Arctic roll

THE SAAB NAME evokes images of high speed and adventure, from the record-breaking Talladega endurance test to racing on frozen lakes in the Arctic Circle.

Technologically, the Swedish manufacturer has led the field for decades from its first car, the aerodynamic 92 in 1946, to its ground-breaking turbo-charging development in passenger cars over the past 25 years.

So I am delighted to test the new Saab 9-5 saloon with its 2.3-litre engine equipped with a light-pressure turbo.

The shape of the 9-5 is Saab's curious high-tailed, low-nosed outline that reminds me of Santa's sleigh. A distinctive grille features the Saab aircraft propeller and a wide, slim airdam complete with cornering lamps.

Inside I find a firm but comfortable driver's seat, bound in fine leather, as are the steering wheel, gear shift, and portions of the doors. I soon find the large ignition key sticking up from the transmission hump, somehow out of place in an elegant executive saloon.

Through the sporty, four-spoke steering wheel, complete with volume controls for the audio system, I see the speedometer and tachometer with red needles pointing to black and red numerals on a black background. I find the large 'S' for sport mode on the gear shifter, and the large dead-pedal augured well for excitement. And I learn we have 185 brake horsepower on tap, delivered partially via the turbo.

I like the initial swoosh of power and then the firm feel of Swedish suspension. It lets you know about every pebble and ripple and more or less absorbs the hard wallops. On the country highway I take a few minutes to understand what seems like the car's slightly higher centre of gravity on the curves. Then I remember to accelerate through every curve. Saab is not made for the sedate driver - it asks you to wake up and enjoy yourself on the road.

For an elegant, graceful car with a jet-propelled heritage, I swoop over the Shing Mun River on a graceful, sun-soaked flyover, then plunge into that preview of hell, the Tolo Highway. In an effort to maintain an even highway speed, we move carefully from the mid to fast lane, then back again, with the turbo in effect at any speed. Here the turbo comes into its own, giving me that short, sharp burst I need to skip and hop through the traffic. A few minutes on Kam Tin Road take us to Sek Kong, then up Route Twisk, a former sedan-chair footpath that was widened over the years but untouched by highway engineering.

Route Twisk is the birthplace of anti-camber. To the unwary, this kinky path threatens to throw your car off the mountain, so we drive carefully. We then turn up the track to Tai Mo Shan, around green mountainsides to a lookout where four policemen are resting their enormous BMW motorcycles.

My co-driver, Thomas Hung, sales manager of local Saab distributor Forefront Motors (tel: 2508 0000) says Tai Mo Shan is popular in winter as Hong Kong people visit just to see the frost. Frost and Saab go together.

In the absence of any residue on the hottest day of the year, we wind our way down the mountain, stopping several times to let other cars pass. In the swelter, we stop for coffee at one of the bright Thai restaurants at Sai O. With the blazing sun shimmering on blue Tolo Harbour, the frozen Arctic seems a world away.

Forefront Motors' marketing communications manager, Jessie Leung, reminds us that last year's Annual Reliability Survey said the Saab 9-5 led all European car manufacturers with the fewest reported problems per 100 vehicles. The European New Car Assessment Programme report adds that from last month, the 9-5 has earned a top safety rating with the fitting of an intelligent reminder for the driver and front-seat passenger to buckle up their seat belt.

'The Saab 9-5 has therefore been awarded extra points that now give the car the five-star crashworthiness rating,' says the report (

'The 9-5 provides balanced protection for the driver and passenger in the frontal impact and side impact gaining full marks for its performance in the side-impact test,' it says. 'The Saab-branded child restraints used for the tests were rear-facing, but in the side impact recorded unusually high chest accelerations, indicating a risk of injury was present. The 9-5's pedestrian protection rated as average [two stars], but there was a high risk of serious injury to their lower limbs.'

The report does not mention, however, that a two-star pedestrian rating is the best you can get in a family car right now and only the Volkswagen Touran people-over earned a superior assessment.

The marques have a long way to go on pedestrian safety, but you won't get a more protective drive for $308,000 in a Saab 9-5; real proof that not all Swedish cars are boring.