Saab 9-5 Review


Saab 9-5 ReviewRedesigns are costly, risky, and time-consuming, but a fact of life. No matter a car's virtues and vices, there just aren't a whole lot of takers for one that's been around for too many years in a row. You have your Lexuses and Acuras that revamp their work every five or so years, and you have your Bimmers and Benzes that wait till, oh, seven.

Then you have Saab. While every conceivable competitor has entire lineups from the past few years, Saab marches on with the 9-5 sedan, its flagship since 1999. Why the long tooth, you ask? Well, despite all the changes that have rocked Saab's boat since then, its growth remains at the mercy of General Motors, which profusely refuses to provide any major funding to this scant Scandinavian entity.

But we still get updates every now and then, and 2006 marks the 9-5's most comprehensive renovation so far. It starts with a full-body makeover, then continues with some detailing on the innards. The model lineup is now more focused, and the focus is on power: of the three former engines, only the strongest gets to stay, and even it enjoys a power adjustment to the north. Throw in a price bumped to the south by a thousand or three, and you have a subject worth reexamining, especially since Saab will be counting on it until decade's end.

Road TestSaab 9-5 Review
Front-wheel-drive luxury sedans have a history of being pleasant if largely forgettable to drive, and we're talking the works of big-name brands here: Volvo, Lexus, Infiniti, etc. How good could such a car be coming from an obscure company like Saab, especially when most of the engineering work was actually done by a positively anonymous company called Opel?

As it turns out, asking that question is to almost answer it. For those not in the know, Opel is GM's right-hand man in Germany, and while I can't comment much on the company, the country leaks through.

Know how German cars often have that delicate intimacy in the chassis that keeps you in the know of what's happening below? This Saab's got it. The 9-5 bends into corners eagerly (if literally, as body lean remains), even more so this year now that Saab fattened the stabilizer bars and stiffened the shocks by 15%. The engine revs with verve, and feeding those brakes with any level of pressure results in sublime feedback to go with a short stopping distance.

Capable and confident, with light effort but reassuring feedback? It's all so Audi-esque.

Yet Saab's definitely the one behind the 9-5's most distinguishing feature. Remember how last year's car had three engines: a low-pressure turbo 4 (on the Linear model), a low-pressure turbo V6 (Arc), and a 20 psi high-pressure turbo 4 (Aero)? Well, now it's all Aero, all the time, as every 9-5 now shares the same 2.3-liter 4-cylinder "Ecopower" engine, newly armed with 260 horsepower and ready for a rematch.

Slow it ain't. The 9-5 will rock many a car in a race, with 0-60 falling on either side of 6 seconds depending on transmission. In this class, though, power so abundant usually gets sent to the rear wheels and through six cylinders. Saab's dare to be different brings mixed results.

Winding mountain roads are where sports sedans are supposed to shine, yet the Saab stumbles. The constant changes in speed, direction, and elevation entail lots of throttle adjustments, which in the 9-5 means jumping back and forth across the Grand Canyon-size chasm between turbo-on and turbo-off power. Ask for thrust and there's a tick or two of nothing followed by an avalanche on tick three - an avalanche that veers the front-drive 9-5 off course in corners (despite Saab's efforts to delay this tendency with super-sticky new Pirelli P235/45R17 tires). Lift off the gas while the turbo's doing its thing and you'll hear some backlash coming back up the driveline.

The delayed turbo response can also disappoint at low speed, and the four cylinders lend some 90s-style vibration at no speed, despite the twin balance shafts. There's also a tad much engine braking when creeping around. If Saab likes to be "quirky", then mission accomplished; just know that quirky isn't necessarily synonymous with "harmonious" or "predictable."

Yet all this sacrifice is not for naught. Anytime you're not using that turbo boost (idling, cruising, light driving, etc.), that 2.3-liter 4 acts like, well, a 2.3-liter 4. Lots of freeway time let me score 26 MPG, which sure puts the "eco" in Ecopower. Another perk is the poundage this little engine relieved from the 9-5's nose (weight is decently distributed at 60/40). And I thought it was pretty nifty to accelerate to 100 MPH on steep hills while locked in 5th gear just by adding boost, with engine speed staying totally constant. Certainly a calm, efficient way to do it.

There are a few more tricks in the "Sentronic" transmission. It starts with a Sport mode feature that delays upshifts, but unlike most cars also quickens throttle response to make it easier to keep that turbo spinning. Its steering wheel shift paddles work well enough (left thumb downshifts, right thumb upshifts), and with downshifts at your discretion, flooring the pedal results in one boost (the turbo's) instead of two - crucial to smooth driving. By the way, the computer follows a unique set of rules: do upshift at redline; don't downshift if floored in 1st/2nd/3rd gear; do downshift if floored in 4th or 5th IF traveling below about 40 or 60 MPH, respectively, and then only shift by one gear. Okay, then. If you plan to use none of this trickery, rest easy knowing the transmission is a smooth operator when left to its own schedule.

Most of the time, so is the rest of the car. Despite acute road noise, the Saab is a steady and pleasant freeway cruiser. It feels relaxed at the Autobahn speeds for which it was built. The turbo lights off instantly at higher speeds, and the standard stability control steps in at just the right moment (and can be turned off). The chassis deals with most bumps in a refined European manner - most of the time. But then come certain bumps that crash right through severely, topping or bottoming out the suspension and occasionally revealing an unsettling flex in the aging structure. It doesn't happen often, but it happens.

It seems like everywhere you look in the 9-5, you find lots of greatness tainted by a few grand moments of mediocrity.

Inside & OutSaab 9-5 Review
Every successive restyle of the 9-5 seems to meet with less success. I exited my car in the office parking lot on Monday morning to salutations of "damn, that is one ugly Saab" and "what the hell did they do to it?" counterbalanced by not one kernel of kudos. Eagle eyes will notice newly smoked headlights and BMW 3-series-wannabe taillights, plus some rethought wheel patterns. The convex passenger mirror is gone, but the rear fog lights are still there.

Though the interior got some remarks of being "not that nice", it got a few revisions for this year that strike me as effective. The main instruments are now crisp and colorful, its speedometer standing front and center and marked off in 10 MPH increments all the way to 160. The great leather steering wheel is now a sportier three-spoker and everything in the center stack is new. Well, sort of: cars without the navigation system get the same GM corporate radio found in Buicks, though this tester did have the nav system, which is of the touch-screen type.

It's also of the pretty-good type: intuitive to use, speedy to process commands, and speaks with a very pleasant female voice. In fact, Saab can now claim to be the only non-Japanese make besides Mercedes and Jaguar to have a user-friendly navigation system. It main irritant is that its touch screen nature results in lots of smearing, plus it's a little slow to follow fingers. The constant reminders to "continue" on your current freeway can bug, and most functions are locked out at speed.

Sharing space with the nav system is the Harman-Kardon stereo, whose sound quality is nothing short of fan-freakin-tastic. Rich trebles, strong bass, plenty of power, and not one but two subwoofers make this Saab an aural palace. The irritants here are that most buttons are contained within the screen, the preset changer on the steering wheel is unidirectional and cycles through all 12 presets, and the way the CD changer still stands where the automotive world put it in 1999: in the trunk. Oh, and raise your hand if this makes sense: the in-dash disc slot (where the navigation DVD lives) can play MP3s but the CD changer cannot, thus presenting the driver with the choice of liking what you hear or knowing where you're going.

Beneath these systems sit the climate controls, a dual-zone system with attractive, crisp-moving knobs. This also marks the birthplace of a Saab invention: seat coolers that can suck hot air through the perforated leather (optional, though heaters are standard on all seats). All systems are go, but there are more irritants: you can't send air to the vents and floor simultaneously, it keeps switching back to recirculated air, and half the time you start up the car, it forgets all former settings and simply blasts you with air at full power. If I want to cool my car, I'll do it myself, and my preferred method would be via remote opening of the windows - a feature Saab still lacks.

Irritants/quirks continue throughout the 9-5. We can start with the starter, which because this is a Saab must stand between the front seats. Maybe my brain could get used to it in time, but it's a missed opportunity for a second cupholder (the removable one in the tiny center console doesn't count; it usurps the whole space when in place). The steering wheel controls aren't lit at night. The adjustable armrest slides whimsically on its track. The clock is buried within other systems, so telling time requires turning on the radio and navigation. The wipers' Off mode stands between its various On modes. The bizarre cruise control has one button tacked onto the end of the turn signal stalk to Set / Accelerate and a switch on the front that you slide to the right to Resume / Decelerate, slide left to turn on/off, and slide halfway left to Cancel. It's as haphazard as the one on GM's trucks except for pairing Set with Accelerate and Resume with Decelerate - the opposite of every car on Earth.

I didn't mind the window controls being in the center. Air conditioned gloveboxes are always cool, the cupholder that flips out of the upper dash is a small stroke of genius, and the 747-inspired ceiling controls add real character. One more harmless gimmick: press the Night Panel button and all main displays except the speedometer fade to black. Sigh.

But on to the more substantive stuff. The driving position fit me perfectly thanks to a tilt-telescope wheel and power seats with three-man memory. This Saab is also sanctuary to an endangered species in the GM universe: seats that stay comfortable over the long haul. They possess that unmistakable feel and smell of European leather. Front riders enjoy the full safety set of dual-stage airbags, side and side-curtain airbags, and the active front head restraints that made the 9-5 famous back in 1999. The armrests could be higher, though, and the thick-as-a-tree seat belt anchor creates a left-rear blind spot. Those belts also need a height adjuster - an issue for both rows that irked rear riders that were shorter in stature.

Otherwise, the back seat treats its guests to tender thighs, unrestricted legs, free feet (unless the front seats are fully lowered), and thanks to heaters in all seats, toasty buns. But for a car that brags about safety, the back bench is falling behind the times: no airbags, no active head restraints, and no restraint at all in the center. The towering front thrones also lend an air of claustrophobia back there.

Though no Saabs are hatchbacks anymore, the 9-5 sedan upholds the brand's versatile tradition by having the best trunk in the class: 15.9 big boxy cubic feet, with the option of expanding through the rear seat center porthole or by tumbling down the whole seat, which opens up the whole wall.

Other ThoughtsSaab 9-5 Review
With just one engine and no more weird trim level names, this newly streamlined 9-5 is easier to process. Cheaper, too. The sedan begins at $34,820 with a stick, $36,170 with the $1,350 automatic. A Sport Package lowers the suspension, firms up the shocks and springs, throws in sport seats and tinted chrome interior trim, and includes a two-day Saab Aero Academy driving session for $1,095. The only other options are the Visibility Package (xenon lights, rain-sensing wipers, backup parking beeper, and auto-dimming outside mirrors) for $1,295, navigation system for $2,795 (moves the CD changer from the dash to the trunk), OnStar for $699, and seat coolers for $995 ($895 on cars with the Sport Package). Wagons are now called SportCombi and cost $1,000 more, and all metallic paint colors cost an extra $550.

Competition has dwindled in number since the 9-5's youth. Not one other luxury automaker sells a mid-sized, front-drive, 4-cylinder sedan as a performance machine. Luckily, the 9-5 is excused from comparison to the BMW 5-series, which Saab naively names as a target competitor.

Coming closest are probably the Acura TL and Lincoln Zephyr, and I think most American drivers would find more everyday satisfaction in those cars' more linear-responding V6 powerplants. The TL holds other some obvious advantages and comes out cheaper at $33,940, while the Zephyr ducks down at just $31,355 after adding some options. Euro-philes also have the Volkswagen Passat 3.6, a faster, roomier car that, even with its most lavish option package, ends up right at $36K. The 9-5 might be a better deal than the one true Swede, the Volvo S80, but mostly its value quotient treads on thin ice even after the price cut.

And I named those cars on the assumption that the 9-5 is a prestigious set of wheels. Is it? Judging by the by comments around this office, Saab's snob appeal is wearing thin, and as a company that now stamps its name on Subaru Imprezas and Chevy TrailBlazers, maybe deservedly so. Without the safety net of branding, the 9-5 is fair game for the 250-horsepower Nissan Altima, and maybe even a car riding on a newer version of the same Opel platform, the Pontiac G6 GTP (due for a great new V6 next year). Now we're talking $28,000. [source : automotive.com]


 

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