Beauty and Beast 

Saab & Volvo Vikings invade North America with two distinct versions of station wagon

Saab & Volvo Vikings invade North America with two distinct versions of station wagon

I just love it when two Vikings decide to go at each other’s throats—not that there remains a lot of berserker behavior these days. Nevertheless, on these very shores of which the Northmen are now the lately acknowledged discoverers, there is a fascinating Nordic duel taking shape. It involves the two best-recognized Swedish businesses in America—Volvo and Saab. Both are offering refined station wagons in lieu of trucks or SUVs, and both have taken dramatically different tacks in their attempts to find safe harbor in our garages. What’s more, their contest represents a new form of Cold War, since Volvo and Saab are now but proxy fighters for their Superpower parents, Ford and General Motors, respectively.

Saab 9-5 Aero wagon

There is really only one reaction you can count on from bystanders and fellow motorists when you’re driving Saab’s 9-5 Aero wagon—particularly if it’s tarted up in a laser-red paint scheme and wearing expensive ($1,650) two-piece, 10-spoke, 17-inch wheels from BBS. The universal reaction is, “Wow!” This is true whether the commentator has never even heard of Saab (rare) or whether he or she has perhaps heard too much about the quirky personae and shadowy reliability of Saab cars over the years (less rare). The Aero wagon looks like a million bucks, even when it’s standing still.

That it costs only about one-twentieth of a million bucks may not come as much consolation to those of us who aren’t budgeted for a $45,890 car (as tested). Just the same, this sport wagon’s low-slung, seductive, and slightly sinister looks are no empty promise for the upwardly mobile auto enthusiast. Thanks to a sexy, asymmetrical turbocharging technique that Saab appropriately dubs H.O.T. (i.e., high-output turbo), the Aero wagon generates 230 stampeding horsepower from a mere four cylinders displacing a minuscule 2.3 liters. This is the same powerplant that transforms Saab’s 9-3 Viggen from family sedan into maniac street fighter; but whereas it seems lunatic to pipe all that H.O.T. horsepower through the skittish front wheels of the compact Viggen, the same motor in Saab’s larger, heavier 9-5 wagon only feels somewhat irrationally exuberant.

This car, in other words, will flat fly. So it’s a good thing that Saab’s driving position represents the civilian world’s best approximation of a military jet fighter. I simply cannot imagine the true enthusiast who would complain about the near-total-surround sensation of sitting behind the wheel: Everything important is but a fingertip away, and what you need to know most and fastest is displayed right before your eyes. All else is shrewdly graded into descending levels of importance by means of relative distance of access or inconspicuousness of appearance.

The Aero wagon is not a single-seater Formula racer, however, tempting as it may be to imagine so. It is a five-seater; it offers great backseat leg- and shoulder-room for three; its total cargo stash is 37 cubic feet (or about 2.5 times the size of a family sedan’s trunk). Aircraft-style adjustable tie-down rails in the floor of the rear hold, called CargoTracks, are the best solution I’ve ever seen in a wagon for battening unusual shapes and quantities of stuff. And from a quality-of-life perspective, Saab’s unique system for both heating and/or ventilating the front seats (via a fan pulling air through needle-point perforations in the leather upholstery) is one of my favorite features from anyone (optional at $1,590). Running a close second is the now standard OnStar telematics system, offering voice-activated, hands-free safety and navigation assistance.

Still, I could have done without the optional four-speed automatic transmission ($1,200; a five-speed manual comes standard). Moreover, I question the marketing wisdom of a sports car pedigree that so dominates the kids-’n’-cargo mission statement of what is, after all, just a station wagon. Saab’s Aero wagon is fast, sexy, and fun. I’ll grant all that. But I’m not sure that’s the kind of babe I’d marry just to get the housework done.

Volvo V70 XC wagon

Next to Saab’s jet-fighter wagon, Volvo’s XC or “CrossCountry” wagon is a beast by comparison. But its beastliness appears about as convincing as the characters who pass for strong-men in the live-action cartoons we call professional wrestling. This is not to say Volvo’s XC is unappealing—only that its contrasting black body-armor accents and high ride height are a bit unconvincing in terms of genuine bravura.

What Volvo has done is take a very beautiful car indeed—its front-wheel-drive V70 wagon—and bulked it up into a pseudo-off-roader. The all-wheel-drive system is quite plucky; it will take you farther than you imagined you could go (or perhaps even ought to go). For this, in fact, the extra ground clearance is a big help. But why take a $44,155 family wagon to such stylistic and mechanical extremes?

Volvo’s inline five-cylinder low-pressure turbo produces 197 horsepower and 210 ft.-lbs. of torque. It’s not the sprinter that the Saab wagon is; ironically, however, it features this very sporty five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability. Otherwise, the XC’s personality and layout is workmanlike and stalwart. It’s a tractor; it hauls a very comparable 37.5 cu. ft. of cargo; it seats five in roomy comfort. The three-way split rear bench is handy; the optional flip-up cargo gate behind the rear seats is ingenious. If the XC were Swiss instead of Swedish, it would be an army knife among vehicles. And if (although some say “when”) this Jurassic era of trucks and SUVs finally meets its extinction, chances are Volvo’s CrossCountry wagon will provide the evolutionary basis for many of the truly useful, rational, and realistic vehicles that will reinvigorate our future traffic-scape.

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