Continuing DTW’s meta retrospective, we dial the time machine back to 1997.
1997 was an eventful year (weren’t they all?) which in a series of reversals for establishment-Britain saw the Chinese regain control over Hong Kong, and the dominant Conservative party lose power domestically following an 18-year run. In Paris that autumn, Princess Diana died in a car accident, the Hale-Bopp comet had its initial sighting, and oh yes, the Titanic sank again.
But if the number of débutantes profiled over the past twelve months is any indication, 1997 proved a good deal more fecund a year from an automotive perspective. Nevertheless, some stories remain untold, which leads us to the point of today’s exercise.
Land Rover’s L314 Freelander was a model programme which like so many former Rover Group concepts was first mooted the previous decade, but owing to the parent company’s rollercoaster fortunes, took the best part of a decade to come to fruition. Originally intended as a more car-like vehicle, dubbed ‘Pathfinder’, it eventually morphed into a junior offroader – somewhat akin to Toyota’s RAV4.
The first Land Rover to be styled by one Gerry McGovern, in fact the essential shape was created by the time GMG was drafted in, but the changes he wrought would (to his credit) benefit the vehicle’s appearance considerably, giving it a visual heft and a familial resemblance it may otherwise have lacked.
A combination of Rover Group’s indecision, lack of funding and the BMW takeover in 1994 meant the Freelander was a good deal later to market than intended, but once announced, it took off immediately. Even its much-publicised reliability issues seemed no impediment to sales – the value of the LR brand (then at least) appearing impervious to bad publicity. A pivotal car for Land Rover then and one which perhaps did more to catapult the marque into the sales mainstream.
The release of Toyota’s 1997 Prius was largely unheralded around this neck of the woods, hybrids being then being viewed as a peculiarly Californian fad, which like most of its ilk would quickly dissipate. Wrong. Like so much of what Japanese automotive engineers have dreamt up over the past fifty (or so) years, we ignored Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive at our peril; a remarkably clever piece of thinking which made the tricky transition from fossil fuel propulsion to electric drive virtually seamless.
Actually, the Prius’ (derived from the Latin, meaning ‘to go before’) drivetrain was sufficiently clever to deserve a dedicated retrospective of its own, but if ever a car was less well-served by its outer wrapping it was this. Designed at Toyota’s Calty design centre in California, it was tepid looking three volume saloon designed to offend nobody, but with the (unintentional?) added effect of pleasing nobody either. Would it have killed them to arrive at something a bit more arresting looking?
Anodyne or no, its 0.29 drag coefficient, coupled with its energy efficient drivetrain gave rise to a claimed combined fuel economy of 57.6mpg with CO2 emissions of 114g/km. Winner of Japan’s COTY award in 1998, and with more than 123,000 units sold worldwide when production ended in August 2003, (predominantly in the US and Japan) it had become the world’s most successful hybrid vehicle. The rest of course we know, and if Prius is now UK parlance for ‘minicab’ its very ubiquity is testament to the essential rightness of the engineering concept – if not the initial styling…
By the mid-90’s, General Motors’ stewardship of Saab saw Russelheim providing Trollhätten with much of the structural hardware required for a new generation of cars using a modified version of Opel’s Vectra and Calibra 2900 platform. With the 9000 series (co-developed with Lancia) needing replacement, this platform was stretched further for the 1997 9-5 model.
The first Saab since the initial 99 model to be launched only as a three-volume saloon, the in-house designed 9-5 was a tacit acknowledgement of the importance of the North American market to both Saab themselves and to their US masters. Not the most inspired piece of automotive styling to emerge from Trollhätten, its appeal was broadened considerably by the debut of a more attractive five-door estate model the following year.
The 9-5 was powered by a range of engines which stretched from Saab’s venerable in-line four in 2.0 and 2.3 litre capacities, a 3.0 litre GM V6 (all turbocharged) or a 2.2 litre diesel unit, provided by Opel, while chassis-wise it was parts-bin all the way. Passive safety was a major selling point however, the model having the benefit of the Swedish manufacturer’s most up to date innovations, winning numerous awards for passenger safety.
Lengthy production runs had long been a Saab staple, largely because the Swedes traditionally couldn’t afford to tool up for new models that often. This wasn’t so much of an issue when they were producing the durable designs they became famous for, but with the well-regarded 9000-series in production for fifteen years with just over 500,000 built and the 9-5 produced for thirteen (with just under 500,000 made); neither of which could reasonably be considered all-time classic Saab designs, it’s tempting to view this as corporate neglect.
GM-era Saabs were pretty good cars, but pretty good was not sufficient to take the fight to the likes of BMW et al (particularly at this sector of the market), and double digit lifespans certainly didn’t aid matters. Neither did one of the most ill-served facelifts ever, for that matter…
The anniversary waltz continues soon with a look at 1987.