At long last
The new Saab 9-5 might not be the most-anticipated new car this year, but it is perhaps the longest anticipated. It replaces a model that had lingered for thirteen years, a glaring testament to Saab parent company General Motors’ fecklessness with regards to its Swedish ward. “Saab was at the bottom of the food chain at GM,” says the brand’s new CEO, Victor Muller, he of tiny exotic carmaker Spyker, which pulled off an eleventh-hour purchase/rescue of Saab in February.
The 9-5 is the first new Saab to arrive in the post-GM era, but of course it was engineered under the old regime. It uses the largest version of GM’s Epsilon architecture, which also forms the basis of the European Opel Insignia and the Buick LaCrosse.
My, how you’ve grown
Still, you really don’t think Buick when you approach this new sedan. It looks very much like a Saab, its design growing out of the Aero-X show car from 2006. The front is a modern execution of the Saab face; its rather upright windshield wraps around to the sides; and the sloped backlight echoes the old hatchbacks even though this car has a conventional trunk. The form hasn’t compromised function, as the whole business ends up with a commendably slippery 0.28 coefficient of drag.
The car looks quite large in person, and compared with its predecessor it is: 6.8 inches longer, 2.9 inches wider, and an extra 5.3 inches in wheelbase. The increased size creates some psychic space between the 9-5 and the 9-3, and at the same time creates lots of physical space inside the cabin. Rear-seat passengers sit on pleasantly chair-high seats; knee- and legroom are plentiful and head room is adequate. Only foot room under the front seats is tight. A DVD entertainment system, with dual screens, is an option.
Up front, the Aero’s sport seats feel overly firm at first, but they get more comfortable the longer you’re in them. The 2.0T’s seats are softer and still offer the full complement of power adjustments although they lack the sport seats’ under-thigh extensions. Touch points are soft, but the dark metallic trim does nothing to enliven the all-black interior. The curved, cockpit-style dash is canted toward the driver, and yes, it features Saab’s night panel button, which shuts down all the gauges except the speedometer and the head-up display. The column stalks; the switches on the small, nicely shaped steering wheel; and the multifunction circular display screen at the center of the speedometer are all GM bits, but they hardly look out of place. Saab has done a better-than-usual job of grouping the various buttons by function, which makes things easy to find. The ignition is, of course, located between the seats.
Fittingly, both 9-5 engines are artificially aspirated, with twin-scroll turbochargers. The 2.8-liter V-6 in the Aero makes 300 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, the same as it does in its Opel and Buick applications. Saab quotes a time of 6.9 seconds for the 0 to 62 mph sprint, which is good but not blistering. All U.S. Aeros come with a six-speed automatic (with paddles) and all-wheel drive; the latter means that torque steer is not an issue. The four-cylinder 2.0T is front-wheel drive (although it likely will add the option of all-wheel drive next year). The version we sampled had a six-speed manual gearbox, which will be offered here. This stick shift suffers none of the rubbery shift action that we’ve seen in some previous Saab units and is a pleasure to use, with easy clutch engagement and progressive throttle tip-in; only occasional resistance to the 3-2 downshift keeps it from being near-perfect.
For the 2.0T, torque steer is really not an issue, until you get within 1000 rpm of the redline in first gear. This direct-injected engine offers much better initial response and better integration of boost than the 2.0 turbo in the 9-3. (Look for it to supplant that engine in the 9-3 in mid-2011). The turbo in the four-cylinder does announce its presence with a pronounced whistle; the V-6, by contrast, is extremely quiet.
It might have been the influence of the manual, but we came away preferring the 2.0T. The factory clocks it one second behind the V-6 going from 0 to 62 mph, but it doesn’t feel any slower in real life, perhaps because it’s more than 800 pounds lighter than the AWD V-6, which tips the scales at 4365 pounds.
Choose your chassis
Both versions of the 9-5 offer what Saab calls DriveSense, with a switch to choose among three settings — comfort, intelligent (which adapts to your driving style), and sport–for damper firmness, steering boost, throttle mapping, automatic transmission shift points, and all-wheel-drive torque allocation. The system, which is standard on the Aero and optional on the 2.0T, also allows the driver, via the large touch-screen, to de-select individual items from the DriveSense program, to create a truly individualized setup.
We easily preferred the Sport mode’s higher-effort steering; whatever the setting, the steering is very precise on center but rather artificial once you begin winding on lock. With regard to the dampers, we found it hard to pick out the differences among the various settings, at least on the well-kept blacktop outside of Trollhaettan — on crumbling Rust-Belt freeways, it might be a different story.
Basically, the 9-5 rolls along with a somewhat relaxed attitude — there is not the iron-fisted body control of some German brands. But when you push it harder, as we did on a closed test track, you find that althuogh the suspension allows small body motions, it effectively resists larger ones, so the car is ultimately more responsive than you might expect. On the track, we drove the all-wheel-drive Aero exclusively. Saab’s cross-wheel-drive system uses a Haldex clutch to apportion torque front to rear, but it also features an electronically controlled rear differential to shift power across the rear axle, sending more to the outside rear wheel when accelerating out of a corner, helping to mitigate understeer somewhat.
New tech toys
The cross-wheel-drive system is already available on the 9-3X, but the new 9-5 does bring forth several new technologies for Saab. In addition to the aforementioned head-up display, there’s a lane-departure warning system, touch-screen navigation with a 40GB music storage hard drive, swiveling bi-xenon headlamps that can automatically vary their light pattern, and a parallel-parking assist system that scans for a space then helps guide you into it (although it does not spin the wheel for you).
These are the kind of features buyers expect in the 9-5’s new, ritzier neighborhood. The 9-5 will launch in the United States in July with a batch of only 500 cars, all top-spec Aero models, with the V-6 engine and all-wheel drive. The price, with destination, is $49,990. Come the 2011 model year in September, the 2.0T joins the party, bringing the price of entry down below $40,000. Even so, the new 9-5 will sticker for several thousand dollars more than the old one. About a year from now, we should see the 9-5 SportCombi (wagon).
Speaking to the faithful
Although it is undeniably the product of a failed relationship, the new 9-5 is a surprisingly strong effort and, even more surprisingly, Saab-like. If that latter quality has after all these years been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, then at least we can say that the new 9-5 is not a Buick LaCrosse with good seats and a “night panel” dash button.
Yes, the big Saab is likely to play at the margins of the luxury-car market, but the brand’s new overseers have realistically modest sales expectations. The 9-5 isn’t likely to steal many buyers away from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, or Lexus, it’s certainly good enough to give the faithful reason to return to the showroom again, and to provide an alternative to some of the smaller luxury nameplates for the intellectuals and unconventional thinkers who look for something outside of the mainstream.
2010 Saab 9-5 Aero
Base price: $49,990 (with destination)
On sale: July 2010
Engine: 2.8-liter DOHC 24-valve turbocharged V-6
Horsepower: 300 @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 295 @ 2000-5000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 17/27 mpg (city/highway)
L x W: 197.2 x 73.5 in
Wheelbase: 111.7 in
Cargo capacity: 18.2 cubic feet