DEL MAR, CA - Saab Cars USA had hoped its 1999 9-5 wagon would be a hit among car buyers looking at the luxury station wagon segment, and apparently the company's hopes are ringing true.

The new wagon, which went on sale in April, is expected to help Saab grab at least 6.3% of the 60,000-unit luxury wagon segment expected for the U.S. this year. In 1998, about 48,000 import luxury sport wagons were sold, with about 80% of the market going to vehicles from Volvo Cars of North America Inc.

By the end of May, Saab was clearly on its way to its goal by selling 298 units, up from 241 units in April. The automaker had planned to sell 3,800 9-5 wagons during 1999, but has since upped its goal to 4,500 units.

"We think our timing is just perfect for this," said Daniel Chasins, executive vice president, Saab Cars USA, Inc.

It's the non-traditional wagon customers that Saab hopes to lure to the 9-5. Chip Wilkerson, 9-5 product manager, says he believes 87% of 9-5 wagon volume will be conquest sales, including about 37% from owners of other luxury wagons and 7% from sport/utility vehicle owners. Compared to its competition, its customers are more likely to actually participate in outdoor sports such as kayaking and mountain biking, says the automaker.

The vehicle also has several technological advantages over the more traditional, segment-leading Volvo, including an all-turbo engine lineup, active head restraint safety system, increased cargo room and a list of standard features that are offered as options on other wagons such as a sunroof, in-dash CD player, power seats, walnut dash and roof rails.

The wagon equipped with a 2.3L 4-cyl. turbocharged engine starts at $31,850, while the 3L 6-cyl. turbo wagon starts at $36,900.

"We feel we are going to make a really big splash in this segment," says Mr. Wilkerson.

Unlike the popular Volvo V70 Cross Country, the 9-5 wagon will not be available in all-wheel drive. But, Mr. Wilkerson says, Saab continues to look at AWD and has the investment to develop an AWD variant for a future vehicle.

The 9-5 wagon is the second of several vehicles Saab will launch in the U.S. this year. Earlier in the year, the 9-5 sedan hit dealerships. The 9-3 Viggen 3-door, 5-door and convertible, along with the 9-5 high output, are all due to be launched later this year.

The new vehicles will help Saab reach its goal of selling 40,324 units this year. The automaker recently increased its sales forecast after seeing sales jump 48.7% during the first five months of the year. If the company can achieve the goal, it would be the first time since 1987 that more than 40,000 Saabs are sold in one year in the U.S. - Andrea Wielgat and Herb Shuldiner