If you know only one thing about European cars, you know that they’re very different from ours. That’s not so much the case with the Asian imports, of course. Cars floating over from across the Pacific have become an industrial success story precisely because they’ve spent the last two decades sating rather than snubbing indigenous American tastes. But, oh, those Eurosthey wouldn’t condescend to ape our automotive mores any more than they’d consider subscribing to federal governance or instituting a common currency.
Oops! I guess there is a sea change taking place at the Old World’s coastline after all; and maybe that in part explains why a quirky, archetypal Eurocar like Saab’s 9-3 sport sedan is Americanizing its persona in the same way that Buick’s Regal GS sport sedan pursues age-old European pretensions. How appropriate, then, that these two wards of General Motors should manage a meeting of minds across the Atlantic that locates them, in terms of a geographic identity at least, somewhere west of the Azores and east of the Sargasso Sea.
Saab 9-3 SE
“Enough already,” is GM’s basic response to those Scandian partisans who still can’t get over GM purchasing controlling interest in their cuddly, oddball Saab motorworks. “We’re running the show now, and we’re going to make it workour way,” the General declares. This doesn’t mean GM is ignoring the critics, however. For ’99, Saab’s 9-3 series (formerly its 900-class) is ditching the warthog V6 that it formerly borrowed from GM Euro cousins Opel and Vauxhall. The result is a complete return to Saab’s turbo roots with perky 2.0-liter four-bangers featuring low-pressure, 185-horsepower base model engines and high-pressure, 200-horse motors in the up-level SE sedans/convertibles with 5-speed-manual transmissions.
The result is zesty acceleration from either power plant. Despite kick-in-the-rear turbo-lag that always takes a little time to master, Saab’s turbos ensure that the lumbering, underwhelming V6 is never missed. And because the 2.0-liter engine is appreciably lighter over the front wheels, the 9-3 is spry and nimble in the handling department.
No one could ever accuse a Saab of becoming a Yankee cliché, particularly inside the car. Still, there is more passenger room in the 9-3 than Americans found in the 900 series. Dash layout and instrument functions are clever, if a bit off-beat: the ventilation louvers, for example, employ scissoring grates to redirect air flow; and that darn ignition switch in the center console (beside the hand brake) is still a stumper for the patriotic Amerkun. Just the same, the new-for-’99 availability of GM’s OnStar satellite navigation system puts the 9-3 on the U.S. map in an exceedingly technical way.
I love the 9-3’s taut leather upholstery, and it’s no secret I’m addicted to playing Top Gun when driving at night with the neat-o dash glowing dimly in jet-aircraft-style Night Panel mode. A huge trunk lurks beneath a hatchback (or 5th door, in Saab parlance); what’s more, the rear seat folds 60/40 to accommodate a number of stowage permutations. Suffice it to say that the car is fun to drive Euro-style and practical to use Yankee-style.
Lest anyone think GM has banished all Swedish quirks, however, be apprised of the meatball decision that requires shifting the manual transmission into reverse if you ever hope to extract the key. Then, when you’re late for that all-important appointment, gird yourself for an unsuspecting lurch to the rear when you expect to ease out the clutch and roll forward. Yes, of course, we usually do pull forward into a garage or parking space and need to reverse out again; and Saab is just trying to give us a little head start to save a wasted shifting motion. But even if Saab is the only sane and thoughtful automaker in an otherwise crazy world, their determination to do things differently often verges toward the absurd.
At a well-equipped base price of $26,000, the base 9-3 sedan is just high of center for the range of mid-size sport sedans that include Nissan’s Maxima, the Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, and Honda Accord. The 200-horsepower SE, however, starts at $31,700, and that puts it in tough-sell competition with the baby-BMW 3-series, Audi’s A4 and the Mercedes C-class. Saabs are duly renowned for their safety engineering; but the relative value of a 9-3 SE in so auspicious a group of rivals is hardly the safest bet.
Buick Regal GS
You can almost imagine a loyal Buick engineer lamenting, “O for something quirky to design for the new Regal.” Sadly, the Regal is quirk-freeunless the ill-fitting rear ashtray in my tester qualifies for tumbling constantly into the rear footwell.
This is not to say the Regal is free of all charm. Indeed, in upscale GS trimdistinguished primarily by bristling 240 horsepower from a supercharged 3.8-liter V6this car represents a revolution of sorts for Buick’s staid, bucolic reputation.
Homespun and Midwestern as it may be, the technical term that best applies to Regal’s spirited acceleration is lickety-split. Unlike the delayed onset of power from the turbochargers favored by Saab, thrust from a belt-driven supercharger is immediateand massive. Like Buick’s venerable GS, Grand National, and GNX musclecars of the ’70s and ’80s, the new-for-’98 Regal GS slingshots away from stoplights and passes slower cars with a single bound. But distinctly unlike its ancestral forebears, the latter-day GS has a real suspension that transforms spirited cornering from a white-knuckle freak-out into an inspiring jaunt.
As I find every excuse to declare, GM’s Magnetic Variable Effort power-steering system (called Magnasteer at some divisions) is world-class. This, in combination with ABS brakes and independent suspension at all four corners, all-speed traction control, and the computer-guided four-speed automatic transmission, endows Regal with tight, responsive maneuverability heretofore unknown in a Buick. Dare one say it? The car’s poise and performance flair is almost...European.
Its interior is not, however. Roomy and trimmed with Grade B leather, the layout is genuine General Motors. Although the trunk is roomy too, the rear seat doesn’t fold to afford extra cargo space.
Instrumentation is practicalparticularly the radio controls on the steering wheel; and like its Swedish cousin, Regal rates optional OnStar navigation assistance as well. Fit, function, and finish (except for what was surely an out-of-character bouncing ashtray) are all adequate. What is surely the GS’ finest feature, however, is its price: from a $23,790 base, the Regal GS ascends to just $25,905 as-tested after accumulating power options and a Monsoon cassette/CD stereo. From a nation where the people are king, Buick’s Regal GS manages at least to suggest an affordable notion of royal behavior.
The most exciting news from Nissan so far this month was the official publicity debutfinally!of a new mini-SUV with a suitably Gen-X name: Xterra. Into an arena fast filling with the likes of Suzuki’s Grand Vitara, the forthcoming Land Rover Freelander, Ford’s U204 code-named mini (based on the Contour sedan), not to mention early arrivals Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, Nissan’s contender brings with it a certain cute cleverness. Due next summer as a 2000-model costing around $20,000, Xterra was actually revealed without a monicker at a July press conference in Smyrna. Unique features include a modular, adjustable roof-rack system with removeable storage “pod”; a “backpack” storage area inside the rear door; and “theater-style” raised rear seats to afford backseat passengers a better view over the dash. Nissan will assemble the Xterra in Smyrna, stuff it initially with a V6 (thank you, Lord), and configure both two- and four-wheel-drive versions. And how fitting that the name Xterra has such a self-consciously terrestrial connotation. In the natural world, when scared prey flee from potential raptors, they instinctively “go to ground,” as the saying goes. For the same reason, apparently, Nissan is looking for the comfort of Mother Earth’s embrace after a recent spate of disastrous sales reports and plunging stock prices. The company’s September ’98 U.S. sales tumbled almost 14 percent compared to the same month last yeardespite the 25 selling days this year versus 24 in ’97. Meanwhile, shares in parent company Nissan Motor Co. had investors gasping over sky-diving prices during the first week of October. Along with Mitsubishi, Nissan is regarded by analysts as one of the auto industry’s most seriously threatened major automakers. Nissan’s resolve to put its house in order with innovative vehicles like Xterra and its redesigned Quest minivan is winning praises. The question persists, however, whether time and circumstances will allow new products to winch the company back out of the hole it has dug for itself.
Due to unavoidable conflicts, the Music City Classic collector-car auction has been rescheduled a week earlier than orginally announced. The revised date is Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Nashville Auto Auction facility, 1450 Lebanon Rd., at the corner of Lebanon Rd. and Spence Ln. The fall ’98 event, which inaugurates a semi-annual schedule for the popular auction that debuted in Nashville in the spring of ’95, features classics, muscle cars, and Euro-exotics dating from 1974 and before. To register a vehicle for sale or to pre-qualify as a buyer, call event organizer George Eber at Classic Productions, 313-3267.
Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. Or by fax at (615) 385-2930.
@P. (u) Wilson: I offer information and interesting news, you call me names. Name calling…
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No pics of the thong wedgie? Damn!
Whatever, Gast. I could post stuff that reflects my attitudes all day and you'd never…
"liberal death cult"? Are they the ones who lied about WMD's and got us involved…