There's an old joke in my family about the time someone gave my great-grandfather tickets to see "Fiddler on the Roof." It was in theory a very thoughtful gesture, since he had grown up in a small Eastern European Jewish community like the one depicted in the play. The thing is, "Fiddler on the Roof," though a fine production, is a total farce as a historical narrative -- a simplistic, clichéd fairytale presented through rose-tinted glasses for people like me who never experienced the real thing. My great-grandfather suffered through the first hour of "Oy veys" and then left at intermission.
The new Saab 9-5 is "Fiddler on the Roof." No, it's not a bad car. It's comfortable, great looking, and capable (more on this in a bit). Unlike other Saabs developed during the GM era, it's clear that there was an earnest effort here at producing a distinct vehicle. The exterior styling certainly won't be confused with any Buick or Opel and, more important, looks excellent from any angle. The interior does dip into the GM parts bin, but those pieces -- window switches, power mirror controls, steering-column stalks -- have improved enough in recent years that they're no longer a deal breaker. And yet, the whole Saab treatment has a not-quite-right, almost mawkish feel. It has a matte-black dash with egg-crate air vents, a boost gauge, and a starter button near the shifter. Why? Because those are Saab trademarks, of course. Tradition! Never mind the fact that almost all sporty luxury cars in the 1980s had somber, black interiors or that the center ignition makes little sense without the key. Look at any other premium luxury brand -- Audi, BMW, Volvo, even Jaguar -- and you'll find interiors that in no way resemble their predecessors from twenty years ago. But Saab's evolution as a brand has been so stunted since GM's purchase of the company in 1990 that, even as it tries to reclaim its identity, all it has are these hackneyed scraps.
Behind the wheel, the 9-5 feels, as Phil notes, like a sporty Buick LaCrosse. This isn't as damning as it sounds, since the new LaCrosse actually drives quite well. With a stiff suspension and the Haldex all-wheel-drive system, the 9-5 goes around corners quite nicely, even when wearing winter tires. But there's no friskiness, no quirkiness; just competence. Drive a Volvo S60 and you'll understand the difference.
Spyker's main task will be to restore genuine Saab character. I just wonder if there's anyone left who knows what that is.
- David Zenlea, Assistant Editor