Car reviews - Saab - 9-5 - Aero Estate wagon
Wagon practicality, strong and capable engine, safety
Room for improvement
Low suspension needs care off bitumen, torque steer, engine/road noise take edge off refinement
30 Mar 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
SQUATTING down, preparatory to making an athletic spring onto the tarmac, dark-tinted windows hinting at the power contained within - Saab's 9-5 Aero Estate is a king among station wagons.
This is the shopping version of the thundering 9-5 Aero sedan, combining the pragmatic values of one of the industry?s nicest wagons with an engine and chassis tuned to extract as much ability as possible out of a big, front-drive vehicle.
That the combination falls a little short in some areas should really come as no surprise.
Where the regular 9-5 Estate is surprising for its refinement and lack of regular station wagon noise, the Aero version is noticeably harsh, more prone to telegraphing road and engine noise into the interior and less capable of absorbing the jagged contours of broken road surfaces.
And somehow the wagon feels more prone to the inevitable torque steer of a strong, turbocharged powerplant. This is maybe because the Estate's weight distribution tends to throw more mass rearward when under pressure, giving the front wheels less grip to work with.
Tromp on the accelerator during a tightish turn and the wheel will fight the driver for control. The Saab's torque builds so quickly that un-acclimatised drivers can be caught unawares.
Even in automatic form, where the torque output is reduced from 350Nm to 330Nm, the Aero builds prodigious energy off the line. The engine is so strong it reveals some of the harsher edges in the normally smooth-shifting Aisin-Warner four-speed auto.
The test car could be felt thumping purposefully into gear on powered up shifts. No wonder the manual versions have their torque limited in first and second gears.
In "Sport" mode, the Aero wagon charges from standstill in a way totally unbecoming of a civilised, smooth-looking wagon. Care must be taken to avoid energy-robbing wheel spin - not to mention the omnipresent torque-steer.
For the Aero 9-5s, Saab has reintroduced a traction control system operating on the front brakes via ABS to reduce wasted energy to the wheel with more grip, and restraining the engine's power output if both wheels fail to grip.
Despite early reservations about the effects of traction control on a powerful turbo engine, there can be a tendency to reduce power dramatically to restore traction, something that in certain situations can leave the driver high and dry with only a pitiful rate of forward progress - no problem was experienced in the test car. Perhaps the GM-derived traction control system works better than that used in early 9000 Aero models.
So the Saab 9-5 Aero Estate is a well-endowed car, definitely one of the fastest wagons on our roads and one that must be treated with respect if its full potential is to be used.
As a wagon, it retains all the virtues of other 9-5 Estates - spacious, comfortable interior with excellent architecture and driver ergonomics and a descent rearmost load area, while adding the upmarket features of sedan versions such as electric sunroof, ventilated (leather) front seats and an automatic-dim rear-view mirror.
A small turbo boost gauge also underlines that this is a more serious powerplant than the 125kW 2.3-litre turbo used in S and SE versions.
The rear luggage space is concealed under a solid, folding cover that adds a quality touch and there are, of course, the handy little retaining rails that Saab claims were inspired by aircraft-style seat fixtures.
The system is so strong that just one of the sliding attachment lugs is said to be capable of holding the weight of the entire vehicle. So storing oxygen tanks for deep-sea diving is no problem. Nor are bicycles - with the rear seats folded, the Cannondale slipped in without need to remove a wheel.
Saab's biggest problem with its Estates is the lack of a third-row seat for children. Some other manufacturers make such a facility available but Saab has taken the moral high ground here, saying the rear crumple zone is not a safe place to carry passengers.
But the company is suffering in the marketplace against some of its competition offering the extra seat.
Some compensation comes in the form of the optional slide-out rear floor. This is a solid piece of gear, able to hold up to 200kg when extended and very handy for picnics or moving heavy loads to a more easily accessible position.
The security cover is better in some ways than the more conventional roller blind, but is slightly less convenient both to use and to store. The advantages of improved sound insulation and a more solid, quality look to the rear of the wagon are probably justification enough for most Saab buyers.
Gear from the SE model includes leather seats with power adjustment in the front (plus driver's memory), wood grain instrument panel and centre console, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning (with glovebox cooler), trip computer and usual 9-5 touches like the twin sun visors, central ignition key and night panel instrumentation to minimise driver distraction after dark.
Otherwise, the Aero Estate has the same passenger-friendly astrosphere found in any 9-5, from the base 2.0-litre model upwards, with plenty of stretching space front and rear and a conservative but distinctive presentation augmented by fine attention to detail.
Obviously safety rates highly in the Aero Estate with its solid body structure incorporating the usual features for protecting passengers against all sorts of impacts, plus dual front and side airbags and Saab's clever "active" front head restraints designed to reduce whiplash injury in rear-end collisions.
And the special gear that qualifies it for the small and barely noticeable Aero badge on the flanks just ahead of the front doors? Obviously, the chief motivating force is the full-blown 2.3-litre engine - the latest low-friction Saab powerplant churning out a solid 169kW.
What is particularly interesting - and this is an ongoing phenomenon from the Swedish car-maker - is the engine speed at which the torque is produced.
1900rpm is not really all that far off idle. And the auto's engine holds that 330Nm through to 4000rpm. It does even better than that if asked.
In manual transmission cars as much as 370Nm is available as an over-boost, 20-second surge of power if the driver tromps on the accelerator.
The innards of the turbo engine have been treated to some attention, basically aimed at strengthening the more stress-prone areas like pistons and connecting rods.
Emissions are attended to by two catalytic converters that help allow the car to undercut by huge margins even the most stringent worldwide requirements.
The chassis work involves lowering the suspension by 10mm and slotting in larger anti-roll bars, heavier springs and shock absorbers. Grip is attended to by 225/45 Michelin Pilot tyres strapped to 17-inch alloy rims.
The braking system, to cope with the increased grunt, has been given larger front discs, up from 288mm diameter to 308mm, working in with the 9-5's four-channel anti-lock system incorporating electronic brake distribution.
The Aero Estate is more responsive to steering input and more assured when committed to a G-force inducing cornering manoeuvre, but it is less effective than the sedan version in reducing suspension bump-thump and creates some wagon-style din from the rear compartment that does not really exists in regular 9-5 Estates.
The ride is not overly firm but is more intrusive than the sedan because of the higher noise levels.
The engine is a blast. Smooth, quiet and always ready - provided it is above 2000rpm on the tachometer - to sweep most traffic quickly behind. It responds with verve to the accelerator, surging off the line with a headstrong rush and a very assertive roar from the inlet/exhaust systems.
The good thing about the Aero's torque spread is that it is as driver-friendly around town as it is on the open road. There are not too many occasions where it bogs down, turbo-like, because the revs are not quite high enough.
So, yes, the 9-5 Aero Estate does cover its bases effectively. There's no question of its ability to perform and the suspension is well-suited to the engine's capabilities.
What it does lack is the sedan Aero's acceptable refinement in terms of interior noise levels. This accentuates the firmer ride and adds a slightly harsh edge to what is normally a very refined vehicle, while the tendency to be more prone to torque steer makes it a vehicle that must be treated with respect if its potentials are to be explored.
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