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If an automobile were an entirely rational purchase, there probably wouldn't be a lot of room in this world for cars like the Saab 900.
We don't mean to suggest for a minute that the 900 is deficient in any of the key automotive virtues, such as performance, comfort and safety. It's just that Saabs tend to march to a different drumbeat.
For some, the difference has made the Saab an object of passion. The 900 Turbo, in particular, became one of the cult cars of the '80s, and a high proportion of Saab's modest U.S. sales went to black 3-doors.
Thanks to Saab's partnership with General Motors - GM now owns half of the Swedish company - the 900 got its first major redesign in 15 years for the 1994 model year. Using a number of elements from various Opel cars (Opel is GM's German subsidiary), Saab engineers were able to create an all-new 900, with the first V6 engine option in Saab history.
The resulting car was a singularly clever piece of work - a much more modern 900 that still preserved the unique character and appeal of the original.
The hatchback was the first of the new 900 series Saabs to make an appearance, rolling into showrooms at the beginning of the '94 model year. It was quickly followed by the coupe, and the convertible arrived the next summer as a '95 model.
Because the convertible is the latest addition to the line, that's what we'll concentrate on here, although we've been able to spend time with all three versions of the 900.
Like its predecessor, the 900 is a front-drive small midsize hatchback, a tad bigger than a Nissan Altima, slightly smaller than a Honda Accord. However, the 900's pricing starts at almost $24,000 - well above the midsize mainstream - and peaks at more than $40,000 for the SE V6 convertible. As a result, its key competitors are primarily from the European ranks, particularly the Volvo 850 and BMW 3-Series.
The 900 convertible competes most directly with the BMW 318i and 325i ragtops and the Audi 90 Cabriolet.
The 900's three body styles are available in both S and SE models. There are three engine choices: a 150-hp 2.3-liter 4-cylinder, a 185-hp turbocharged version of the same engine and a 170-hp 2.5-liter V6. All three feature the latest in Saab's advanced engine management electronics, even though the V6 was borrowed from Opel.
Transmission choices include a standard 5-speed manual and an optional 4-speed automatic. However, turbocharged models are available only with the manual.
Preserving the character of the original Saab 900 obviously started with the car's new exterior. Designers managed to soften the old version's hump-backed appearance without losing its distinctive profile. They also preserved the 900's roominess and exceptional cargo capacity while improving its aerodynamic efficiency and chassis.
The convertible is a slightly different bird. Convertibilizing any car invariably subtracts from its cargo space, and this is particularly true of hatchbacks. However, the much-improved structure of the hatchback also benefits the convertible. We think Saab's new convertible is less prone to buzzes, squeaks and rattles than the previous model.
Although this is a redesigned Saab, the instrument panel and controls will make previous 900 owners feel right at home. Everything is where it's always been. The clean analog dials are easy to read through the big steering wheel, and the simple rotary climate controls have now become fashionable.
As part of the character-preservation process, Saab even kept the ignition lock where it's always been, which is between the front seats - a tradition that could have been dropped, in our opinion.
The seats feel the same - snug, supportive and sporty, with a good range of adjustability. There's also ample front legroom, plenty of headroom throughout, and surprisingly good backseat leg-room for a car of this size.
Our convertible had the additional allure of leather upholstery and, of course, fresh air at the flip of a switch. It didn't have the voluminous luggage capacity of the hatchback - 24 cu. ft. with the rear seatbacks in place and a whopping 49.8 cu. ft. with the seatbacks folded forward - but there was enough space in the trunk for a modest amount of luggage.
Even though Volvo is the Swede best known for safety, the 900 also gets exceptionally good marks on this score. Besides dual airbags, the 900 provides excellent side-impact shielding.
Also, the stiff body structure offers extra protection in roll-overs. The windshield pillar, for example, was designed to withstand a force of four tons, which benefits the convertible as well as the hard-topped members of the family.
There are 3-point seat belts at all seating positions and head restraints on the four outboard seats. A head restraint for the rear middle seat is an option.
Like Volvo, Saab has joined the ranks of manufacturers who think you should have your lights on any time you're driving: Daytime Running Lights are standard on all '95 Saabs.
On the active safety front, all members of the 900 line come equipped with 4-wheel disc brakes, and all have standard anti-lock.
Saab's chassis work has paid big dividends in the 900's ride and handling. The engineers developed the new chassis from two Opel models, and the result is a unibody that's markedly stiffer than the old one.
Although the new 900s still fall short of the knife-edged response favored by BMW, they certainly qualify as sport sedans in our opinion, and the convertible is equally nimble.
There's more body roll than you'd get with a BMW 3-Series, and the suspension is more compliant. As a result, all the 900s, including our convertible, are smoothies on rough roads. But even so, they're responsive and agile, which is one of the reasons they've commanded such loyalty over the years.
The rack-and-pinion power steering, though somewhat slow at 3.7 turns of the wheel from extreme left to extreme right, has excellent road feel, and the braking performance of our test car left absolutely nothing to be desired.
Another element that keeps 900 owners coming back for more is the power and flexibility of Saab's 2.0-liter turbo, the engine in our test car. Even though the new V6 is a pretty peppy engine, with a bit of an advantage in stoplight acceleration, the turbocharged 4-cylinder delivers a delightful liquid rush that's pure pleasure. That rush is particularly welcome when you're making a hurried pass on a two-lane highway.
We should add here that the Saab 900 is almost as much fun to drive - and about $6500 cheaper - with the basic normally aspirated 4-cylinder engine.
As with the previous model, the 900 isn't a car for everyone. It's expensive by midsize standards, with the convertible priced north of the $30,000 luxury-car border.
Besides pricing, the 900's styling continues to separate it from the rest of autodom. Though softened, its profile is still unique, and not everyone thinks it's beautiful.
That's just fine with the 900 faithful. They like the idea that they're not going to see multiple duplicates of their car every time they pull into a supermarket parking lot. That's why most 900 owners aren't zealots seeking converts.
If the 900's unusual styling and stiff price structure don't scare you off, you might want to consider joining this conspiracy. Besides the exclusivity, you also get a rare blend of handling, comfort, quality and safety.