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Rumble Seat 

Darren Holman is one of the best veterinarians ever to wield a swab, the Dr Kildaire of doggy docs, a veritable Schweitzer of the flea-and-tick set. I've seen him treat ferrets with hysterical alopecia and agoraphobic Dobermans who had taken to biting themselves. Recently, at his Gentle Care Animal Hospital in Cary, he saved a boxer who started to hemorrhage on the operating table. Dr. Holman stayed cool, stitching and defibrillating long past the point when most other vets would be calling for the, ahem, doggy bags. The guy should definitely have his own show on Animal Planet.

Dr. Holman takes care of our cats--one of whom has the late-stage dementia of Howard Hughes--and another with a twisted skull and crippled paw, who cannot see and gimps around like Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. We call him Lucky.

So when it came time to test Saab's new pet-restraint system offered in its glossy, Euro 9-5 wagon, I naturally thought of Dr. Holman as the person best able to assess the humane aspects of the system. Plus, he had access to lots of dogs.

But first, a few demographic stereotypes. Affluent, college-educated types love dogs--often big dogs, like big, bird-hunting retrievers that go bonkers when trapped in houses and apartments. But let that go. Basically, when you hire on at Duke or SAS Institute, you get your golden Lab in your new employee kit.

Saab knows this demographic well, since it has been the marque's cheese-and-blintzes for some time--since Saab decided to abandon the working class and build near-luxury sedans, coupes and wagons.

Saab also knows that it needs a little heat in the market. The Saab 9-3, one of the quickest and best-handling platforms in the midsize range, nonetheless remains mired in also-ran position, because of the company's quirk-at-all-costs approach and because the competition--Audi, BMW, Mercedes, even VW--is so very good.

Moving upscale, the Saab 9-5, a large-car platform introduced in 1998, is another superbly stylish, gloriously adroit vehicle that simply goes underappreciated in the market. Saab planned all along to offer a wagon version of this car--featuring the company's turbocharged 3.0-liter, 200-hp V6. Yet even here, Saab finds itself confounded, as nearly all the Euro manufacturers are piling on the wagon bandwagon--BMW, Audi, Mercedes again, to say nothing of the variety of near-wagons from Lexus, Subaru and a brace of others.

Ideally, wagons retain the road-conscious quality of a good sedan while offering the flex-space of an SUV, and the theory is that consumers, eventually, will grow sick of the girthy, rheumatoid handling of SUVs and opt for sporty wagons. We'll see.

In the meantime, the Saab wagon stands as maybe the ultimate associate professor's car. It's an intelligent car with lots of thoughtful features--including ventilated seats, the best head-restraint system in the biz and an almanac of options from heated mirrors to cockpit-style instrument arrays. It's impeccably practical and rare enough to demonstrate one's keen discrimination and individual taste. Another latte, professor?

Such people own dogs. And cats, but cats rarely hang their heads out the car window with their tongues flapping.

Saab is the first manufacturer to offer a system that keeps pets in their place. According to Dr. Holman, pets are just as liable to be hurt in an auto accident as the human passengers. Indeed, dogs can become "projectiles"--oh, I love that word (Fire another spitz at the dirty Huns, corporal!).

Cats just sleep. In severe accidents, cats might spontaneously shed.

Dogs also fall out of vehicles, and this, it turns out, is a more common event that one might think. Neither are dogs safe riding around in the backs of pickup trucks. They can and do fall out, owing to their great ignorance of Newtonian physics. When you see someone doing his best Hungry-Jack-biscuit man impersonation, tell him to get the dog out of the pickup bed. Or let him stand back there and then you drive the truck around corners at commuter speeds. Keep those video cameras rolling, America.

The Saab system consists of two torso harnesses--one for a big dog, one for a small dog--that can be tethered to either one of the back-seat shoulder restraints or onto a coated, braid cable that can be attached to the aircraft-style runners on the floor of the cargo area.

Dr. Holman absolutely aced chemistry and calculus, but neither he nor I, who didn't exactly ace calculus, could fathom the restraint system at first. It took us a good half-hour to sort out what attaches to which. I put the harness on, he put the harness on, and we decided that while it wasn't right, it sure was fun.

Eventually, we managed to get the harnesses secured to the right places. Then Dr. Holman prevailed upon a good-natured huskie in his care to help us with this experiment. The huskie in question was delighted to help us. Indeed, he was just plain delighted to run around aimlessly, to sniff my crotch, to lick his privates. You know huskies.

Once battened down in the cargo area, the huskie happily pounded the rear glass of the $40,000 car with his tail while we tossed the Saab wagon around corners and braked and accelerated madly. Eventually, the huskie decided to sit down, and he might have turned a shade green. But he was safe, and the system did not seem to bother him at all, though I'm sure he wanted to jump into our laps.

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