High-altitude (and velocity) breathing done right.

by Jill Amadio

SANTA FE, N.M. - Nose strips? Check. Nasal spray? Check. Saab Aero wagon? Check.

Armed with everything we needed to breathe and travel without puffing in the exalted 7000-ft altitude of Santa Fe, N.M., we set out in Saab's 2000 9-5 Aero wagons from the downtown Inn of the Anasazi. Saab decided to have its new luxury wagons test-driven here to demonstrate that their high-performance, variable boost, turbocharged engine can handle less oxygen without losing a dime's worth of lag.

Since the air is definitely a lot drier in Santa Fe than we are accustomed to, we were presented with the rather dubious gift of Breathe Right nose strips the night before to help prevent us from snoring and, presumably, to avoid waking up guests with more open nasal passages. Fortunately, no one wore the strips down to breakfast. The moisturizing nasal spray, also from the Breathe Right company, could be employed in a less noticeable fashion so some of us used it. Discreetly, of course.

Saab's new wagon needed no such assistance but the Swedish company got its point across. Taking the rarified air of the Rio Grande Gorge in its stride, the Aero climbed as high as 9600 ft without any sign of strain while maintaining maximum muscle.

The Aero difference

The Aero is the wagon version of the 9-5 Aero sedan that is already on sale in dealerships. Unmistakably a Saab in the entry luxury segment of the market but almost in a niche of its own, the new wagon has tightly controlled styling, an aerodynamic rear end, and the signature forward-leaning stance, albeit modified. It is pricey at $40,175 but a keeper.

Filled with unique safety features and a clever cargo area, it's a five-door vehicle that could almost pass as a sedan. It also has flared rocker panels, a front chin spoiler, a rear valance and a sport steering wheel, so maybe this is really a wagon that wants to be a roadster. Performance-wise, it comes pretty close, and although Saab can't disguise the fact that this is indeed a station wagon, it is certainly not your typical family hauler.

Accepting five passengers (though four would be far more comfortable), the interior is no-nonsense with an aviation-style cockpit that houses all your controls within a hooded, curved dash design. There are no fewer than eleven storage places and four cupholders. A duct from the air conditioning system is fed into the glove compartment to keep it a chilly 42 degrees F. OnStar is an option.

The ignition key fits traditionally into the center console lock, although this tends to make for a shorter center armrest than is desirable. Elegant fit and finish provide a true air of European luxury within its cabin. The target audience, in case you follow demographics, is 70 percent male, aged from 40-45 years, earning no less than $150,000.

If you want a wagon it usually means you're interested in the cargo area. Here, Saab excels. In addition to 72.9 cubic feet of space with the rear seat fully folded, the low loading area is flexibility personified thanks to an optional sliding floor that can be extended out almost 20 inches for a tailgate party. It can support two chunky adults or five children weighing anything up to 440 lb. Or that much food. Then there are the cargo tracks. The Saab Aero 9-5 wagon borrowed the same kind of aluminum rails airplanes use to load luggage so you can slide cargo in and out easily. A very nifty idea.

To demonstrate the strength of its cargo bolts, Saab drove a wagon to the top of a high plateau so we could watch climbers rappell down the side of the mountain using ropes hooked onto the cargo bolts.

Saving ourselves

Safety features on Swedish vehicles usually go beyond the norm. Saab engineers put cars through 40 tests instead of the usual government-mandated dozen and the 2000 wagon is no exception. Its active head restraint is the world's first whiplash risk-reducing seat design. Fully mechanical, it has no sensors or electronics, but is a simple, hinged headrest that moves forward with your head and neck in a rear impact crash, and cushions your head on the whip return.

The side airbag is an extra-large, dual-stage device split into two chambers. To avoid a big explosion force to inflate it, the lower half fills up completely during impact first to protect your torso, then the upper chamber inflates to protect your head. The bag's sensors are inside the door cavity instead of the seat, as with most other vehicles, so that the entire door can serve as a triggering mechanism.

Saab safety tests show that kinetic energy from a crash is a lot like water or electricity, always taking the path of least resistance. Therefore, Saab engineers designed a pendulum B-pillar instead of using a standard pillar to help prevent side injuries. Because the typical B-pillar, or strut that helps hold up the roof, is anchored at the roof and on the floor, there is very little support in the middle. In a side collision, B-pillars can bend and injure your side torso. Since our bodies are stronger below the waist then above, Saab built a stronger top half of the B-pillar, with the lower half designed to "give" during impact.

No hard breathing, please

What sets the wagon apart from competitors is a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder water-cooled turbo engine that emphasizes torque output over horsepower, which means you have plenty of acceleration and passing power the instant you need it. There's still lots of horsepower available, 230 ponies worth at 5500 rpm, and the turbo engine and its Trionic management system combine for one of the best performance wagons you can find anywhere. The Trionic throttle control both overcomes inertia you often experience in large turbochargers and eliminates turbo lag by working on the throttle position.

Driving the wagon is effortless whether climbing the mountains near Taos or whipping down the freeway. Anti-roll bars, stiff springs and special dampers control body roll, and the steering was as basically precise, though with a slight understeer. The brakes can bring you to a sudden halt without wavering off-line.

Saab often comes up with endearing options that never fail to surprise. This year, your pooch can ride in comfort and safety with a Batzi Belt pet restraint system, a VersaLeash if you usually banish your dog to the cargo area, or the Pet Harness. You can also buy Saab's water-and-gear-bag, a doggie backpack, and a spill-proof travel bowl. For dogs that can read, there's a "Pets Welcome" travel book.

2000 SAAB 9-5 AERO WAGON

Price: $40,175
Engine: turbocharged 2.3-liter in-line four-cylinder, 230 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Length: 189.3 in
Width: 70.5 in
Height: 58.9 in
Weight: 3530 lb
Fuel economy: 20 city/26 hwy
Major standard equipment:
Air conditioning
Anti-lock brakes
Traction control
Sunroof
Leather memory seats and wheel
AM/FM/CD/cassette
Daytime running lights

© 2000 The Car Connection

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