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Tale of the midsize five-door

| Friday, April 5, 2013, 5:06 p.m.

When my brother Alan was ready to buy his first new car, the ride he really wanted was a Saab 900. Although its design was aging, he admired the Saab's contrarian nature. Here was a car that had front-wheel drive in an age when the majority of cars still had rear-wheel drive. He was impressed by the interior, which had been designed with safety as a priority. This explains why all of the Saab's switch gear was mounted flush into the dashboard. And its quirky design touches suited his disposition. He loved the fact that the car's ignition switch was located between the front seats. Turning off the car meant you were literally locking the transmission. Best of all, it had a sporty image despite having a practical, hatchback body.

Alan was a newlywed, however, and that meant that a new Saab wasn't a viable option. So he bought the closest approximation that he could afford: a 1985 Chrysler LeBaron GTS.

This was not the vinyl-roof, wire-wheel LeBaron. The GTS was a midsize, five-door hatchback, the only one offered by an American manufacturer at the time.

The GTS didn't have the Saab's incredible build quality, agile handling or quirky design, but the two cars were more similar than you might suspect.

The 900 was 6.2 inches longer than the Chrysler, but both had fold-down rear seats and roomy cargo compartments. Both had front-wheel drive and were powered by four-cylinder engines — although at 100 horsepower, the GTS gave up 60 horsepower to the turbocharged Saab. Still, for the $4,000 difference in price, he was willing to settle for life in the slow lane.

He really liked the car.

It was pale blue with a light gray interior, a combination that ensured that when he parked on the streets of Manhattan, no car thief would be tempted. Better yet, it could comfortably accommodate five people or haul home a new lawn mower.

He owned the car for eight years, during which time he became a bit too familiar with Chrysler's service department. And, he told me, it was reliable — once he replaced just about everything on it.

After eight years and a mere 28,000 miles, it was bought by his wife's cousin, who managed to drive it more than 300,000 miles.

Chrysler dropped the LeBaron GTS for 1990 and, aside from Saab, no one stepped into the midsize hatchback market with the exception of Chevrolet. From 2004 until 2008, it produced the oddly named Malibu Maxx.

Given Americans' newfound appetite for compact and midsize crossover SUVs, as well as compact hatchbacks, one has to wonder if the time has arrived for a midsize hatch revival. It certainly would stand out in the U.S. market.

As for my brother, he eventually did get a Saab 900. After it broke down in the express lanes of the New Jersey turnpike, he reluctantly traded it in for a car that was in every way the opposite of the Saab: a Toyota Camry.

The time is approaching for his next ride and I am wondering what he will choose next: a car with character, like the Saab, or one without, like the Toyota.

I am rooting for character.

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk; larry.printz@pilotonline.com.

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