Sometimes, to really understand a car, you have to see it in its native habitat. So if you’ve never really got Swedish cars, and never really understood why some people are so obsessed with them when they don’t handle, don’t have much power and seldom look that sexy, it might just be that you haven’t spent much time in Scandinavia.
The driving up here is unlike anywhere else on earth. Power and handling just aren’t important when it can take two days to drive between major towns on sheet-ice roads you’d struggle to stand up on, across which Arctic gales blow powder snow so hard and fast that your headlights illuminate what looks like a weird white conveyor belt running at right angles over the road. There are orange markers to show where the road is, or was, but you lose sight of them when the snowdrift blows higher.
It is – without question – the most beautiful environment I have ever driven through. It starts out Alpine, then turns polar as you head north. It is stark, monochrome and alien. Much of the time you can only see three things – rock, water and snow – and three colours; blue, grey and white. The feeling that you’re driving through a Tolkein novel is exaggerated by the place names; on one 2000-mile Norwegian Arctic road trip I passed through Hell, Moan, Hammerfest and Orcanger. There’s something Mordor-ous about the long, narrow, rough-hewn rocky tunnels through the mountains, and the weird optical and climatic effects you get this far north. As well as the Northern Lights, there’s the midnight sun and the Fata Morgana, where the dry atmosphere and low temperatures combine to reflect images of the landscape onto places they couldn’t possible be, like a mountain range on the sea horizon. It’s beautiful, but deadly at the same time. You look at the whiteness, feel the painful cold, and realize that man is simply not welcome there.
So you start to realize why Swedish cars are the way they are; why their priorities are different. Longevity, utter dependability, seat comfort and clever cabin design suddenly assume huge significance. And while it’s dangerous to generalize about whole nations, Scandinavian cars reflect their national traits as much as their driving conditions. They are a deeply democratic, practical, unflashy lot, and that – together with punitive new car taxes – means exotic metal is rare. Despite the conditions, cars are made to last longer, and you see healthy, cared-for, Cold War-era kit that you wouldn’t find in a scrapyard elsewhere in Europe. Until you get very far north they don’t bother much with SUVs, despite daily driving conditions that would bring Britain grinding to stasis. The Scandinavian car of choice is an old Volvo, Saab, Merc or Audi estate, maybe all-wheel drive but always running dinner-plate fog lamps, studded tyres and a roofbox for the skis, sides streaked with salt and being driven flat-out through a white-out, powder snow billowing out behind it.
And I’d be amazed if there’s a part of the world with a better standard of driving. Stop a Norwegian to ask for directions and you expect to get it in pace notes. “Post office? Down to the end of the road, then left 60 over crest, don’t cut.” The entire country seems to drive just beyond the available level of grip; I was once overtaken at 70mph on sheet ice by a VW van whose driver calmly corrected a massive oversteer moment as he came off the gas, and I tried to follow another in an Audi estate whose flickering tail-lamps told me he was left-foot braking into every bend. This is why they’ve produced so many Formula One and world rally drivers; if you learn to drive in these conditions, driving on anything else is easy.
The cars produced by these conditions and this mindset are distinctive. Ask a Saab nut to name ten things his car should have and you’ll find he can run on to a dozen pretty easily; the firm and its products have just about the clearest identity you’ll find. Cupholders; cool ones. A wraparound screen and an equally enveloping dash. The ignition down by the handbrake, one-touch air vents and folding rear seats. Viewed in profile, a hatchback, teardrop-shaped glass and triangular rear lights. Front wheel drive, a turbocharged engine and as many fighter-jet cues as you can cram in.
But building a new one isn’t simply a question of ticking the boxes. Saab has a philosophy too, one where safety and comfort and quality are more important than simple dynamism. It adds up to a very complete picture of how a car should be. You’d have thought this distinctiveness would have made it a success. Despite the recent financial hiccup, sales of premium-brand cars have skyrocketed in recent years. Saab and Volvo only needed to capture a small slice of that market; people who wanted something a cut above a boggo Ford, but not another predictable, me-too BMW.
But they didn’t. GM’s bosses had plainly never been to Scandinavia either. They owned Saab, but they never really got it, and it did so badly that they almost had to shut it down when the recession hit. Ford did a better job with Volvo, but both have now been sold as their parent companies restructure. Volvo is now controlled by Chinese firm Geely, and Saab has the owner it deserves in Dutch multi-millionaire and borderline madman Victor Muller, owner of sports car maker Spyker.
He’s exactly what Saab needs; car-obsessed, deep-pocketed and as idiosyncratic as the brand he now controls. If Geely has the sense to let Volvo do its thing unmolested, and with Koenigsegg and now Zenvo making nutcase supercars, Think Nordic making electric cars and Valmet in Finland coachbuilding cars for Fisker and Porsche, maybe more people will ‘get’ what makes Scandinavian cars so cool.
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