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