading of very heavy objects easy.

Better yet, the 9-5 Wagon is already rated as one of the safest vehicles you can buy. The American Automobile Association (AAA) annually gives the Top Car Award to the passenger cars with the highest rating in a specific price category. The 1999 Saab 9-5 Wagon took top honors in the $35,000 to $40,000 category.

For all of its 1999 models, Saab offers excellent warranty protection that includes four-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage with 24-hour roadside assistance. Perforation coverage extends for six years with no mileage limit. Saab will continue to perform the first maintenance service free of charge.

Bob welcomes comments or questions at bstorck@sprynet.com

© The Car Connection

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