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!