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Test Driving the New Saab 9-5 in the Arctic Circle

© © Saab Automobile

The new 9-5 sedan takes Saab back to its roots.

It’s 40 degrees below zero on a frozen Swedish lake 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, and the ice-block styling of the headlights on Saab’s new 9-5 sedan look as if they were carved by local Laplanders. Not far away is the small village of Jukkasjaroi, famous for its Ice Hotel, where hardy guests sleep in sleeping bags on ice blocks covered in reindeer skins. The hotel’s Ice Bar is so cold, the bartender keeps drinks in the refrigerator to warm them up.

Saab is celebrating its first year of independence from General Motors’ American grip in true Scandinavian style. Where better to debut a limited edition of 366 convertibles than in a snow-covered landscape that sees white flakes tumbling from the sky even in July? Chalk it up to a quirky sense of optimism that recalls the uniquely designed Saabs of yesteryear that had a devoted, and equally quirky, group of fans.

The 9-5 sedan, while not as bold a design statement as the Saabs of yore, is likely to find its own coterie of admirers. It will be joined next fall by a premium wagon version called the Sport-Combi. The six-cylinder, turbocharged 9-5 hasn’t totally escaped its GM roots, but its design is clearly evolving into something thoroughly Swedish. Squint slightly, and the wraparound glass rear of the car may even remind you of the classic Saab 900 (1979–1993).

With memories of the monster snowstorms and stuck cars of this past winter in mind, driving the Saab 9-5 around a frozen lake might seem like courting disaster—but the 9-5 is homegrown enough to love the white stuff. This is largely due to its locally developed XWD all-wheel drive system, which hugs the road superbly. There is also an effective anti-skid system that kicks in particularly well when weather conditions suggest you should be driving in second gear and you’re not.

This is clearly a car made with winter in mind. And though it may be cold outside, the 9-5’s interior is warm, well appointed and equipped with the latest electronic entertainment and navigation systems, reducing the weather conditions to a near-atmospheric level.

So where is Saab going? The Phoenix concept car introduced at the recent Geneva Motor Show hints at its destination. The signature ice-block design cues are married to a teardrop form topped with a fighter jet canopy, a look inspired by the original Ursaab car designed by Swedish aircraft engineers. The car looks like it was molded by the wind. Very unconventional. Life with Spyder, the brand’s new Dutch owner, doesn’t guarantee a smooth road, but it looks like Saab is on its way back. $49,565; saabusa.com.