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Car reviews - Saab - 9-5 - 2.3 Linear sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Space, interior grace, linear engine delivery
Room for improvement
Saab insisting it's sporty, lack of semi-manual mode for new auto

29 Aug 2002

AN American car magazine recently pointed out that there had never been a story written about Saabs without referring to them as quirky and surely this was getting a bit tired.

Okay, point taken. The Q word is banned from this point on in this road test.

It is actually not that difficult a challenge when it comes to the 9-5 Linear. Sure it's still a little "different" but we are not talking two-stroke, air-cooled funny little bug-eyed car different. Gee, it doesn't even have a hatchback.

The 9-5 is indeed pretty orthodox - it is significant more in that than anything else. Launched in 1997, it was the smaller Swedish manufacturer's attempt to break way from its q... whoops, traditional audience and appeal to the luxury car mainstream, the type that buy Mercedes-Benz's E-class and BMW's 5 Series in their thousands.

It has been a moderate rather than outstanding success, recognised for its quality of build, solidity, outstanding ergonomics and space. But you note, no reference to sparkling drivelines, scalpel-sharp chassis or striking style.

Come late 2001 and Saab revealed its solution to some of these issues. The one they pretty much ignored was styling. No surprise from Saab there, which has always eschewed dramatic facelifts.

More significantly, the nomenclature for the range has been abandoned, with new designations called "forms" - said to be inspired by Scandinavian architecture - taking their place.

This means the old 2.0 and S are replaced by Linear, the SE by Arc and a new model line introduced called Vector. The Aero badge is retained for the sports model. The Griffin V6 turbo sedan has been dropped.

Under the skin, the driveline has been updated with a new Aisin AW five-speed automatic transmission replacing the old four-speed. This is an electronically controlled unit with three programs (sport, winter and normal) and direct mechanical lock-up in fourth and fifth gear. A five-speed manual gearbox is a no-cost option.

In the Linear we drove the new auto is mated to the familiar low pressure turbo 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine which produces 136kW at 5500rpm and 280Nm between 1800-3500rpm. This wide and impressive amount of torque is an LPT Saab signature and one of the 9-5's best features.

You can also get a 2.0-litre LPT in the Linear, which is about $5000 cheaper than the 2.3, but still more than $60,000. This engine produces 110kW at 5500rpm and 240Nm between 1800-3800rpm. Both engines remain unchanged from the old 9-5.

The biggest change is the chassis, which has been retuned in an attempt to sharpen up the sporting act. Basically, the Linear (and Arc and Vector) get the suspension tune of the old model Aero, while the latter has been honed further.

While the basic MacPherson strut front and multilink rear design has been retained, there have been significant detail changes, particularly up front.

The front springs have been stiffened 10 per cent, the diameter of the front anti-roll bar increased 1mm on all models, the damper settings changed and the upper strut mountings strengthened. The front subframe, on which the suspension is mounted, has been stiffened and lightened.

The steering rack, which is located at the rear of the front subframe, has been changed to match the new handling characteristics resulting from the spring and damper changes. New, longer steering arms are coupled to the existing steering rack.

The other change to the steering system concerns the steering knuckle, which is now made from aluminium, for reasons both of lightness and strength.

At the rear the same spring and damper changes were applied, while the four elastomer bushes that mount the suspension to the subframe have been stiffened, again in search of more sporting handling.

Finally, there's a new generation of Michelin tyres specifically tuned to the requirements of the new Saab range. These are available in 15-inch, 16-inch and 17-inch sizes. In the case of the Linear 2.3t, they are 16-inch 215/55 mounted on nice 10-spoke alloy wheels.

So how does it all pull together? It is definitely better, but still not on a par with BMW's benchmark 5 Series. The 9-5 is still compromised in a sporty sense by its transverse front-wheel drive layout which on tight, twistier roads translates to inside front wheel chirping and steering wheel tug in your hand under acceleration.

This car is still a fundamental understeerer, the steering is still less than precise and hardly tactile. Touches of the old car's rear-end skittishness still remain over bumps, it still rolls and after a while and the disc brakes start fading.

So just back off a little, re-engage the traction control system and enjoy the ride. The 9-5's comfort level remains outstanding despite the suspension firming, soaking up most challenges that are chucked at it by Australia's country roads.

Add in that engine's linear acceleration, smoothness and flexibility, sprawling space, a fundamentally unchanged interior design which did not need changing anyway - seats like armchairs, attractive and functional dash layout - and a large boot, and you have a car that is as comfortable after 1000km as it was at the start of the day.

Of course, the new auto gearbox has its role to play as well, shifting suppley with only rare reminders that it is there at all. But it is the sporting aspect which is let down again as there is no semi-manual shift function, just the old-style stick to use if you want to hold a gear. It's no fun when you accidentally missed the gear you were after and just revved the guts out of the poor engine.

That dash design deserves a few extra words too. The good ideas are abundant, like the night panel which shuts down but all a few dials for driving after dark, the speedo which is calibrated so that there is more detail at the legal end of the range, the big buttons on the stereo and air-conditioning, that magic cupholder which still has not been matched and even the way air-conditioning vents adjust. It is all standard-setting stuff which five years on still makes the driver's seat a very spoiled place to be.

For Linear the instrument panel is presented in a new anthracite-grey enamel finish, while the leather upholstery is available in two colours.

Leather is just a small part of one of the most comprehensive standard equipment lists you could imagine for a base model car. A six-disc CD changer would be nice, as would a sunroof - but the Arc and Vector have to get something for the extra bucks.

So what do we end up with. Not that far from where Saab started in 1997, to be frank. The update to 9-5 is a moderate success in all aspects, but the point is sports performance was never its forte, and still isn't.

This is a wonderful car to own everyday, not just Sunday mornings.

So, there you go. A whole story about a Saab and I didn't use quirky once. Damn.

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