Car reviews - Saab - 9-5 - Estate wagon
Car-like ride, handling and ambience quality, performance
Room for improvement
Turbo four not entirely smooth, no third-row seat
29 Mar 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
A BIG slice of the prestige station wagon market is Saab's aim with its 9-5 Estate - and Volvo's V70 series is the main target.
The Estate - don't call it a wagon - has a number of advantages over its Volvo counterpart, not the least of which is the fact it is virtually a generation newer than the now ageing V70.
It also picks up the nicely balanced suspension used on the 9-5 sedan, beefed up by slightly tauter settings that subtly improve the Estate's response to steering wheel inputs without really compromising ride quality.
The ABS brakes operate through the latest generation Bosch system and incorporate brake force distribution to give a solid, reassuring feel to the brake pedal, although for some the effort may seem a little high.
In SE form the 9-5 Estate provides a big, comfortable cabin with generous load space and a lengthy equipment list that includes four airbags, anti-lock brakes, climate control air-conditioning, leather-trimmed seats with electric controls in the front and an impressive seven-speaker radio/cassette sound system incorporating a single-disc CD player.
The driving position is electrically adjustable (with memory) and caters for every conceivable shape while the all-round legroom, front and rear, is every bit as good as the old 9000, which was always considered very spacious.
And the seats are excellent - everything you would expect in a prestige contender.
Then there is the impressive, torquey, light-pressure turbocharged, four-cylinder engine that is one of the 9-5's standout features and does an equally impressive job of looking after the heavier wagon body.
With twin balance shafts to smooth out its behaviour and a good dose of torque from low speed - developing its maximum by just 1800rpm - it is a thoroughly satisfying engine in terms of performance, although never as smooth as a six-cylinder.
The only deficit on the test car was the manual five-speed transmission. It never really extracted the best from the engine's tendency to specialise in mid-range power. The four-speed auto is going to be the better choice for most buyers.
On the road the 9-5 Estate is impressive because it never really feels or sounds like a station wagon.
The cabin is muted even at high cruising speeds and there is little or none of the harmonic resonating that besets even the most competently engineered wagon.
The rear cargo area, which is accommodating but not quite as large as Saab would have us believe, is well shaped and generally free of protrusions.
It also has an unusual but effective solid cargo cover, contributing to the sedan-like ambience, and offers an optional - and handy - slide-out rear floor capable of carrying up to 200kg.
The primary deficit compared to Volvo is the Saab does not offer a third-row rear seat.
The company cites occupant safety as the reason for forgoing this very marketable extra, which places it at odds with a number of other car-makers offering the extra seat.
Saab says that because the extra seat in a station wagon configuration is in the rear crush zone it cannot provide a safe environment for passengers and, so far, no-one else has come up with conclusive evidence that the Swedish company is incorrect.
That said, there is no doubt many buyers needing the extra capacity who may have considered a Saab will look elsewhere.
The focus on safety issues is consistent with Saab's philosophy. The 9-5 scores highly in terms of passenger protection, rating a best-ever score in Euro NCAP testing.
The car does not get the extra, inflatable tubular bags fitted by BMW but it does get side airbags built into the seats as well as the "active" anti-whiplash front head restraints which play a part in making the passenger environment as safe as possible.
In all, the 9-5 Estate is among the very best of station wagons when it comes to driving enjoyment and it also has potential as a silk-gloved workhorse.
For the money, it offers unquestioned style and grace, plus the appeal of being perceived as something outside the mainstream.
But in reality the 9-5 is right in the middle of the river and its uniqueness is limited to what Saab designers have been able to build into the car to give it a semblance of personality.
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