How do you define the top-of-the-line model in any car range?
Is it price, specification, performance, a combination of those factors, or your perception of what a top-of-the-range car should be?
We've been musing on that while collecting our thoughts on the Saab 9-5 Griffin.
The elegant 9-5 range includes two cars which might both have claim to being top dog, the luxurious Griffin V6 with its opulent specification and the sports-oriented 9-5 Aero.
The Griffin is the dearer at $96,900 to the Aero's $93,900, but if Saab were to charge Aero buyers the usual premium for the optional automatic gearbox the prices would be within $100 of each other. And at the thick end of $90,000 what's $100?
We've reached the conclusion that whichever is the top of the range depends strongly in your personal preferences, maybe even your age, where the Saab 9-5 is concerned.
We like the Griffin, despite its taste for petrol in large quantities, but a younger colleague who's in his 30s thinks it's an unnecessary excess at the top end of the 9-5 line-up.
He thinks the more tautly-suspended, much sharper handling Aero with its moderately fierce turbocharged four cylinder motor is the true range-topper.
Well, as Dirty Harry Callaghan said: "opinions...everybody's got one."
Like all New Zealand market Saabs, the Griffin is turbocharged, though Saab takes the light pressure approach to extract 147kW (developed at 5000rom) from the 2962cc Ecopower V6. Peak torque is 310Nm, delivered at a very useable 2500rpm.
Top speed is listed as 235kmh and Saab says the car will accelerate to 100km/h in 8.9 seconds.
That's not stunning acceleration nowadays but it is respectable and means the Saab won't be left behind.
The engine has an intriguing note when you open the throttle wide and ask it to deliver. It's a sort of a cammy wrrrarrrk! muffled a little by the turbocharger.
It provides more than enough performance when you ask the question, allowing the Griffin to make open-road passing moves with ease and gallop up hills with no slackening of pace.
Fuel economy depends on how you use the throttle. Saab quotes 16 litres per 100 kilometres on the city cycle, 8.1 litres/100km on the highway and 11.1/100km for the combined cycles.
According to the on-board computer we managed 16.5 in the city, 10.5 on the open road, and around 14.5 overall. In motorway running we got into the nines and during performance testing the fuel usage skyrocketed to 24 lires/100km according to the computer. As we said the answer to the economy question is in your right foot.
The standard four-speed electronically-controlled automatic gearbox is as smooth-shifting as in any other Saab - which means very smooth indeed. You can also shift it manually if you're pressing the car hard along a winding country road.
The Griffin rides on MacPherson strut front and multi-link axle rear suspension.
The suspension set-up is weighted more towards comfort than outright handling sharpness. It's supple, long-travel and absorbs bumps beautifully without sacrificing roadholding. Turn-in to corners is reasonably good but not razor-sharp.
In tight going you're aware of the weight of the V6 over the front wheels and of a fair amount of body roll occasioned by the comfort-biased suspension set-up.
But we found the Griffin to be more nimble and more enjoyable than the 9-5 four cylinder wagon we drove a few days earlier.
Like all non-sports suspension Saabs, the Griffin rewards an early turn-in, classic front-wheel drive cornering style.
It's an understeering car, but we didn't find the steering and cornering feel too nose-heavy, and we liked the oversteer-like feel as the rear end settled on to the outside rear wheel as the car exited bends.
Steering is communicative and not over-assisted. In fact at open road speeds it doesn't feel assisted at all. We haven't been able to discover if there are power steering differences between 9-5 models, but the Griffin's felt much more precise around the straight-ahead than the set-up in the 9-5 wagon.
The car didn't run wide on the exits from corners, but storming a winding road is probably not the Griffin's forte and is almost certainly not its intended role.
It will do it, and do it securely and with no disconcerting moments but both car and driver are working fairly hard.
Its forte is as a long-legged business express, capable of covering distances at good speed, with safe handling and secure roadholding and with above average levels of comfort. Ride quality is outstanding and noise levels are muted.
Four-wheel disc brakes have a standard ABS anti-skid system and provide excellent stopping power. They're enhanced by an electronic brake-force distribution system which takes account of the car's load distribution to shift braking between front and rear wheels to reduce stopping distances.
The brakes pulled the 1600kg car up from high speed repeatedly with no sign of fade.
The cabin is beautifully-finished, though there was a niggling little rattle from somewhere in the dashboard/fascia.
The leather-upholstered seats are typically-Saab: perfectly-shaped, comfortable and providing excellent support.
The dashboard is finished in woodgrain, a feature we're not always certain about. But it seemed in keeping with the generally plush Saab cabin and looked high quality.
The steering wheel is a mix of wood and leather rim finishes and was very nice to use.
Standard equipment is comprehensive. There's automatic climate-control air-conditioning; separate heating controls for driver and passenger; front seat cushion and backrest warmers (great on frigid winter mornings - and incidentally the Griffin's back seat gets a built-in heater too); an electrically-operated glass sunroof; electrically-operated windows and exterior mirrors; heated exterior mirrors; and electrically-adjustable front seats (the driver's has a memory function to store settings). The gear selection lever is wood-finished.
The nine-speaker audio system provides superior sound and includes a six-disc Compact Disc player as well as a cassette deck.
Safety gear includes Saab's usual thorough chassis design, and driver's and front seat passenger's front and side airbags.
Traction control and an automatic body-levelling system to compensate for loads are standard.
The luggage boot is deep, wide and capacious.
The Saab Griffin is a worthy entrant in the upper-luxury market. It's a car of real character with a truly quality feel. It's comfortable, fast and nimble enough and an excellent inter-city express.
And, following the price shift last November, it's on the right side of $100,000.
AutoPoint road test team.