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Car reviews - Saab - 9-5 - sedan range

Our Opinion

We like
Cabin comfort, extended legroom, high equipment levels, minimalist design, priced below rivals
Room for improvement
Hot-rod ride, middling performance, windscreen reflections in hard sunlight, some torque-steer

8 Apr 2011

THE all-new Saab 9-5 is a big car, not just in comparison to its pensioned-off predecessor but also potential rivals from other European manufacturers.

At more than five metres long, it is about 140mm longer than the Mercedes-Benz E-class and some 109mm longer than the BMW 5 Series, and a few millimetres wider as well.

Most of that extra length, however, comes in the front and rear overhangs, giving the swish Swede a somewhat less sporty stance than its German rivals. The Teutonic cars – and this goes for the Audi A6, too – also sit on wider tracks, accentuating that squat wheel-in-each-corner look.

But if one of the objectives of Saab was to put some distance between the current entry level model of the range, the 9-3, and the flagship 9-5, to make a clearer size distinction between them, then it is mission accomplished.

For a company that for years has trodden its own path with an emphasis on sportiness, Saab went all conservative with the 9-5 design. Inoffensive and somewhat bland, the first all-new 9-5 in 14 years is nevertheless elegant and cultured – perhaps designed to appeal to motorists averse to the perceived ostentation offered by some other luxo marques.

Saab would say the design is about two things – Scandinavian simplicity and its own corporate aeronautical heritage. The first comes in the form of uncluttered lines, inside and out – “a harmonious, sculpted entity” – and the second with the rounded windscreen with blacked-out A-pillars that is meant to represent a plane’s cockpit.

Those themes are carried into the cabin, where the wrap-around dashboard and aircraft-style instruments – including a head-up display reflected on the windscreen – give the big Saab some aero audaciousness.

The extra size of the new 9-5 has opened the door to a great deal more legroom, particularly in the back seat. As owners of other Saabs will know, that is a commodity that has been in short supply in cars wearing the griffin badge until now – surprisingly in a marque has specialised in supposedly space-efficient front-drive packaging.

But while the increased longitudinal space is welcome, the 9-5 trails many of its rivals in both shoulder and headroom, although not in any drastic way. Certainly, Saab’s safety engineers have put a lot of effort into side-impact protection – the B-pillars could hold up the Sydney Harbour Bridge – and maybe that’s where the missing millimetres have gone.

Speaking of heavy things, the 9-5 might have guns of steel, but it also weighs in on the porky side, tipping the scales at between 1725kg and 2065kg, depending on the model.

At two tonnes, the top-line all-wheel-drive V6 9-5 Turbo6 XWD is a whopping 300kg heavier than its equivalent six-cylinder rivals from Munich and Stuttgart and more than 200kg heavier than its Swedish competitor, the Volvo S80 T6, giving all of them a head start in the performance stakes.

Saab says it is not out to win any performance battles, instead engineering a European tourer with a sporting edge to its character.

Nevertheless, the fastest 9-5 – with its Holden-made 221kW turbocharged V6 – is said to accelerate from zero to 100km/h in 6.9 seconds, which is only marginally slower – by about 0.2 seconds – than rivals such as the Volvo S80 T6 or BMW 528i. So not bad for a car of this weight.

The 9-5’s entry level 2.0-litre diesel engine, the 118kW TiD4, propels the big sedan with adequate pace and minimal clatter, but at 10.1 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint, it is well short of rivals such as the BMW 520d and A6 2.0 TDi, which are up to two seconds faster.

The 162kW Turbo4 four-cylinder petrol engine 9-5 is a little more fleet of foot, accelerating to 100km/h in 8.5 seconds, which is bang on the elapsed time of the similarly equipped Audi A6 2.0 TSFI.

We had a chance to sample all three engines in the new line-up, as well as the two specification levels, Vector and Aero, in our drive around central Victoria and, as you might expect, found cars of distinctly different character.

The flagship V6 turbo’s pace was offset by its bulk – two tonnes is hard to disguise. It required a certain amount of man-handling on tight roads, although Saab’s own XWD system guiding the power to all wheels provides reassurance.

The turbo-diesel does what all diesels do best – using its torque to cruise up hill and down dale effortlessly all day. Never a fireball of ferocity, it nevertheless gets the job done.

If you are looking for a compromise between the two engines mentioned above, the Turbo4 petrol engine is the trick.

Lighter and more nimble than the V6 Aero XWD, and punching out 46 more kW and similar torque to the diesel, this Vector model was more fun to drive.

Although Saab claims a combined fuel efficiency of 9.4 litres per 100km for this model, we saw 12.7L/100km on the test drive that involved a mix of rural roads – some hilly, some tight and twisty – with a variety of hacks taking turns at the wheel.

Overall handling across the range is sure-footed, pointing through corners with crisp steering turn-in from the electric-assisted power steering.

Despite Saab’s best efforts, some torque-steer was evident on the more powerful petrol models, even the Turbo6 with its XWD and special ‘HiPer’ strut front suspension that is supposed to engineer this vice out of the car.

Mind you, compared with the horrid lane-jumping Viggen of past years, the new 9-5 is an absolute lamb in this regard, and not to be feared.

Another vice that has not been exorcised, however, is the old-style firm ride. Rather than ride on a prestige pillow of suppleness, the 9-5 bangs into bumps a little too much for our liking.

Even with the adjustable three-mode electronic damper settings on the Aero set to comfort, the ride was still a bit on the tight side. This smacks of old-fashioned hot-rodding, from which most other prestige car-makers have moved on.

Tyre-generated road noise on coarse-chip bitumen is well masked, though.

Saab has moved on in one regard, however – it has done away with the central key-in-the-console start system. Keyless ignition (and entry) has done away with this trademark Saab feature that bamboozled many a first-time driver.

But at least there’s a spot in the centre console to poke the key for safe keeping, along with a start/stop button.

Comfortable seats, excellent ergonomics and easy operation are all Saab hallmarks, and the new 9-5 is no exception, making the biggest model a pleasant place to be, at least on smooth roads.

Equipment levels are high – about right for a car of this calibre and price range – with a strong sound system, all the connectivity people want these days, sat-nav and so on.

The head-up display, which can be adjusted for height to suit each driver and can include a digital tacho or outside temperature reading (or not, depending on driver preference), does make it easier to keep track of the car’s speed.

However, the Saab designers, with their soft Scandinavian light and many winter days of darkness, obviously have no understanding of the harsh Australian sunlight and the havoc it can play with reflections on the windscreen.

On the media launch ride, the head-up display’s surround set in the top of the dash provided a distracting and unwanted reflection on the windscreen that, when driving into the sun, was like staring through a square porthole.

One other small brickbat: the door handles are way too fiddly.

Despite these niggles, the Saab 9-5 exudes quality in both form and function. While it does not excel in any one area, it at last takes the Swedish marque’s flagship into true prestige territory.

With pricetags starting at $71k – below most potential competitors – the biggest Saab deserves a test drive.

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