Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Steven Wade has made the point recently in 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 AndrĂ©’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 AndrĂ© 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

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!