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Saab owners say they've good reason to stay loyal

Ask a Saab owner what he'd drive if he could buy any car in the world, and he'd probably reply: a Saab. Such is the commitment of Saab owners to the marque.

Indeed, sitting behind the wheel of the turbocharged 900, it's easy to figure out what he means. The Saab 900 turbo is stylish - very stylish - always the sport, and as much of a spirited performer for the price as any of its competitors around, and far better than some, and is fully in sync with the times.

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Saab, in fact, is much more of a cult car than most of its competitors. To buy a Saab, you have to want it. You go out to buy a Saab and that's all. Some Saab owners have stuck with the company since its first days in the US - back in the era of the two-strokers (three-cylinder, two-cycle) when you had to mix the engine oil with the fuel and the race-prepped cars were ''making it'' on the rally circuit with Eric Carlsson at the wheel.

I know a photographer, for example, who used to race Saabs on the ice in Maine.

But those days are long gone and today the Saab is known more for its perky performance, precision handling, and sporty attire.

Even so, Saab still sticks to some of its old ways. Saab-Scania has always been somewhat of an individualist kind of company that builds individualist-type cars. The ignition key, for example, is still on the floor.

On the floor, you ask. ''Sure, it's a safer spot for the key than on the steering post or the dashboard,'' a suburban Boston Saab dealer replies.

''You can't hit it inadvertently and stop the engine,'' he goes on. That may be, but it is decidedly not a familiar position for the ignition key. But like the location of the horn or the headlight switch, a driver can get used to anything - almost.

Indeed, like the French, Saab insists on doing its own thing.

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A few years ago, for example, the company was reported to have dragged its brakes on a proposed merger with the larger Volvo. The tieup never came off. If Saab had been joined to Volvo, it well could have lost its identity, or at least a large part of it. This would not do for such an independent Swede.

Saab also shows its independent manner by always building a front-drive automobile when most of the world, until the last few years, was sticking to rear-end power. Volvo, meanwhile, is still going with rear-wheel-drive, saying that a rear-end system gives better weight distribution in its size and weight class. Rear drive works for Volvo but obviously would not have been the way to go for Saab.

Thus, Saab opted for fwd right at the start and is staying with it. Now an increasing part of the world's auto industry also is taking the same route, including Detroit.

Saab also was a pioneer in turbocharging when it was something of an anomaly on the road, not the almost-standard feature it is today on so many cars, both diesel-powered and gas.

The turbo-powered Saab is really two cars, however. The automatic and the 5 -speed stickshift are as different as fried eggs and oatmeal. In other words, the stickshift is a driver's car in the European tradition while the automatic clearly is not. Not that the automatic is a bad car, by any means, but it cannot hope to satisfy the motorist who wants to ''drive'' a road car and not simply an automobile.

Space, both front and rear in the Saab, is surprisingly ample if you don't try to overload. Four riders, including the driver, is enough.

Obviously, the 4-door notchback sedan provides easier entry to the back. A 2 -door always takes a more deft approach to getting inside and out. Simply, it's always too easy to get hung up on the hardware of a 2-door car, no matter where the car is built.

The goodies work well, including air conditioning (it's fast), automatic door-lock system, power windows up front, electric outside mirrors, and a manual sunroof which opens at the flick of a wrist. The front-seat cushions are heated for those cold days afield - another nice touch by the carmaker.

In summary, the 900 turbocharged Saab is a taut vehicle, comfortable, and nice to drive. The rear seatbacks fold forward to divulge a large cargo area in the back. Expectedly, all of this doesn't come cheap.

The 900 turbocharged Saab hits the price scales at $15,000-plus with the standard manual 5-speed gearbox and a few hundred more for the 3-speed automatic.

The stereo-casette radio in the 5-speed stickshift I've been driving is so nice that a cover has been fashioned to fit over the controls, the purpose of which is to discourage the rampaging eyes of anyone outside.

All in all, it's a car to enjoy, and enjoy - and enjoy.

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