Friday, December 23, 2011

On the apparent demise of Saab

Those few of you who kindly read this blog know that I don’t make many posts. It is simply a matter of priorities and time—I wear lots of hats here and writing this blog falls fairly low on the priority scale and high on the time scale. I do find that essays need to kick around in my head for a time before I get them out, and then, because of my pedantic nature it takes an inordinate amount of time to get things written and re-rewritten. As I sit here today, on the verge of a Christmas week which I will take as a thoroughly needed vacation, especially in light of the week’s events, writing this piece is probably the last thing I should be doing. However, I feel I have both a stake and a perspective in the seeming demise of Saab, and I can’t let the moment pass without adding my point of view.

I have just finished reading “Who Killed Saab Automobile” by Holweg and Oliver at the University of Cambridge. It is well researched, well written. Certainly, there will be many opinions about the subject, so here are mine.

Saabs troubles have been deep rooted for many years. Keith Hart, who worked for Saab for decades, once recounted a story to me that was ominously prescient. Back in the 1980’s, at Saab’s US headquarters in Orange, Connecticut, the end of each month would see a new sales record set for our favorite brand, and a celebration would ensue. Those were giddy times for Saab in the US. Concurrently, plans were being drawn for an omnibus Saab campus elsewhere in the state which would house not only a new headquarters, but also parts distribution, training, and even had a “hotel” on site for visitors including those there for training, or Saab employees in from Sweden. The story goes that Bob Sinclair, arguably one of the greatest visionaries ever with Saab, cancelled the plans for that campus seemingly at the height of Saab’s success. Why? He had gone to see the new offerings from Lexus and Infiniti, and knew that those companies were going to directly impact the segment in which Saab was playing. Indeed, not for that reason alone, sales did start to tumble in the late 1980’s.

Then there was the involvement of GM. One can’t forget that Saab Automobile was in a fairly dire condition coming into the 1990’s: sales were off, their portfolio was too small, and their cost of production too high. While much anticipated, to me the NG 900, the first collaboration with GM, was a failure. While we all have fond memories of the Classic 900, recall that it could barely compete in its segment by the 1990’s, and was extremely expensive to produce, so a replacement was imperative. I don’t agree that the use of the Vectra platform was such a bad idea as espoused by Holweg and Oliver for the NG900. I will say that the execution of that car was deplorable. The clutch was perhaps the most hideous I have ever felt, the seats were the only Saab seats which were awful (where virtually all other Saab seats are exceptional), and the early chassis problems which caused vibration issues such that we had to replace control arms and wheels were inexcusable. It remains the only Saab that I am quite certain I will never own or want to drive, but not because of its bones. In fact, the 9-3, which is so much alike, is a terrific car and I would gladly have one as my daily driver. As was noted at its introduction, however, was that the first 9-3 was what the NG900 should have been all along.

As GM’s involvement increased, and the 9-5 came to the fore, it seemed that perhaps there were synergies which were finally exploited for the good. Yes, there were tensions still between the Saab way and the GM way. We would hear that from Saab Cars USA staff, and I am certain that such friction was even worse at the manufacturing level. Many have pointed to GM’s failure to endow Saab with enough product to remain competitive. I agree. I believe that had Saab been given the opportunity to develop an SUV early on when they were hot products in the US, that this would have greatly enhanced the profitability of Saab and its dealers. Likewise, all-wheel drive should have been recognized and implemented years ago, and not after everyone else in the market already had it. Thus, we were relegated to the 9-7x and 9-2x, which beyond being questionable products, arrived far too late.

From the dealer’s point of view, it also struck me as odd that despite the long relationship with Saab, that it took GM forever to integrate Saab into their logistics portfolio. Often we had hybrid or completely separate systems for training, warranty, information dissemination, workshop material and so on. Why? In fact, we had never fully integrated, and the integration which did take place was not completed until around 2007. Why?

If we fast forward to 2010 and the sale of Saab the Spyker, one of the most exciting times to be a Saab dealer, it is clear now, with the benefit of retrospection, that too many fundamental mistakes were made. Yes, there was a tremendous upside to the state of Saab which to many of us almost assured success—the product portfolio was teeming with great new product, a small but superb group was assembled to run SCNA, Voctor Muller seemed a dynamic leader and with the entire industry and economy in a shambles, with vehicle scrapage rates far exceeding sales, it seemed an opportune moment to launch the new Saab. All things were true, with the exception of the jump in sales which had been anticipated in 2010-2011. However, I don’t think that this is where Saab failed.

I believe that the first failure in the re-launch was too much optimism. I believe that a more prudent business plan would have included lower initial projections, serious reductions in staff (which would have made Victor unpopular in Trollhattan for a time) commensurate with those lower projections and vastly more available capital to give the company time to grow, and allow for real and sustainable marketing campaigns. There were other mistakes. The 2010 9-5 should never have existed; all of the 9-5s should have been built as 2011 models to enhance their residual value. Pricing on the 9-5 did not meet market expectations. That was a colossal failure. Few would argue that the 9-5 wasn’t a fine car. However, too few found it to be a good value. Marketing was virtually non-existent. Sure, I saw a few ads on cable TV, and a billboard which I complained bitterly about because the Saab name was in such a light hue that it was illegible. It just wasn’t enough. Nobody knew the 9-5 existed, or even realized that Saab was still around. There were ways, ways that would have required imagination and creativity, to spread the word….but that didn’t happen, either. Instead, there was doubt from the outset, espoused from many, that Saab could survive at all, despite the plans for the Phoenix and the new partnerships which were developing, and that doubt also drove away many prospective buyers, even those who had been loyal to the brand.

To my thinking, we were done for at that point. Much has been said about GM’s villainous behavior in killing the Youngman-Pangda deal, or Guy Lofalk’s mishandling of receivership, but in reality, though I don’t disagree with either of those opinions, it should never have come to that. Saab was a hostage, and the question we should be asking isn’t why those who are holding Saab hostage are so cruel, but why Saab put itself in a position to be taken captive in the first place. I won’t cast aspersions at Victor Muller, but he was at the helm when the ship hit not one but many icebergs. Perhaps with a pilot at his side, and he was absent one with the departure of Jan-Ake Johnsson, he could have taken measures to avoid catastrophe, but he didn’t, and he has sadly borne the consequence of that, hard as he might have tried to keep the ship afloat.

So here we are. We have gotten used to being at the precipice, and peering over. Now it seems we have taken the next step, and the only question remaining seems to be how far we’ll fall before we touch bottom.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Steve Jobs killed one of my favorite retailers

This post is not about bashing Steve Jobs. I am a Steve Jobs fan. I have owned Macs since 1989. There five Macbooks and an iMac at my home, along with innumerable iPods, so I am a credentialed Apple customer and enthusiast, too.

This story is about how technology set back the state of the art and ultimately fostered the demise of one of my favorite retailers: Tweeter, Etc., a Boston based audio retailer, which started as one store on Commonwealth Avenue in 1972, grew to over 100 in eighteen states and after one try at reorganization was forced into liquidation in 2008.

I can count the retailers I admire on one hand. How did a retailer, whose stores I actually visited perhaps only a dozen times, make such a short and prestigious list? First, they employed passionate, knowledgeable and loyal people who stayed at Tweeter for years and decades. Second, every time I shopped there, I spent more money, sometimes MUCH more money than I had planned, yet I always left the store with a big smile and never a regret. Third, their after-sales service was terrific. If any of this sounds like Charles River Saab, good, it’s not a coincidence.

I first encountered Tweeter in my teens, but did not enter one of their stores until I was a student at the Boston University School for the Arts, which was right across the street from their original store. I did not become a customer, though, until the 1990’s when I was working with Joe, a fellow musician and former Tweeter employee. To that point, we had used my wife’s stereo, purchased while in college (1980?), and exchanged/added a couple of components along the way. Finally, her large floor-speakers blew, and we knew it was time to make a wholesale change. Joe made some basic suggestions about systems and told us to bring our favorite CDs to Tweeter when it was time to make our purchase.

We had a fabulous experience. We listened to our music played through a variety of receivers and speakers, and finally opted for some Boston Acoustic main speakers, a killer Klipsch sub-woofer, and a Denon CD changer. Yes, we bought Monster Cable to connect it all. We spent much more than anticipated, but we enjoyed not only the buying experience but the equipment we had chosen as well. Not long after, we went back and bought a Yamaha surround-sound receiver, and some BA rear and center channel speakers. Then, deciding that we needed to see movies better, since they now sounded awesome, in the early 2000s we went to buy a flat-panel TV. Again, I walked in with a certain size in my head, but Sue was taken with a certain 16:9 42” HD projection TV, and we were set. There were some other smaller purchases, always with the same salesperson, and the experiences were always great.

Service after the sale was terrific, too. Tweeter was the first company I knew of that had an after-the-sale price match guarantee, and I did receive a check from them unsolicited because they found one of my purchases advertised at a lower price elsewhere. Then, they advised me that they were GIVING me an extended warranty on my Toshiba television because they were dropping the line and had had some trouble with the units. OK. Good thing, because we started to have problems with it. Lots of problems. Ultimately, they agreed to replace the unit with a similar Mitsubishi, but after delays due to Mitsubishi on a 42” unit, they replaced my television with a 50” set.

Around 2005 I had gone into “my” Tweeter and noticed how the store had changed. The audio sections were smaller. Much more of the space was devoted to television. The biggest change, though, came when I talked to my salesperson. Where he and the entire staff at Tweeter used to always be vibrant and excited, there was an air of resignation and gloom which hung around the store. We chatted for a bit. When I commented on the number of televisions, he sighed that they had become a bunch of glorified TV salespeople. I asked if people stopped really listening to music in the same way we once did with the advent of the iPod. That got him going. He practically ranted. Didn’t people realize how compressed iPod sound was? With the source sounding so bad, what was the point of listening to music through quality components? That’s when it really struck me. This new technology which was so wonderful in some respects had so thoroughly changed peoples listening habits, that high-fidelity, or even good-fidelity had become irrelevant, and thus, so had Tweeter.

I can’t lay the demise of better audio solely at the feet of the iPod. Its cousin, iTunes, has killed the CD, and with it, for most purchasers, CD quality sound. While Tweeter had always managed to hold its own against other brick-and-mortar retailers, the confluence of emerging internet sales and the decline in high-fidelity sales spelled doom. It was a perfect storm, and in the end there really wasn’t a place for a Tweeter. I knew it on that one fateful visit. It was going to be impossible for Tweeter to reinvent itself, because changes in technology and tastes had sucked the passion out of its people, and without those people—and their knowledge and enthusiasm—one might as well order their electronics on the web.

There are still a handful of retailers that I admire or can enjoy with a visit, whether a purchase is made or not. I am delighted that some small progressive retailers, like Newbury Comics, have successfully reinvented such that they are not only hanging in but thriving. While Saab is not a retailer, I do hope that once the current high-wire act is finished, that a thorough consideration of their vision takes place and that they too will enact a revolution which will keep them relevant and thriving in the automotive marketplace. I don’t want to see another company I like and admire disappear. Companies are a bit like people, and once lost, they never come back.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Saab guy on spending a weekend in a Volvo S60

Were it not for the time I spend instructing for In Control, given that the six cars belonging to various members of my household are all Saabs, I might never have the opportunity to really get to know what any other cars are like. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend two full days in a 2012 S60, put it through its paces, and I thought it might be interesting for a Saab guy to review our most direct competition.

I’ve done crash prevention training in lots of different cars over the years. Surprisingly, when it comes to the student’s experience, the type of car really doesn’t matter much. Good techniques are good techniques, no matter where they are applied. Each different type of car used, though, has to be handled slightly differently from the instructors point of view. The first car I instructed in was the Volvo S40. Say what you will about its humble origins, other than the cramped quarters (not for my diminutive frame, but for larger students), the good seats and ergonomics made the S40 a nice place to spend your day. It did everything reasonably well, and handled very predictably. Later, a second fleet was added and they were Kia Spectra SX. While we, the instructors, initially sneered at these cars, we grew quite fond of them. They were simple and fun. They did everything better than you thought they would, often better than the S40’s. While not as nice a place to spend your day as the S40, the Spectra was an easy car to learn to drive and performed surprisingly well in handling and braking maneuvers. Most recently, at In Control, I have spent a couple of years in Toyota Camrys. Instinctively I do not like these cars or what they represent. However, I recognize that for many reasons, they are the perfect vehicles for crash prevention training. A Camry is spacious, reasonably comfortable, completely familiar to students, and the performance surprisingly good. In fact, I’ll say that with the slightest bit of tire pressure manipulation, I can hang the tail out on a Camry better than any other car I’ve ever driven. Now there is a new car in the stable, the Volvo S60.

The Volvos arrived last week and I was asked to instruct in them for two days and give an assessment to help management and other instructors. Asking a Saab guy to test a Volvo is like asking a Ford guy to spend a weekend in a Chevy. While those of us with an enlightened view of Swedish motoring might make fun of our cousins from Gothenburg, more than ever the two Swedish brands seem to of a similar mindset. Where a generation ago, other than being safe and from Sweden, there was nothing similar between a Saab and a Volvo—not shape, not configuration, not drive-train layout—today there are lots of similarities. Volvo has seen the light and produces front-wheel drive cars with turbos. Saab saw the light and produces all wheel drive and station wagons. Both make distinctive CUVs, the S60 and S80 certainly beg comparison to the 9-3 and 9-5, and Saab and Volvo both engage in performance variants.

Of course the first impression of the car is of its external appearance. In general I am a fan of the corporate body shape which Volvo has adopted over the last decade. It is distinctive, and sometimes handsome. From most angles, I like the new S60. From the rear there is a bit too much Honda Civic, but that’s OK. The real problem is the nose. Sorry, Volvo. You almost got this car looking right, even “naughty,” but the front fascia is just ugly. Then again, so am I, so I won’t dwell on appearances. Getting inside, I think the Volvo folks got this right. This was a basic car—textile seat covers, no sunroof….The black interior with metallic accents is very handsome. The flow of the dash and door panels works well. Most of the bits had visual and tactile appeal. Ergonomics were good: I appreciated the very long throw of the telescoping wheel and an excellent dead pedal. Gauges and displays were clear, and the center stack video display integrates nicely and is not distracting. Seats were supportive, probably tight for larger frames. The big surprise was how pinched the rear was, both laterally and longitudinally. Not unlike the 9-3 (though the 9-3 has the same front legroom and 1.5 inches more in the rear), put someone tall in a front seat, and you simply can’t seat anyone (with legs) behind them. So far, I give the exterior design a “B” and the interior an “A-.”

Then it was time to drive the car. In the course of our training, we do a full-on panic stop with ABS, slalom, emergency lane change (with and without brakes) and tailgating drill. At first there was concern about the braking in the S60, which didn’t make sense since its brakes are huge and it is not much heavier than the Camry, which seemed to out-stop the S60. However, after repeated hard braking, the pads seated and the S60 braking was quite good, perhaps a tad better than the Camry and the ABS function much more refined.

In the slalom, I had to relearn, for the first time in ANY car, how to steer. At first the S60 seemed cumbersome and the DSTC (ESP for Saab people) intervened far too often. This brings to light one complaint I have, that the DSTC, even when turned off, still functions, albeit at more extreme thresholds. I think that stability control is one of the greatest innovations of all time, but if you are going to have an “off” switch, let it be truly off. At first I had trouble negotiating the slalom at 35 mph, while in a Camry I didn’t experience any difficulty until 40 mph. Eventually I realized that the steering in the Volvo is just so much faster than in any other car I had used, so significantly less input was required. I couldn’t execute the slalom yet at 40, but 35 became much smoother with no DSTC interference. Overall, I really like the weight and feel of the steering, and the car seemed nicely balanced. I have felt that, with the exception of the NG 9-5, most newer Saabs have steering which is too light, and wish they felt more like this Volvo. In the slalom department I give the car a B+.

In the lane change, or moose test, we always try to give the students a harrowing ride through with no brakes at 45-50 mph. In a Camry, that means getting very sideways by the exit gate. In the Volvo, part way through the second turn, the turn to bring you back into your lane, the DSTC would intervene just as the rear of the car was starting to swing. It made it a bit too tidy, but just messy enough to unnerve the students and show them why this maneuver should only be done with brakes. [In order to get that swing, I did have to bias the tire pressure with 6 psi more in the rear than the front.] I found that making the lane-change with brakes, given speeds of 60-65, that DSTC on or off made no difference, and the car was easy to steer through, though it did take longer to bring to a stop than the Camry. Lane change grade is an A.

Some of the advantage the Camry enjoys may have to do with the tires. We run Goodyear Eagles and they have lots of grip. The S60, by contrast, wears a much sportier profile tire, but the standard Michelin MXM4 has a 500 tread-wear rating, so blistering grip is not a priority. I suspect that when the tires are switched out, the S60 will reveal even better results.

Lastly, the T5 engine in the S60 (given Saab’s history of using T3, T5, T7 etc designations, Volvo should have called this engine something else) was terrific. It has that “odd” sound that is uniquely 5-cylinder, and the intake growl and exhaust note are wonderful. The turbo boost comes on early and is rather subtle. I do like that from a stop there is no delay when the throttle is stomped. While it shares the same Aisin Warner 6-speed Saab uses, the throttle response is much more immediate. I do wish, despite the modest turbo assist, that the car had a vacuum/boost gauge. I give the power train an A-.

I think that Volvo has done an excellent job with this car, with the exception of rear seat legroom. The S60 feels very substantial, very tight and drives bigger than it actually is. That’s not a negative! While very sure-footed, it does not have the quick reflexes of the 9-3, which drives smaller and lighter than it really is. I prefer the elements of the S60 interior over the 9-3, except the seats, but the 9-3 has an airier cabin, likely due to the less swoopy roof line which diminishes the window area on the S60. In automatic trim, I much prefer the Volvo powertrain. Though slightly dated, I prefer the 9-3 exterior design.

I very much like the S60 and think it hits its mark quite well. I do, overall, like the complete package just a bit better than the 9-3. Then again, at list price it is almost $2000 more, and that does not account for the 9-3 having a standard leather interior. Mostly, the preference comes from a better executed interior, better steering and a much stronger engine. Which would I buy? Despite some of the deficiencies, I think I’d just have more fun in the 9-3, so that’s where my money would go.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Road Trip Observations

Last week I took a road trip with wife and youngest son to see middle son participate in the Black River Stages Rally, west of the Adirondack Mountains in New York. It was a great time, and I came away with a few observations, some of them automotive.

Glorious roads. Part of our journey took us from Ticonderoga through Lake Placid and out NY 3 to the flat lands beyond the mountains. What a drive! It didn’t hurt that their foliage was ablaze. The gorges, the mountains, the forests and the waterfalls all made for a spectacular backdrop. For the purpose of this observation, though, the real treat was the driving experience itself. The road conditions were excellent, and the routes were a joy. Lots of curves, many properly cambered, helped to keep us focused and involved. Better yet, especially when compared to the ridiculously low speed limits of New Hampshire, was that the speed limits were such that I almost never needed or wanted to exceed them. As a rule, given the realistic nature of those limits, I saw no cars driving excessively fast. True, a 9-5 Linear SC is not a barn-burner, but it still enjoys a bit of up-tempo push. We were never hampered in our progress, and never felt like we were holding anyone else up (not that there that many on these two-lane highways), because at every mountain ascent there was an additional lane to allow everyone to find their appropriate place in the velocity hierarchy. I would like to return to those roads someday, perhaps in a convertible, top down in spring or early autumn.

Roadblocks. I had never seen roadblocks like we saw in New York. We saw three—two on I-87, and one on a two-lane highway. We were stopped in two of them. The first was manned by State Police. We didn’t think to ask what they were looking for, but they looked at us and waved us along. On our return, we were stopped by Homeland Security Border Patrol on I-87, and after waiting in a substantial queue, we had to inquire as to what they were looking for. Border and immigration violations, we were told. A noble cause…but wouldn’t you do that at the border, and not a few hours south of there? Besides, I never realized that we were suffering from an influx of undocumented Canadians.

Maps. Remember those? All messed up, impossible to refold and clogging your glove box and seat pockets? Then we got Map Quest, Google Maps and GPS. No more maps. Because I’ve learned not to trust GPS to get the big picture right on a long trip, I try to map a route on Google Maps first, and rely on GPS for the local navigation. On this trip we were doing fine with our paper turn-by-turn directions. Then Google made a mistake and caused us to miss an exit on I-87. Since the next exit was ten miles up, rather than double back, I pulled out the GPS unit (we call her Jill) and asked for assistance. As I expected, she put us on a course that was essentially westerly, which should eventually intersect our original route. My assumption was correct. However, because we did not have a map, we didn’t realize that Jill was making our route much more diverse and interesting than it needed to be. She would have us turn off the highway, onto barely paved by-ways with no markings, no center lines, and no civilization. Why? Was she retaliating for being neglected? Perhaps it was that the speed-limit reader in her was getting bad information. New York has a state speed limit of 55 mph unless otherwise posted. Jill indicated a speed limit on some of these back roads of 55, and I can assure that nobody except Sebastian Loeb would dare begin to approach those speeds, and in fact some of the roads were marked with 30 mph signs, contradicting Jill. While we found our destination, we did secure a map for the return trip and put Jill back in the glove box.

Panamera. On the return, we stopped in at Fort Ticonderoga at the heel of Lake Champlain to take the tour and eat a picnic. I noted the presence of, and took a moment to admire, a Porsche Panamera Turbo in the parking area. This is a car which elicits strong opinions. Mine is all affirmative. If Porsche was to build a sedan, it had to be the Panamera. It is the only current Porsche I have not driven. I would like to. More than anything, I like looking at it. Much like the Maserati Quattroporte, it eschews the styling norms that define other large sedans, and makes the A8L, the S-class and 7-series look dreary and dull. Upon my return to work, our GM stopped in and he was driving the same car—a black Panamera Turbo—for he was on his way to a Porsche event (Dan also manages a Porsche/Audi store and two Volvo stores). I had a chance to sit in the car, and it did not disappoint me at all. Though I would prefer a Saab seat (Porsche owners will feel right at home, though), I very much liked the rest of the interior. It felt rich and masculine. If not driving the car, it seemed like a nice place to enjoy a fine cigar and small batch bourbon. That sounds like an impossible dichotomy, but that was truly my first reaction.

Devastation. Much of Vermont is still out of order from the August floods. The state highway website did an excellent job in detailing which routes were opened, closed or opened with delays. Traveling east-west meant dealing with delays or not going at all. We chose US 4, which parallels the Ottauquechee River. The delays from ongoing road work were handled well, and frankly, we didn’t mind the stops because it gave us a chance to take in the destruction and the massive effort of the army of heavy equipment all along the river. In some stretches, aside from the total-loss damage to buildings along the banks, the river looked somewhat normal. However, to see houses, bridges and cars still in the river bed in other areas was unsettling. Vermonters are fierce bunch, and certainly they will put their beautiful state back in order. I would suggest the best way we can help them out is to “buy Vermont.” Perhaps cheese, Ben and Jerry’s, and at $40 a gallon, maple syrup is a relative bargain.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A 9/11 Rememberance

September 11 changed everything. Its tentacles are so vast, think of the “butterfly effect” on steroids, as to have effected even the substantial business changes I had to make this past week, in the foreshadow of the tenth anniversary. September 11, as it is for many, one of those seminal moments in life when everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. The only other memory I have of something so momentous was the assassination of JFK, when I was a child, though my recollection is more of the profound grief of my grandparents as they watched the news unfold, than of any understanding of the situation itself.

Because observance of this day means so much to me, I knew that I had to get a post in place, even at the dereliction of some other pressing matters before me. I had hoped to reprint, or borrow widely from an article that appeared about my September 11 story in Fort Worth Weekly magazine, but alas their archives only stretch back to 2002. Fort Worth? Yes, I’ll explain that one later.

Monday, September 10, 2001. Along with fellow travelers Cory Bumpus and Carl Pasquarosa from elsewhere in our dealer group, we boarded an AirTran plane at Logan Airport to fly to Dallas-Fort Worth for some information system training. The same Logan Airport from which the WTC bound American Airlines planes would embark the following morning. Funny how innocuous events take on greater meaning after seismic change occurs. When we boarded the plane, which was one of those no frills one-class carriers, Carl, who is a perpetual cut-up, immediately engaged the flight attendant in jocular banter. We were right at the front of the plane, and he joked of being in “fist class.” Then, he earnestly told the attendant that he was a close and personal friend of the captain. She played along with Carl, and went forward and got the captain to come out of the cockpit and say hello, and invited us forward to see the cockpit. Perhaps we were the last airline passengers ever afforded this courtesy.

That evening, after settling into our hotel, I drove to Fort Worth to see Paul, a university and conservatory roommate, and meet his new wife, Beth. She was, like me, a cellist, and also a freelance writer, often writing for the Fort Worth Weekly magazine. After a quiet evening I returned to the hotel and retired.

I was up every early on Tuesday, September 11. The time change hadn’t registered, and I have been waking at 4 something for years, so my day started early, with not much to do. At about 7:30am Dallas time (8:30 eastern), perhaps because of the reminiscing the evening before with Paul, I took out my phone book and called another friend from my university days who lived and worked in Manhattan. I recall that the news was on in the background, sound off: nothing of importance that I hadn’t already seen already that morning. At about 7:45 (perhaps a few minutes later) I finished my chat, and decided to head to the conference room off the lobby of the hotel since class started at 8:00. When I exited the elevator, I saw that the television in the lounge area had a news flash about a “small plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center.” It was compelling enough that a few, including me, stopped to watch. Looking back, while I don’t know the exact moment I hung up the phone with the friend in New York, it has occurred to me that I was talking with her at the moment that tower was hit.

Just before the class started, people in the lobby were shouting about the second tower being hit. The class emptied for a time, and then everyone came back. But not for long. As news of the Pentagon attack reached us, and the scope of the disaster widened, to the consternation of the instructor everyone left the classroom to join in the collective observation of the horror and chaos which were unfolding. I think that the numbness that took hold of me precludes any specific recollection of the events, but I’ll never forget the nauseating feeling, and the crippling impotence I felt being so far from my family. We all remember the excruciating helplessness and bewilderment that befell us that day.

Cory, Carl and I, having long put aside the notion of participating in training, eventually decided we had to make plans to get back to Boston. I believe that we were originally scheduled to fly on Thursday, but it was becoming clear that nobody was flying anywhere anytime soon. We investigated trains, not possible. Same with buses. Then we called Enterprise to see what the cost would be to drive the rental car we already had back to Boston. We were advised that if the car left the state it would be reported stolen. I will admit that as things got more desperate, I had devised a scheme whereby we would exchange the license plates with another rental car, report ours stolen and drive back on exchanged plates. It never got that far.

Fortunately, the folks in Boston were hard at work trying to get us home. Tony Bartolotti, then of Boston Volvo, arranged the purchase of a new S80 with a Dallas dealer. When the world started to right itself, money was wired and we were able to purchase the car on Thursday morning, and straight away we made our way toward home. Carl took the wheel first, and we had decided that we would make as few stops as possible. I was on the second leg, so I tried to sleep in the back seat and discovered that the rear headrests in an S80 were very uncomfortable.

Our first stop was in Arkansas. I don’t recall the town. We stopped at a family restaurant and had dinner. Carl, in his inimitable way, had the waitress laughing the entire time as he poked fun of her, and of us Yankees. After dinner, Carl continued on to the Tennessee border, where, well into the evening, I started to drive.

I wanted to get a cup of coffee. Nothing special, just a good cup of coffee. Even an OK cup of coffee. Where in the northeast we can’t go a mile without driving past a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks (or two, or three), we had no such luck in Tennessee. Thus, at a roadside stop, in lieu of coffee, I tried my first Red Bull. I can attest that one can kept me up and alert all night!

In the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning, I handed the wheel off to Cory. I remember my apprehension as Cory tore through a thick fog in the mighty S80. She was determined to get us home as quickly as possible! Later that morning, as we were in New Jersey running parallel to Manhattan island, we could see the smoke still pouring from Ground Zero. The low resolution photo does no justice to what we witnessed.

North of New York, just before the Connecticut border on Interstate 95, we experienced a moment of levity. There were strange sounds coming from the chassis of the S80. I heard it. Carl heard it. Two service managers concurred that there was something wrong with the car, so we pulled off to investigate. We both poured over the tires, suspension and undercarriage. While doing so, an attendant from the gas station where we parked came over to check on us. When we told him what we were doing, he laughed and said the noise was from a weirdness in the pavement, that lots of cars made that noise and plenty of those stopped in his gas station to check on it. Slightly embarrassed, we left.

A few hours later, about 30 hours since we had embarked, we arrived in Boston. I dropped off Cory and Carl at Boston Volvo and then went to Charles River Saab. There, learned that among those who perished, a passenger on one of the planes that hit tower one, was Anna Allison, a long time customer of Charles River Saab. After spending a bit of time with our employees, I finally was able to finish my journey home, finally able to have a sense of relief in being with my family.

While you may see some smiles on the faces in these photos, I can assure you that none of us was happy. We were immensely relieved to have a way home, and perhaps a little giddy with the anticipation of seeing our families. I will always think of Cory and Carl on September 11. Their fellowship was invaluable in staying emotionally sustained during that trying time. It is my sincere hope that none of us, no matter how directly or indirectly affected by the events of that day, ever forgets what happened.

As a post script, in an effort to make some sense and feel of some assistance to the victims of September 11, I wanted to do a fund-raiser. Where it seemed the emergency response victims were well spoken for, I came across a group looking to assist the under-served survivors of those who perished in the Windows on the World restaurant: The Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund. Thus, with my wife and a few friends, supported by the Village Automotive Group, we performed A Concert of Hope where admission was a donation, and were able to offer a nice sum to that charity. Though I hadn’t performed publicly in years, it seemed the least I could do.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lord of the Trolls
By in large I try to stay away from commenting on news coming out of Saab Automobile. In general, it would be an impropriety, and besides, there are lots of other venues for such comment. I would prefer to spend the little time I have for composition writing about product or spinning yarns about the Saab experience.
In the past days there has been some troubling news—delayed salary payments to white-collar workers—from Saab which has been reported widely. I will state up front that I am still optimistic about where this will all end up. I do not believe that anybody at Swan or Saab is endeavoring to do anything other than to solve all the various challenges and get their ship righted. I also do not believe that Victor Muller intended for anything other than full on success for Saab, or he would not have embarked on what he knew would be an arduous journey.
Some time back I had decided to stop living and dying by the day to day, hour to hour news flashes coming out of Trollhattan. It was too distracting, too upsetting. I have a job to do, customers to be served, employees to be attended to and a family to support and love. There was a time, in 2009 and through the sale of the company when all we did was pay attention to daily machinations. I wasn’t going to put myself through all of that again. This is not to say that I have shuttered my eyes, blocked my hearing and stopped my internet perusal. I still have SaabsUnited and InsideSide as open tabs every day on my desktop, and I don’t at all mind having a notion of what is going on. I just read the news pieces differently, especially at SaabsUnited. I hit the headlines, scan some of the pieces, but I don’t bother trying to really understand and digest the minutiae—that’s where the nausea and heartache can come from. (This is also why InsideSaab is my favorite read, for Swade provides a relieving antidote for all those maladies.)
For reasons I don’t understand, there are many who still choose to mire themselves in the goo of every piece of bad news. In scanning the front page of SU yesterday, the top-of-the-page story was on the delay of salary payments to white-collar workers. There was the one paragraph press release, followed by a few sentences of commentary. I would have expected, in the context of all the recent Saab news, that said story might have generated a couple dozen comments. However, over the course of the day I saw the comment total kept escalating, fast. By the time it reached eighty-some, I had to have a look and what was so fascinating to so many SU readers. I read through the comments quickly, and I may have this a bit off, but my impression was this: the early comments were critical of Swan/Saab, then the mob turned its venomous comments toward SU and its caretakers, and finally the rock throwing got very personal among the users. Reminded me of Lord of the Flies. For a time, it only got worse (I’ll admit that at this point I was drawn by morbid curiosity) and I believe there were ultimately well over 200 comments. Finally, a moderator stepped in and banished one user, which seemed to have a cooling effect, and—far too late, in my opinion with the advantage of hindsight—comments were closed.
I believe that the challenging news from Saab over the past few months has had a very deleterious effect at SU. I feel for the new ownership, which tries to deliver lots of news posted there along with the Saab-interest stories. Someone I once worked with, noting rancor among employees during a slow period, told me that peace among the troops would return as soon as there was an up-tick in business. “Everything’s funny when you’re making money,” he would say. He was right. Likewise, I fear that as bad news remains the order of the day at an enthusiast site like SU, that hostility will keep fomenting among the users. I hope I am wrong. There are good people running that site doing a job that I’m sure feels very thankless at times. Still, if the caustic tone remains, many of the more civil users will simply stop showing up, which may make the barbarism even worse.
Then again, when production starts up next month, followed by the release of the 9-5 Combi and the anticipation of the 9-3 replacement, perhaps the good news will soothe the savages and civility will be restored. “Everything’s funny….” Let’s hope.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

First impression: 2011 9-4x

Because the world works the way it does, and because I cannot cloister myself from the written opinions of others, I know that when I have a first impression of a new model that it is somewhat sullied by everything that I have already read or heard about that model. I guess, barring a paradigm shift, it will always be that way. Thus, having read many accounts of the 9-4x already, and having seen it in New York in April, I took my first drive in our new model yesterday.

The 9-4x I drove was one of two Aeros we received last week. This one is silver with a gray interior. I am not yet versed enough to know which of the features are standard and which are optional, and I chuckled when I tried to read the Monroney sticker to find out that the window tint is so dark as to render the sticker illegible. First stop was at the trunk, which I had to open to hang the dealer plate. I really like the “U-Rail” divider in the trunk. Of course, never willing to let any concept be good enough as it is, my mind immediately saw that it would be extra cool if the fence extended not only horizontally but also vertically to accommodate parcels of varying heights. Still, it is a very Saab feature, and the attached pictograph instruction sheet looks like it was prepared by the folks at IKEA. When I opened the trunk floor, I was surprised at the size of the sub-floor storage, but that’s the upside to having no spare tire. I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, to see that the floor was a composite and not wood as is found in many of my favorite Saabs. I played with the remote release and power closing tailgate. While technicians in the shop did test and pass the “anti-crush” feature of the auto-closing, I can say that when I just grabbed the tailgate and tried to restrain it, it kept closing undeterred. I did find it odd that the auto-close button was on the bottom lip of the tailgate and was a reach for me. Being short, I am sensitive to height issues, and I could see that for those even shorter than me it might be difficult to reach that button when the tailgate is fully opened. However, there is a second control for this on the driver’s door panel.

Stepping into the car one is greeted by a dash and console that are, if one has driven the 9-5, very familiar. Overall, I like the execution and prefer some of the detail work over that of the 9-5. Truth to tell, I had to keep looking between the two to see the subtle differences. In all, despite any minor criticism I might have for the interior styling, I am relieved to see that Saab is staying with a uniform design strategy across the model range. Seats are great, and the ventilation was appreciated given the heat-wave we are enduring at the moment. The steering wheel, right out of the 9-5, is magnificent. I don’t actually like the look of it, but when I’m driving, I only know the wheel by its heft and tactile sensation, and in that regard it is beyond reproach. The dead pedal is perfectly positioned. While a carry-over from GM, I do still like the shift lever in this car.

For a vehicle which is fairly compact, there are some facets which are enormous. On the Aero, the 20” wheels look almost too large, but as such enhance the overall appearance. The sunroof is one of those panoramic wonders, again like the 9-5, and when seated in the rear, the view is glorious. What a way to give someone a tour or, say, Manhattan where they could actually see the skyscrapers from very comfortable confines. Lastly, the A-pillars bother me some. I’ve seen smaller tree trunks. This is where reading other reviews might compromise my objectivity. While I didn’t get into the 9-4x and look right at the pillars, I had just read Swade’s account and as soon as my eyes noted the A-pillars, they were all that I could see. Was I predisposed to this from my having read his account? Perhaps, but fat pillars have bothered me before. The B-C-D pillars do not bother me. I use mirrors exclusively for rearward and side views, and when properly positioned are far more reliable than looking directly out of a car. When driving the 9-4x, I did encounter a corner where the pillars really impeded my vision and I had to crane to the right so see where I was going. The last new model which left me feeling pillar-phobic was the 1994 900, whose pillars were a bit larger than the C-900, but more importantly were positioned such that they encroached the driver’s visibility, which was very disconcerting at first. If I could make a suggestion regarding these large pillars, and this does nothing to help visibility, only perceived visibility: make the pillar trim dark so it disappears against the backdrop.

Speaking of visibility, the backup camera arrangement is excellent. This is not a unique system, but a first for Saab. It has trajectory indicators which I find to be reassuring. I have seen these in other cars, and for those who are concerned about backing in a larger vehicle, I would highly recommend this system.

The driving experience offered no surprises. Again, though this car sits very high in comparison, it feels, as it should, like a sibling to the 9-5. For those who haven’t driven a modern CUV, the real surprise is in the handling. While higher, the handling is not only sedan-like, but sport-sedan-like. I instructed once at a Porsche event, and had the pleasure of thrashing lots Boxers, Caymans, 911s and a Cayenne GTS. Once I got over my initial apprehension, I found I could be virtually as aggressive in the Cayenne, which appears slightly taller and larger than the 9-4x, as I could in the sports cars. In my jaunt, I did challenge the handling prowess of the 9-4x in a few spots, and it was very sure footed and predictable, with lots of reassuring feedback and an overall sense of great stability. There was one bit of weirdness on one corner which surprised me. I was taking a hard left, accelerating moderately and ascending. I did not engage the ESP, but it almost felt like I did, and there was a bit of tug at the steering wheel. I don’t know if I was sensing some torque redistribution by the XWD, or maybe I just did something wrong. I could not reproduce the sensation, so maybe….

I have two disappointments with the 9-4x. One is weight. As with the 9-5, the weight seems disproportionate to the overall size. There is no positive that comes from more weight, whether it’s around my waist or in the chassis of an auto. Weight reduction in a car feeds on itself—lighter weight means smaller brakes means less unspung weight which means lighter control arms etcetera. Likewise, being overweight has the opposite effect. Now if the 9-4x came in at a weight more in line with the RX350 or the Q5, then instead of the 3.0 V6 perhaps Saab could have put the 2.0 T4 from the 9-5. Oh, and that would have saved more weight . More importantly, it would have kept the line more consistent with current offerings and Saab tradition. I long argued that despite its shortcomings, if the 9-7x had been offered with a turbocharged I5 version of the 4.2 I6, we might have warmed to it more. As it is, Audi does offer their 2.0 I4 in the Q5, so why not us!

The other disappointment is the absence of a head-up display. I have quickly grown fond of this, especially with navigation as the approaching directions are indicated in the display. On a positive note, the multi-color screen for the Driver Information Center is so much better to look at than the green-monochrome screen in the 2011 9-5 (the 2010 9-5 was multi-color) and as such is a very attractive and readable focal point for the instrumentation. [Note: the website picture of the 9-4x instruments shows a monochrome display.]

In all, I am very pleased with the results of the 9-4x. I only hope that there is enough in the coffers to promote it, as it deserves to be seen and considered.

[For MUCH more information on the 9-4x, and significantly better pictures than I could ever take read Swade's three recent posts about the 9-4x at InsideSaab .]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beware the light at the end of the tunnel

My youngest son, Marcel, though he won’t have his driver’s license until the end of the year, recently bought his first car, a 1995 900SE 2.0T from a former neighbor. Last Sunday, we took advantage of the glorious weather to return to Ipswich to go to the beach (where Marcel works) and afterword we stopped in the former neighborhood to see some friends. I had heard that the couple that sold the car to Marcel wanted something more fuel efficient, so I was curious to see what was in their driveway. Indeed, except for some repairs it needed, I was sure the couple hated to part with the car. I knew they liked it, and it was the first car they had purchased together.

High Street in Ipswich often looked like it might have the densest concentration of Saabs anywhere outside Trollhattan, even if one discounted the several Saabs parked in front of our former home. Sadly, that has changed over the years. The new car which replaced the 1995 900 was a surprise to me—I was guessing Prius. It was instead a Golf TDI. Not a bad choice. Further up the street, another neighbor who commutes to the Berkshires had likewise traded his NG 900 for a Jetta TDI. Hmmm…..a pattern, perhaps?

While at the beach, we encountered a friend with whom we spent some time. Her former husband had been a customer here, and he had logged, last I heard from him last year, about 150,000 miles on his 2005 9-3. He struck me as the perfect demographic for Saab: educated, active (runner, cyclist, hiker…) and well heeled. Our friend informed us that he had traded his Saab for a Lexus? Really? He seems way to hip to be driving a Lexus.

Through these adventurous times for Saab, there has to be great concern about where their customers are going, and someone smarter than me needs to figure out why Saab owners become Lexus or VW buyers. Certainly, the 9-4x will bring us some fresh customers, which in turn could help sales in the long run of our other models. However, given the passion that many Saab owners feel, or felt, if they are former owners, Saab needs to zero in on why the defections occur. In the case of the friend who left for a Lexus, I can say that his car was virtually trouble free. Outside of warranty, there was almost nothing required beyond brakes, tires, bulbs and maintenance. Plus, I noted when I took his car in for service that even with an automatic transmission that he averaged, per his SID, 32 mpg. What’s not to like?

In the case of the defections to the VW’s, it is clear to me that Saab simply did not have an offering that satisfied the High Streeters desire to achieve greater fuel efficiency. I know all the rational arguments against importing the TTDI engine. However, who is to say that if Saab didn’t make that the cornerstone of the brand in the US that Saab might not be surging in sales right now, both with former and conquest customers? It would be a risky gambit, but shouldn’t that be one of the beauties of being a flyweight company, that you can make bold moves?

As much as Saab needs to know where they are losing their customers, the conundrum they face is that in light of the difficult business climate, they can barely afford to manage daily logistics, and it is likely not in the budget to hire analysts and a cadre or researchers to query consumers, mine data and formulate a strategy. It’s the old chicken-egg conundrum. Without that research, perhaps they can’t sell the cars they need to; without selling more cars and making some money, Saab won’t have the money to do any research. Yet, if Saab doesn’t put its ear to the rail and listen, how can it gauge that light at the end of the tunnel?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The View from Mount Washington

Last weekend saw the culmination of months of extraordinary work as my sons, Marcel and Pascal, put forth their 1985 900 SPG hill-climb car at the 2011 Mount Washington Climb to the Clouds. Pascal drove the car admirably on a circuit that, frankly, terrified me even at the posted speed limit. If you’ve ever driven up Mount Washington, you understand. Pascal completed the 7.6 miles in 8:20, averaging just under 55 mph, and kept the “shiny side up.” Just as impressive, the Saab, which was completely rebuilt by these young men, experienced no breakdown, which is even more impressive when you consider that the car was driven 100 miles each way to the event: I believe it was the only car of 70 not to arrive and depart on a trailer. How Saab.

Being the only Saab at the Climb, in a sea of Subaru Imprezas, Mitsubishi Evo’s and tube frame specialty contraptions, the car garnered lots of attention. Many fans and participants in the paddock area stopped by for a look and a chat. Some were current Saab owners; some former Saab owners who looked longingly at the four Saabs we had parked (besides the race car, there was my 1992 900T, Andr├ę’s 2001 9-3 and the Charles River Saab 9-3X shuttle vehicle). There was one other Saab in the paddock. Parked next to the Team Libra service area and their Hyundai Tiburon rally monster was a new 9-3 Sport Combi Aero 6-speed. How odd, I thought. Later that day I would learn the story behind that car.

One of the joys of participating, even vicariously, in such an event is all the people one meets. After the Saturday practice, we happened upon Paul Choiniere, one of the most storied and credentialed American rally drivers from the 1980s and 1990s. He saw the Saab shirt I was wearing and that got the conversation started. Only a few minutes into the conversation I realized who he was—not for his rally exploits, but because he is the dealer principal of PJ’s Auto Village of South Burlington, Vermont, which is a Mazda and Saab dealership—the Sport Combi Aero was Paul’s daily driver. He was gracious, charming and self effacing. My wife, Susan, also noted he has great eyes. This self-effacement and general humility is something I’ve noted in lots of rally types. They don’t have the obnoxious swagger or condescending attitude I might have expected, and most seem very pleased to chat with us mere mortals. I first noted this at the New England Forest Rally last summer, when even such luminaries as Travis Pastrana and Ken Block were accessible and very much “regular guys.”

Another chance encounter was had with New England rally legend and instructor Tim O’Neil (who opines that now what he drives is a desk) of Team O’Neil and the O’Neil Rally School. Susan and I were looking at the cars in the paddock at the end of the day, and were scrutinizing the Ford Fiesta FWD rally car being raced by Chris Duplessis, whose brother, Forest (who is also a rally champion and head instructor at Dirt Fish Rally School), we met in one of the viewing areas. We were approached by Tim, who again saw the Saab shirt and that got him talking. Turns out that in his earlier days he was a Saab technician, his early rally car of choice was a Saab 99 (with lots of 900 pieces applied, he said). Again, he was completely friendly, chatted at length with us, and perhaps coincidentally, one of his employees phoned Pascal last night to see if Pascal would co-drive a Team O’Neil car in the NE Forest Rally in two weeks.

One of the headliners for this event was Mike Ryan and his 2000 hp Freightliner truck. Clearly a ringer and attention getter, I didn’t necessarily expect him to be a nice friendly guy. I expected a conceited prima-donna who hid from people except when he was putting on his very impressive show. Wrong. While he looked a bit like a vain over-the-hill Nascar driver, with poofy hair all nice and dyed, Pascal states that he was very friendly and talked to whomever came by. Nice surprise!

There were a number of others there who were completely gracious and just plain nice. Some more interesting than others, to be sure. Susan even got Warren Elliott, New England Region Rally Cross champion, who was a spectator, to help us understand the leader board, and then got him excited enough that when Pascal was staying atop the leader board for a time he was giving her high-fives. What a marvelous time….

At the end of it all, I came away from the event much as I have other rally type events, that is that I find these drivers to be friendlier and much more collegial than I would expect from a group which is by nature competitive. I can’t say I’ve hung around a race track much, but I’ve hung around lots of racers, and you hear things…stories….complaints. This guy cheated…that one ran someone off the track…they’re running illegal this and that. Not so with the rally guys and gals. They seem much more apt to root for one another, help each other and be appreciative of those who come out to cheer them on. Good for the rally drivers!

If you haven't yet seen it, here is the link to a onboard view of the Saab dashing up the mountain.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bare-Naked Driving
I am, by nature and training, a deconstructionist. I enjoy the intellectual rigor of
examining a situation, problem or thing and dissecting it into its component parts. This is helpful when one is not overly bright, for it affords me the ability to analyze situations I would otherwise find baffling. Much of my time at conservatory was spent doing this sort of analysis, on both music (I am one of those few freaks who actually enjoyed music theory and analysis and took every course I could) and performance at the instrument. People of immense talent and genius do not do this; they don’t have to.

When assessing the driving experience of a car, there is, of course, how said car feels in total. This is very important. I also like to look past that and gauge my reaction to the various systems. However, as cars have become more integrated, more digital, more “of a piece,” this has become increasingly challenging. Thus it was with great analytical interest that I approached my first drives in the newly unleashed 1985 Saab SPG Hillclimb car built by sons Marcel and Pascal for the Climb to the Clouds race at Mount Washington.

Construction of this car essentially involved stripping it to a shell, throwing away everything that doesn’t contribute to making the car go, stop or corner, and then putting it back together again. Sunroof? Gone. Power windows? Gone. Stereo, comfy seats, heater, AC, insulation, door panels and cruise control? All gone. After being taken to the car’s essence, there are some additions: this is a race car, not an exercise in automotive asceticism. Hence, better suspension, lots of go fast stuff on the engine, racing seats and a full roll cage are fitted. Is it like driving a 900? Unmistakably.

While the ignition key assembly between the seats is gone, the array of switches to
activate various circuits, and the pushbutton starter, are all on a custom console in its place. Nice touch. Once started, the exhaust note, amplified from the large exhaust and absence of sound deadening inside the car is unmistakably 900 turbo. Sitting in a racing seat is not. I adore Saab seats, and while the Sparco seat and 5 point harness aren’t bad, even after 90 minutes in the car, I missed my real Saab seat. Another thing I missed was the 900 smell (every C900 owner knows what I mean). Apparently that does reside in the fabrics, and not in the bones of the car. Once I pulled off, the driving experience was at once familiar.

I was immediately at home in this minimalist 900. Delicious clutch (even with upgraded bits), strong brakes, wonderful steering, and handling that was completely predictable and sure footed, even on modest street tires. When I think back to my parents’ first new car, I recall that it had no radio, a rubber floor mat, crank windows, and not much else. So it was with the SPG. It got me to thinking—do we really need all that junk in a car? I realize that this SPG is not a viable daily driver if only for the noise level, even with ear plugs, and I’m talking road-noise, not exhaust.. When you get rid of all the toys—the NAV, the audio system, the sunroof, the SID, the trip computer, the cruise control…..the only thing you’re left with is driving. Now there’s a novel thing to focus on in a car! It’s like removing all the sauce and stuff on a plate and having just the piece of meat and eating it unadorned. This may not be for everyone, but a real meat lover will like nothing better. Thus, I found myself, even when loafing along on the highway in the right lane in the SPG, very much enjoying the experience.

Could I drive a bare-naked car every day? Almost. A C900, which I drive now, isn’t that far removed when compared to a modern car, so I think I could. I would want to keep some insulation, normal seats, and a heater and defroster are a must. I do like a sunroof but could live without one Likewise I could also do without power windows, locks, cruise control, AC and carpeting. Yes, I would also like to have a radio and clock. But not much else. The realization in all this to me was that if you like a car, then reduce that car to its bones and still like it, then you know that your passion for the car is deep-rooted and goes to that car’s essence. Toys and luxuries are nice to have, but applied to an uninspiring set of bones is like (pardon me here) putting lipstick on a pig. I bet that a lot of Saab drivers would feel the same. Take a Lexus, say, and strip it down and ask Lexus owners what they think. I bet the reaction would be a bit different. I believe that many Saab drivers would love driving a Saab sans accoutrements—not that they’d give them up for good—and this may be why we are so passionate about these cars.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A quandary for the ages

There are some age old debates which will never be resolved, and that’s a good thing, for it means we will always have fodder for verbal discourse. Bird or Magic? Mac or PC? Godfather or Godfather 2? Creation or Evolution? Bordeaux or Bourgogne? Thus, in the past week I’ve had to revisit that most important of automotive questions: front-wheel drive, or rear-wheel drive?

I grew up and learned to drive, as did most Americans of my generation, in rear wheel drive cars, though they tended to be smaller than the norm, with smaller engines and manual transmissions. The first cars I bought were also rear wheel drive, but starting with my first new car, a 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier, then through a couple of Hondas and more Saabs than I can recall, I’ve never owned anything but front drivers. Certainly, there was a time when in New England when the available grip and stability of FWD in wintery weather held enough logic to demand that one choose it over RWD. Now, with limited slip differentials, traction control and stability control, those arguments are moot. With a set of snow tires and all the nanny controls switched on, it’s hard to tell what you’re driving in the snow.

When you get a bunch a car nuts together, especially those who road race, there is an overbearing prejudice against FWD, even if they do admit to the efficiencies in packaging of FWD which makes the configuration sensible for everyday boring cars. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking real cars, fun cars. The RWD arguments are fairly sound. Are there any FWD cars in F1? NASCAR? Indy Car? Formula Anything? Does Ferrari or Porsche make a FWD vehicle? No. Not a one. Then the few FWD fans in that crowd will chime in about rally racing. While now dominated by AWD (which we will leave completely out of this discussion), there are still lots of FWD rally cars competing….and RWD, not so much. I’ve rather given up arguing the point. On the preponderance of evidence, one ought to prefer RWD if one is a car nut, yet I don’t. Hence I drive a Saab and not a BMW, yet another debate that can’t be decided rationally.

I had a chance, recently, to consider this question at In Control when I was teaching a class of police officers. Most of the class was done in our issue Camrys; but a few drills were done in Crown Victoria police cruisers. The final drill of the day was an auto-cross. It was a good set up—lots of hard acceleration, hard braking, hard turns, and sneaky stuff like decreasing radius turns and a diminishing slalom. It was quite difficult to manage the FWD Camry. In places I would have liked to shake the tail a bit, which I am accustomed to in that car, I didn’t have enough necessary inertia to break the rear free, thus the car understeered ponderously, forcing some turns into hand-over-hand maneuvers. Still, it was all predictable, if not easy.

Then it was time for me to take a turn in the Crown Vic. I can honestly say I’ve never been in a cruiser, let alone driven one. Did you know they have a secret switch to prevent them from coming out of Park? Anyway, the cruisers on loan from the Lowell PD are certainly not their best cars. Suffice to say that I felt like I should put on a black suit and tie, black sunglasses, handcuff a briefcase to my wrist, and have a partner that said, “Hit it.” I expected the Crown Vic to be a handful. In a sense, it was. It was vague and loose, but surprised me with the ease with which I could navigate it at speed, and not mow down cones. Then I entered my first sweeping decreasing radius turn. Where in the Camry I had to yield to the understeer and accept that more steering input would have no beneficial effect, I kept the wheel cranked 180 degrees and stomped on the accelerator. With the engine eliciting a muted roar, ok, more of a grumble, I got the rear of the car to make a rather elegant slide and just like that my turning radius diminished perfectly, and a quick correction to straight had me hurtling out of the final gate with the rear wheels still alight.

I was glad to see I still knew how to drive a RWD car. Yes, it was fun. No, I would not buy one. Not a Crown Vic, not a BMW, not a M-B. Well, maybe I’d have one if it came from Stuttgart and had a name like an emergency phone call. I still like the odd sensations of FWD. I like torque steer. Damn those who would exorcise that from all FWD hot rods. It’s FUN. I like the challenge of getting a FWD car to transition from understeer to oversteer. I like that FWD cars just aren’t supposed to be competitive with RWD cars, yet they are. I just like the way FWD feels, and that’s why you won’t see any RWD cars in my garage any time soon.

Just after my romp in the Crown Vic, a friend of mine posted this picture on his Facebook. Made me chuckle. Dave races Grand Am in a BMW which he built, so his assertion was predictable. [To his credit, Dave is the only person we know of who can perform an emergency lane-change, or moose test, maneuver in a FWD car, get it to rotate 180 degrees mid-stream and then go through the exit cones backwards.] A friend of his replied to the post with this article. I don’t know where this comes from or who the author is—despite the initials, it is not mine. The article recounts the authors experience in two identical Dodge Daytona race cars, one FWD, one RWD, and the contrast and comparison is fascinating. One of the conclusions thus read:

"Wait a minute. Control the radius with the throttle-that sounds like a good rear-drive characteristic. It is. Except with front drive, the front tires dictate radius, not the rears. In fact, this car doesn't much care what the rear tires are doing once the throttle is opened. And since the basic characteristic we experienced from the apex on was understeer, we found the front-drive Daytona exceptionally easy to drive quickly. It inspired confidence, never felt like it wanted to leap out from under us, and always went where we pointed it. What more could we ask for?"

Does the comparison resolve anything? Not at all.

"Which Daytona is faster? At this point in the ongoing development program, the rear-driver is still a bit quicker. But it depends on the racetrack. At Road Atlanta, the two cars were within a tenth or two. At tighter tracks, Mid-Ohio, for example, the gap was larger. But on faster circuits like Watkins Glen and Lime Rock, Showket believes the front-wheel drive may give him an edge. Which is better? Take your pick. Just remember to reprogram the driver to adapt his driving techniques to meet the car's requirements."

In fact, the observations only add rich perspective to one of those arguments which will never be settled. In the end, the French say it best: A chacun son gout.


Friday, May 06, 2011

Quick review of the 2011 9-5 Turbo4

I had promised this long ago but never had a chance to get a decent drive in one of these so that I could render an opinion. Well, this morning I went for a bit of a drive, and having spent a lot of time in a 9-5 recently, it was easier to focus on the difference between the Turbo4 and the Aero version.

This Turbo4 car had an automatic, 18” wheels and otherwise was pretty basic. The differences between the Turbo4 and Aero lie in the powerplant and the suspension, and both differences were very apparent. I love the engine in the Turbo4. It has a lot of low end grunt, much like the old 2.3 in the old 9-5, and launches much better that the 2.0T in the 9-3. Throttle response is excellent and there is terrific lunge from a dead-stop. The engine is exceptionally smooth and quiet, with a nice growl under heavy load. Gone from the old 9-5 is the shudder and vibration at idle, which I no longer notice in old 9-5’s, but whose absence was discernable in the new car. The engine and transmission work very nicely together, and the transmission shifts are very smooth and require only modest pedal application when a downshift is sought. Mid-range surge is very good, perhaps better than expected. Above 50 it starts to feel a little winded, but overall I find this combination delightful. Saab drivers of old will feel very much at home. I now want to find one with a manual transmission, which I’m sure I’ll like even more.

I can’t rave as much regarding the change in suspension. The difference is significant and I noted it immediately. I liked the Aero DriveSense in comfort mode, which is what I had hoped this car would feel like. I didn’t. It’s not bad, and compared with the previous 9-5, it still feels much more buttoned-down, though not nearly as tight, refined and precise as the Aero. Handling seemed fine, it’s more the way that Aero seemed to absorb road imperfections and recover much more quickly than Turbo4 which left me wanting, as other reviewers have mentioned, that Turbo4 be fitted with the same suspension as the Aero. Again, it’s not terrible. If I had never driven the Aero and was only comparing Turbo4 with the previous car, or other contemporary cars, I’d say it acquitted itself just fine.

I won’t get into other details. I’ve written that all before. Verdict? Thumbs up from me. Given that I still like to row my own gears (pending my roadtest of a manual transmission version), and love the engine in the Turbo4, and am not prone to feeling the need for AWD, I would likely choose the Turbo4 if I were to buy a 9-5 today. I am concerned with the low mileage estimate, with the EPA giving the four cylinder only a one mpg advantage over the Aero, which I find hard to believe. I got great highway mileage on my NY trek in the Aero—28.5 mpg. Am I to believe that with two fewer cylinders, less weight and half the driveline, that I’d otherwise only have averaged 29.5?

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

It's 1989 all over again

When I started here in February of 1989, I soon learned that one of the staples at Charles River Saab was a newsletter, written quarterly, by then owner Felix Bosshard. They were simple fare—four pages of type, no pictures, elegantly written and with a recognizable format. There were always musings, information on employees, news about Saab product, service and parts specials, the announcement of drawing winners, and usually finished with a paragraph about Felix’s favorite diversions, professional tennis and the Boston Classical Orchestra.

I have kept as many of these as I could find. For a time, after Felix left, I was the publisher of the Charles River Saab newsletter, and the precedent issues were valuable to that endeavor. Over time, the simple, paper newsletter gave way to a glossy one with pictures and articles, and that gave way, well, to this blog.

This particular newsletter, dated March 15, 1989, will always be one of my favorites. First, it announced my arrival as the new Red Team ASM (Assistant Service Manager). Second, this is the newsletter that Felix handed me soon after I arrived to proof-read. As I have recounted on this blog before, I took to the task very seriously. I got a red pen and started marking up everything in sight. When I handed it back to Felix, seeing all the red markings (what was I thinking?!), he said, with his prominent Swiss-German accent, “Vat is all zis?” I told him that they were corrections, and explained that there were a lot a run on sentences, to which he replied, glaring at me, “I like run on zentences.”

There are other items of note in this newsletter. The only employee besides me who is mentioned who is still working here is Doug Bowles, and the “Cat” work mentioned has now migrated to me. Ricky Furlan, mentioned for his fifteen years of tenure, has since retired, but he has two sons, Rick Jr. and Jeff who have respectively been here a combined twenty seven years. Note that the lease program cited is a 66 month lease on a base 900 for $273! This newsletter also announced the start of our shuttle service—a suggestion from Jim Carfagno, who had started here in 1987.

I finally managed to find an OCR program to use on these, but on blogger I do have to sacrifice the formatting, so those who remember these newsletters may find that this doesn’t exactly look the same. It is also why I had to use such a small font—I’ll try to find a way around that for my next newsletter post.

Issue # 34; March 15th,1989
Telephone # 923-9230

Dear Friends,

Douglas Bowles, our resident operator of the big yellow Cat in the backyard, has
been visibly disappointed by the lack of snow this past winter. While I complain about the
cost of snow removal, the lack of space to operate with and the loss of customers during
snowstorms, Doug happily motors high on his favorite toy, scooping big buckets and
building snow castles. I almost feel guilty that this winter he had little chance to play; he
sat in the cab occasionally, revved the engine once or twice and sort of challenged the

For me, the best time of the year has arrived. I walk my backyard at home every
morning, I listen to the crocii pushing through the soil and I watch the leaves budding on
the trees. I then come to work and do the same thing here; I look around the showroom,
the shop and the parts department. I feel the tempo of the prospect traffic, the size of the
smiles on peoples faces and the number of cars in the yard. Then I sniff the air around
the place and decide that things look good. We are ready to blossom and to do great
things in ’89. Our goal, as always, is to be the best. We are getting mail (some good, some
bad) from our customers and we appreciate it when we have somebody take the time to
write; the feedback enters the loop and helps to improve the product.

For the past eight years, I have had a habit of describing the comings and goings
on the roster of our employees in somewhat graphic detail and I sometimes receive the
feedback through my readers that we have a fairly noticeable (!) turnover. This reminded
me to dig back into our books and it led to what will become an annual part of our
company Christmas dinner. The recognition, through a formal award ceremony, of our
longtime employees was in some instances much overdue and it now gives me great
pleasure to announce the recipients of this year’s Orrefors crystal vases. In the 10 year
category, we had three employees:

Alex McWilliam, Bill Gorman and Monica Bosshard

and for 15 years there are three more:
Douglas Bowles, Ricky Furlan and David Martin.

Some of these are well over the indicated threshold, some have left and returned, all are
much appreciated. There is another group of ten who are between three and ten years of
service, making up the core of our employees who moved with us from 20 Watertown St.
It is sometimes hard to remember that as little as 8 years ago, our total count was less
than 15 people.

Still in the personnel department we have to report with deep regret the passing
of two members of our extended family. Julie Aylaian, who had in a few short months
become a real part of us, was a victim of the freak ice storm just before Christmas and
Douglas’ wife, Mary, who lost a long battle with cancer at the end of January. With the
Aylaian family and all the Bowles’, we mourn their passing.

Donald Frazier, one of the above mentioned group of ten, also received an award
at our dinner, he is the first of our technicians to reach SAAB Master Mechanic status in
our new location. Several others are close on his heels. And finally there is the wonderful
news that Rose McWi1liam presented Alex with a daughter for Christmas. Gina McWilliam was born on December 23rd! Congratulations to all!

It is with regret that I have to report that Red Team ASM Mike Scott has left us.
His place has been filled by Pierre Belperron, a young man with considerable experience
as a service writer and substantial other qualifications. (i.e. Graduate of B.U. and Boston
Conservatory, Applied Music: Cello!)

So much for our personnel department; I will elaborate with more details in our
summer letter.

Sales has a whole bunch of items to report. First of all we have a couple of product
announcements. The promised "S" version of the 9000 CD is on its way, we will be able
to deliver the first CD-Ss somewhere around the middle of April and, while we are at it,
we will also start delivering the "Air-Bagged" versions of all 9000s. Now, clearly, is the time to take advantage of the remaining stock of non-bagged versions at their concomitantly lower prices. I would also like to remind you that SAAB-SCANIA Financial is very much alive and kicking and that the current lease programs are still extremely favorable; the present entry level 66 months lease on a 3-door, manual shift 900 is only $273.- plus tax (fees, insurance, excise and maintenance not incl.). Since this is a closed-end lease, it in effect establishes the resale value of the car and thus insulates you from the vagaries of the marketplace. It is, lastly, fair to say that the winter selling season was at very best lackadaisical and that Alex will do his level best to bring the numbers up to a more respectable level; it might well be that prices in the very near future could be substantially more competitive than later in the year. All things considered, early spring should be a very interesting period for buyers.

In order to make it easier for you to drop off your car in the morning, we have in
January instituted our new shuttle service. Between 7:30 and 9:00 A.M. we will drive you
to either Harvard Square to pick up the Red Line or to Watertown Square to the Express
Bus on a first come, first served basis. We cannot think of any reasonable way to organize
an evening pick-up, the bus (#70) from either Watertown Square or Central Square will
do a better job.

David would like to remind owners of ’86 and ’87 SAAB 9000’s to make sure they
don’t overlook the letter from Mr. Robert Sinclair, President of SAAB-Scania of America,
Inc., outlining the "SAAB 9000 Value Retention Program". The program addresses a
number of early teething problems in the 9000’s and is available for all ’86 and ’87 9000’s
regardless of current owner. If you are not familiar with the program, please check with
our Service Department.

To make doubly sure that spring really arrives and that we think flowers instead of
snow, David is offering the following

Spring Special:
Visual check of cooling system, tires, suspension and
undercarriage, oil and filter change plus re-installing your summer wheels.

(Don ’t forget to put your mounted summerwheels into your trunk! )

(For just another $10.95, we will even hand-wash the car.)
(Offer good ’til 4/30/89)

Over the last few years, many of you have met Ralph Skinder, our SAAB district
representative. Ralph, a true professional and also a good friend of ours, has decided to
accept a promotion to Sales Training Manager for the Eastern Region. We will miss
Ralph. His replacement, Larry Nay, comes to us from that other Swedish car; as he has
clearly seen the light, we won’t hold it against him. Welcome aboard, Larry! The other two members of the SAAB team in our district are Steve Olesnevich in Service and George
Kaniwec in Parts, both good mentors, both good friends.

It now gives me pleasure to announce the winners of our Christmas drawing. The
following people have received their vouchers:
lst Place $250.- Ms. Paula Del Orfano, Woburn
2nd Place $l00.- Ms. Ellen Tormey, Tyngsboro
3rd Place $ 50.- Mr. Michael Siegell, Cambridge
4th Place $ 50.- Mr. Richard Forrester, Wellesley

The next drawing will be announced in our Fall newsletter and will be known as the
"Half-Way" drawing as that date will be halfway between our 30th and our 35th

The only thing exciting out of the Parts Department is a set of wood veneer panels
Bill found in England. The "Winchester" is a trim set of burled elm that now graces the
dash and doors of my SPG and at the moment we are waiting to see what will happen
when the sun beats down on it. While the set with installation is not cheap, I think it is
absolutely gorgeous. Next time you are in, why don’t you take a look and give me your

The last concert of the Boston Classical Orchestra for the current season will be
given on Wednesday, March 29th and Friday March 31st, The season will come to an end
with a particularly nice all Mozart program featuring Tamara Smirnova-Sajfar, Associate
Concertmaster of the BSO and Concertmaster of the Boston Pops, performing the Violin
Concerto #5, K├ęcherlisting 219 under the baton of Harry Ellis Dickson. The concert, being
given as always in historic Faneuil Hall, will be rounded out with the Symphony #38 in D,
K. 504 ("Prague") and the Overture to "Cosi fan Tutte" K.588. Tickets can be ordered by
calling Ms. Quindara Dodge at 426-2387. (It would help if you mentioned this newsletter
as your inspiration?) As usual, we also have some free teaser tickets for first time
concertgoers, call Monica or our Sales Department for information.

Have a happy spring!

Yours as always,

Felix Bosshard

Thursday, April 28, 2011

New York Auto Show 2011, part 3

On Friday, April 22 I returned to the Auto Show. My day started early. I had to remove the Saab from its spot by 7am—not a problem for someone used to getting up at 4:15, though I did sleep in until about 6:00. While alternate-side parking rules were suspended that week for Passover, finding anyplace to park that was legal was a bit of a challenge. Forty minutes of doing haphazard laps through the cross streets finally yielded a legal spot, and I decided to leave the car there for the duration of my stay.

After a leisurely breakfast, I borrowed a Metro card and took the #6 train downtown to 33rd Street, then walked across town to the Jacob Javits Center. This was opening day for the show, and as made my way closer toward the Hudson I became part of the throng that was heading, en masse, to the JJC. After the relative quiet of the JJC on Thursday, Friday was different—more New York: it was crowded, bustling and noisy. After securing my ticket I went straight to the Saab display.

The Saab display was teeming with people. The Phoenix was on a turntable, as it was on Thursday. This day, though, it was rotating and there was a fence to keep gawkers at a safe distance. That’s when I realized that I had never availed myself the opportunity to sit in it. Perhaps another time. Swade was there. He recounted his morning, and how he had been doing a filming of the Saab display with his tiny Hero Cam, with the intent to show it in high-speed, condensed form—thirty minutes of recording replayed in four as seen
here. After hanging around some, listening to the attendees, and staying rather incognito, we retired to the food court to grab some lunch. Afterward, Swade retrieved his bags from the coatroom and bade the NY Auto Show goodbye as he headed off to Kennedy Airport.

Since my hosts would not be back until late day, I went back into the show. I did spend more time at the Saab display. Again, I was looking more for peoples reactions than looking at anything in particular myself. While the Phoenix, Ice Block, massive video screen and Independence Day Convertible were all draws to the stand, the 9-5 Combi seemed to have the most people lingering over it and giving it real, thoughtful attention, as though they were picturing themselves in it, or it in their driveway. I can see why. Say what you will about the treatment of the rear door windows and the awkward line they create moving to the rear. I was not terribly bothered by this when seeing the car in person. I was happy to see the European hatch, with its lower portion deflecting rearward to be flush with the rear bumper. While adding visual appeal and being unique, I think this would present a nightmare in our real world. It wouldn’t take much of a bumper tap to stove that hatch in, and likely leave it incapable of being opened. Overall, the balance of the design is aggressive, cool, and much striking than the sedan’s.

While there were inquiries about the 9-4x, there wasn’t much fuss about it. This is unfortunate, since this vehicle comes to market quite soon. The 9-4x was off to the side and locked. I did not understand this. Sure, that 9-4x was likely not a production car and there may be some subtle differences compared to an actual production version. Who cares? The presenters did speak about the car, but that didn’t bring too many around. There should have been a bright light on the 9-4x, and it should have been open. The other misstep on Saab’s part was the absence of iQon. After all the buzz that came out of Geneva, there should have been a mock-up, or even just something on the display screen. This omission seems very odd to me.

Eventually, I tired of the Saab display and decided to take my tour of the show. I started on the lower level, which touted trucks from every manufacturer, and a few automobiles from manufacturers who must not have wanted to pay the upstairs rent. I’m not a big truck or SUV guy, so I skipped most of those displays. I did spend a few minutes at the Mercedes display. I’ve always fancied the old G-wagon, though not all tarted out the way MB sells them now, and the Sprinter vans were presented in a variety of configurations. I did go and see the Subaru stand, to see the new Imperezza…..yawn. I had hoped there would be rally car, but I couldn’t find one. The most entertaining display was from Suzuki. They were spending a lot of time proclaiming the Kizashi as the greatest car since the invention of the Otto-cycle engine. I’m sure it’s fine…What I liked there, though, was that they included everything Suzuki. There was a big outboard engine (I loved the Suzuki built outboard we once had) and a trio of motorcycles. The one that made me stop and stare, as it always does, was the Hayabusa. I am not a speed freak. Rather the opposite. Yet I revere that machine and all that it is capable of. I appreciate its unorthodox style, its fundamental simplicity and ordinary architecture, and admire Suzuki for building such a no-holds-barred contraption. It is a beast like no other.

I took a peek at the electric car indoor test-drive, also in the lower level, and concluded that it was just stupid. I also wondered about the people queued up for this test drive. Conversely, on my way back to the upper level, I went outside to see what the Jeep contingent was up to. They had a large installation outdoors, that consisted of a test-track to demonstrate the off-road prowess of a Jeep. It was a great amusement park ride! Attendees rode along as passengers, and Jeep provided the driver. First, the Jeeps, many different models, drove up, over and down a huge metal arch at such steep angles, you’d swear the Jeep should just slide off, especially coming down. Then it was through some sloppy stuff (deep mulch), big bumps, off-set bumps to lift individual wheels off the ground, and over an obstacle to prove its ground clearance. Jeep had enthusiastic hawkers with bull-horns encouraging onlookers to go for a ride, and they were packed all day. Good for Jeep!

Next, it was back to the upper level. I saw a bit of everything. Besides the cars that ought to take your breath away, like the Aston Martin, Bentley, Lotus and Spyker, there were two displays I did not tire of looking at: Jaguar and Fiat. I am Jaguar ignorant. I know the difference between an XKE and an XJ6, but not much more than that, especially regarding the new offerings. I can tell you that based on pure automotive sex appeal, these were the class of the show, both individually, and especially when seen as a group. It was just hard for me not to stare, and then stare again. The Fiat 500 was loads of fun. The sardine-can retractable cloth roof, reminiscent of the 2CV, is wonderful. I wanted to get inside one for pictures but it was just impossible with so many people trying to do the same. I love diminutive cars. An original Mini is on my bucket list. [I might like the current Mini, but an acquaintance whom I loathe drove one and now I can’t look at a Mini without being reminded of them, so new Minis I do not like.] So is a 2CV. I never craved the original 500, and they did have a lovely one there. The new 500 shows well, and I am sure, especially with gas prices doing what they’re doing, that these will sell well. Good for Fiat!

Some honorable mentions need to go out: Audi, for building the A7 (Take a look Saab. The 9-5 could have been such a hatchback.); Mazda, for getting rid of the Joker-face on the 3; Mercedes, for showing an A-class sized car, albeit some alternate power version; Infiniti, for displaying the Renault F1 car; Scion, for showing that Japanese car makers can have an interesting display; all the European brands, except Volkswagen, for having attractive presentations. Boos and hisses go out to Volkswagen, who seems to bask in the glory of indifferent blandness in both its cars and its display; to Lexus-Toyota-Acura-Honda for being uninspired in their presentations (except for Lexus having really cushy carpeting at their display—how appropriate!); Mercedes, for presenting a concept car so fake, it had painted cardboard behind the wheels to look like brake components.

At the end of the day I had museum legs and I was tired. Still, I had a fabulous time at the Show. It was great to meet up with old Saab friends, especially Swade, meet new ones, like Jason Castriotta, and see all the exciting product in the pipeline. Thank you, Dan Leahy and Charles River Saab, for permitting me to go on this junket. I hear that Frankfurt is going to be something this year…..