Car reviews - Saab - 9-5 - range
Last remnants of Saab individuality, ride quality, handling, steering, roomy and practical luggage area
Room for improvement
Heavy gothic-looking front-end, minor quality issues
2 May 2006
IN 1997, when the Saab 9-5 first went on sale here, Toyota launched the first-generation petrol/electric Prius in Japan and locally Holden unveiled the VT Commodore.
Fast-forward to today and the second-generation Prius is now selling up a minor storm as petrol prices skyrocket, Holden is preparing to unveil its new high-tech VE Commodore and Saab has just launched a vastly made-over 9-5.
But is that enough? Can the safe Swede, now essentially eight years old, survive the onslaught of newer, more sophisticated – and cheaper - rivals?
Apart from the logical entry-level German rivals for the 9-5, perhaps the most vital issue for the revamped Swede is that it must do battle with an expanded prestige segment that now includes the latest VW Passat, Peugeot 407, Lexus IS250 and Volvo S60 – all newer-generation designs than the Saab.
Even Chrysler’s 300C V6 must be a candidate, even if it is based on old-generation Mercedes-Benz E-class thinking.
It is not just that the automotive goal posts have moved, they’ve ended up in another postcode and the 9-5, despite its revamp, is showing its age.
However, we’d be selling the 9-5 well-short to suggest it cannot keep up with the Joneses.
The facelifted 9-5 Aero sedan, like the rest of the range, has undergone some thorough chassis, suspension and substantial engineering changes to keep it in the game.
The body is 40 per cent stiffer, the front suspension has a stronger sub-frame and the rear track is 6mm wider.
Visually every body panel except the roof has been changed.
The front now adopts the grille and headlight design from the 9X concept car. It’s cleaner and offers a peek at where Saab design is headed over the next few years.
At the rear the bumper and boot have been reprofiled while the tail-lights are new. In profile the 9-5 gets a more prominent crease-line.
In profile we reckon the SportsEstate – Saab’s terminology for wagon – is still one of the most attractive looking wagons around.
As the range-topper, the Aero SportsEstate benefits with a lower ride height – 10mm lower than the standard car – while damping forces front and rear are increased by 10 per cent with 8 per cent stiffer front springs and thick front anti-roll bar.
A larger 235/45-17 tyre on bigger 17-inch alloys has been introduced for improved grip, ride and steering.
In keeping with its sports focus the Aero also gets beefier ventilated brakes – 308mm up front and 300mm at the back. Their stopping power proved a strong point.
Given all the attention to the chassis and suspension it’s no surprise to find that the Aero SportsEstate actually rides and handles very well.
On the road, it is a most un-wagon-like wagon.
It never really behaves like a floaty station wagon because the ride remains flat through corners, the interior noise levels are commendably low and there is none of that dull harmonic resonance that can build up in a traditional wagon layout.
For occupants, the cabin remains muted even at high cruising speeds and the cabin ambience is top-notch.
The rear cargo area is well shaped, has solid tie-down points and is generally free of any protrusions.
It also has an unusual but effective triple-fold solid cargo cover, which helps contribute to the sedan-like cabin ambience.
Thanks to the suspension rethink, Saab has managed to eliminate the Aero’s initial suspension harshness and tendency to bottom. The changes make for a general refined all-round tourer.
The steering is also communicative and well-weighted.
Inside, the excellent ergonomics of the old 9-5 have been improved.
The stereo system and functions are easier to use and the climate-control dials are simpler.
The sensible night panel lighting carries over too. The system allows the driver to switch off unnecessary dashboard lighting at night. The idea is to reduce eye-strain and fatigue.
However, in an emergency, critical warnings will automatically light-up.
Despite the intrinsically Saab bits and pieces, not all the changes have been for the better.
Gone is Saab’s iconic "compressed" speedo, which clearly showed the 60km/h and 100km/h markings and gradually compresses the markings beyond 140km/h.
We’ve often wondered why other car-makers haven’t taken up such a sensible, and very legible, system.
In its place is a conventional speedo that could have come from any other vehicle in the GM empire.
This dumbing-down of Saab’s "uniqueness" is something we believe won’t be lost on Saab’s core buyers.
At least the centrally mounted ignition key, excellent seats and aluminium clam-shell bonnet remain.
The Aero sports seats, as with all Saabs, are superb, offering just the right amount of cushion, back and shoulder support. It’s a Saab thing and they do it well.
Rather than slot a V6 into the engine bay, Saab has persisted with its turbo fours in the 9-5 in various states of tune.
The Aero gets the most powerful engine. The 2.3HOT engine develops a blistering 191kW at 5200rpm and 350Nm between 1800rpm and 5200rpm, so the figures are lineball with a free-revving V6.
The engine characteristics are well mated to the Aisin five-speed auto and for those sports-minded types, there are steering wheel shift buttons.
Given that all the 191kW goes through the front wheels, we were expecting some serious torque steer under hard acceleration but Saab has managed to tame any wayward behaviour.
There is some slight tugging at the wheel under full power but it is well harnessed and not too intrusive.
Saab’s reputation has been enhanced by its turbo fours, indeed it pioneered turbocharging back in 1977 as one of the first manufacturers to offer a mainstream, mass-market turbocharged four-cylinder.
Although the engine is smooth and power delivery linear and muscular you can’t help but think that prestige buyers in the Australian market equate prestige with a V6.
Saab tells us that the V6 is not on the agenda for the 9-5. In fact, the Holden-sourced 2.8-litre V6 out of the 9-3 offers less power than the 9-5 Aero but the Aero has the same torque delivered across a broader rev range.
There’s your answer.
The 2.3HOT is no slouch. In the Aero Estate, it will hit 100km/h in just 8.2 seconds and it has a top speed, where permitted, of 250km/h.
In isolation the 9-5 Aero is a very good thing. But it’s 2006 and it is clear this Saab is approaching retirement age despite its Hollywood facelift and engineering revamp.
On the open road, the Aero’s driving experience is most certainly a match for some of the newer offerings but in other areas you’re reminded about how far the prestige market has moved.
Things like the rear-luggage door. Many rivals now offer pressure-pad releases where the 9-5 Aero SportsEstate has a latch.
There are no curtain airbags available either, just dual front and front side head and torso bags.
All-wheel drive, offered by key rivals in the segment, is also absent.
Convenience features too seem to be off the mark. Bluetooth connectability is not in the car it must be wired in, while satellite-navigation is expected to be available later in the year.
Some annoying niggles also popped up in our drive of both the Aero SportEstate and the Linear sedan.
There was some loose-fitting carpet around the centre console, minor dash and door rattles and, in one car, 20mm of free play in the steering reach adjustment mechanism. The steering was quickly fixed though.
In 1997 the 9-5 was a commendable piece of kit but in today’s automotive climate, you cannot escape the march of time.
It has been overtaking by newer and more technically advanced rivals, some at price points that seriously challenge the Swede’s halo.
In truth, only a true-blue Saab enthusiast will warm to the new 9-5.
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