Thoughts after a week with the 96: snap back to realityS

(this was taken at a local car show; the Thunderbird is not mine)

James May's latest article on the fundamental crappiness of old cars comes at an opportune time, because now that the honeymoon period's over, reality is setting in and I'm starting to see the flip side of this vehicle. The shattering of my rose-tinted glasses may also be driven by the fact that I have had to pay quite a bit to replace a transmission mount, of which there were only three left in the entire country, and which became a powertrain-out procedure taking my local Saab specialist a full day.

I wrote previously that this car is small and nimble and easily fits into parking spaces in the city. That being said, not having power steering is still a bitch no matter how relatively light the car is and how narrow the tires are. Fundamentally I'm still straining to twist a patch of rubber that's being pressed onto the asphalt, and the mechanical advantage afforded by the rack and pinion still leaves it as a bit of a chore.

The nimbleness of the vehicle is entirely down to its light weight and compact size, and is offset by the soft suspension and narrow tires. The body roll is especially hilarious; I mentioned to a petrolhead passenger that of course it rolls, all airplanes bank in turns, but it doesn't diminish the fact that it's really not sporting at all. More and more I realize that Erik Carlsson won his rallies despite the downsides of his Saabs, and not always because of their upsides. Incidentally, my 9000 Aero shared this problem of body roll, something that was only partially cured by installing 25mm anti-sway bars. I dare not change modify it to corner more flatly, mostly down to the lack of available parts; the wheels especially are a strange configuration, being narrow 15-inch steelies with a 5x170 bolt pattern. No, that is not a typo; Saab certainly found its own road where the rubber meets the road.

The engine doesn't do it any favors either. Though the V4 sounds interesting on paper, if only because of its rarity, its lack of both power and top end are pretty tedious in real life. It's reasonably torquey and isn't a total danger to itself other traffic, but thanks to the restrictive stock exhaust, its main aural signature is a bored thrashiness. It reminds me of a moving truck in its complete lack of fun factor and barely-sufficient torque.

I fully admit that this is a harsh indictment of a very interesting vehicle, and it may sound like I am surprised that something engineered in Sweden over 40 years ago isn't as good as vehicles, say, 20 years newer. This may be a matter of delayed reaction on my side; instead of giving it a fair and balanced evaluation when I first saw and drove it, I saw all the good things about it upfront, and left its bad side for later.

The upside of driving it around town is that I've discovered just how much other people love it. Everyone I know who's ridden in it goes gaga for its weirdness, and it gets bucketloads of attention from the public. Around Boston, and especially in Cambridge, people even know what it is. One old guy, probably an academic of some sort, yelled "Two-stroke?" at me as I was stopped by a light, and it took me a second to get over my my surprise and tell him it's a V4.

What does this mean for the future? One weekend of annoyances doesn't completely cancel out a weekend of fun, and I'm not going to panic and dump it right away. A classic car is meant to be enjoyed sparingly and over a long period of time, much like scotch or cigars. Winter is coming soon, and I'll put it away when the snow falls. I just need to make sure I don't overindulge before then.