Friday, June 05, 2009

A Saab story

Our current four-wheeled ride is a ten-year old Saab 9-3, by far the ritziest automobile we have ever owned. In fact, it is uncharacteristically ritzy by a long shot, the reason being that we didn't buy it. Our wonderful daughter, in need of a replacement for Gus the Jetta, found such a bargain online that it made more sense to buy more car than pay the same for less car.

Now wonderful daughter has moved on to an automobile-free lifestyle and turned her interest in the Saab over to us, leaving us the proud owners of a car that...we never really picked.

Now, it is a beautiful car, a wonderful car, and a far nicer car in many ways than I would ever have bought for myself, knowing my proclivity for spilling sticky stuff, and gouging upholstery with sharp-cornered objects, and my general disregard for taking good care of nice things.

It has heated leather seats, fog lights, wipers for the headlights, all kinds of neat touches. But it also has some...quirks. I mean, annoying, designed-in, intentional features that drive me absolutely insane and make me want to ask the Saab engineers "What exactly were you thinking, Sven?"

The first inkling of this peculiar design attitude came early on. We would park the car, turn it off, and then hear a peculiar rustling noise from deep inside the dashboard...the sound an old cassette tape makes when it's rewinding and is just about to slam to a stop, a papery rattling rushing sound, that would only stop on its own after a few minutes no matter what we did.

I finally tracked it down to an inconspicuous opening in the dash which I had assumed to be decorative. Oh, was a sensor intake for the "Automatic climate control system;" the noise was made by a small impeller in the dash that sampled the temperature of the cabin air. I stopped the noise by simply jamming the innards of an old pen into the impeller blades, and as the French put it, WA-LA.

But then the Saab guy (not Sven, but the local Saab guy who I like so well I've bought him a powerboat and paid for his kids to go to college) tells me this is not an optimal solution, as the ACCS will get confused about what's really going on in the car. So about half a spray can of contact cleaner and a little bit of WD-40 later, the impeller quiets down.

Now, you may have noted the mention above of the Automatic Climate Control System. In the old days, this was known as "The heater" and, if you were posh, "The Air Conditioner," or if less posh, "Roll the Fricking Windows Down." Nothing so downscale for the 1999 Saab 9-3 owner.

There is not a "Heater" or an "Air Conditioner." Hell, at this point, there's not even a "Roll the Fricking Window Down" for 25% of the car (fixing that = grad school for the Saab guy's daughter). There's a console with many cryptic icons, and arrows, and diagrams, and a 'red' arrow and a 'blue' arrow, all united by a small, dysfunctional LCD display. There are several sensor intake points, there is a sunlight sensor (!!) on the dash, there is an "Auto" button, and an "Off" button, but apparently there isn't a "I'd-like-to-handle-this-by-myself-thank-you-very-much" button.

No, for the 1999 Saab 9-3* driver, the only choice is to suggest to the ACCS what you'd like to feel, and let it interpret that however it may. I say interpret, in the sense of 'interpretive dance,' because what you think you are telling it, and what it renders, are frequently so widely disconnected that if defies credulity.

And part of the problem is trying to comprehend the information provided to you--the driver, or perhaps, the middle management of the ACCS--via the tiny and corrupted LCD display.

Saab appears to have a thing for LCD displays in the 1999 9-3. They must have seemed like a good idea at the time, very cutting edge. (And in Saab's defense, they still employed good old analog gauges--big ones, three of them--for the information that really matters: Speed, RPM, and a triple fuel-temp-turbo dial. ) But as we all have come to realize in time, LCD displays fail (predictably) in unpredictable ways, pixel by pixel. Our erstwhile microwave began depixilating during a series of power flickers brought on by a hurricane, and for the majority of its life, displayed information in an ever-coarsening dialect of Klingon.

The Saab at this moment is somewhere in the same progression. Sven, et al., elected to provide all kinds of important, but non-critical, information via an LCD display mounted high on the console. Even better, many system warnings appear there every time you start up, and a light notifying you of this crucial information lights up in the critical data area alerting you; you must manually clear the display to turn the warning off.

But it is almost always gibberish, missing those crucial pixels that let you infer one consonant or numeral from another, so you are reduced to primitive guesswork to elicit this vital information. In the best of circumstances, to view all the information available, you must toggle through a combination of button pushes to go to specific menus and obtain specific data--which is then, of course, displayed in gibberish.

Did I mention that the 9-3 Owner's manual runs to over 220 pages? You might as well bind it on all four edges and stamp "DO NOT READ" across the cover as expect anyone to bother trying to glean any relevant information from it. Charles Dickens—paid by the word—managed to define Christmas As We Know It in fewer pages.

Saab made its name building excellent and feared fighter jets for Sweden. Now I am not current on the exploits of the Swedish Air Force, but I can hardly imagine a fighter pilot, closing fast on an unseen enemy at 30,000 feet, having to look at his head-up display, then "...okay, menu, menu, up arrow, up arrow, enter,, not seat height, back, back, menu, menu..."

So when the 1999 9-3 wants to tells us something important, a little chime goes off, the display-warning-light lights up, and the console shows us something like this: "lU_] [ -+ChTHULU-#ptHaGN!!ia!ia!end]" which, really, is not very helpful. And there is the inherent humor in trying to decipher a cryptic, yet presumably somewhat important, or possibly urgent, message, IN A MOVING MOTOR VEHICLE.

Eventually, we will likely sell this car, because we have more vehicles than we really need, and frankly, this little gem--which is wasted on people like me, (pearls before swine and all that) will fetch a lot more than any of our other vehicles would. But the next time I am looking for a car, I will prize above all things:

1.) Analog gauges
2.) Analog window cranks
3.) An analog 'heat' dial
4.) An analog 'cold' dial (if the clunker has an airconditioner at all)
5.) Total absence of LCD displays

*At this point, can I just simplify the designation and call it a Saab 6?

1 comment:

Madeline said...

Yeah, yeah, okay, okay. Daughter is sorry for picking such a primadonna of a car. His name ain't Charles for nothing. Also, no car will ever replace Gus as first and dearest in my heart. Sigh.