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For nearly 50 years, Saab has offered savvy buyers a unique alternative to the mainstream European sedan. Turbocharging, front-wheel drive and cutting-edge safety technology have made Saabs popular with those living in northern climes, whether in Sweden or the United States. A distinctive design heritage and idiosyncratic details, mounting the ignition on the center console among them, endear Saabs to people all over the world.
Saab's first larger sedan, the quirky 9000, debuted in 1985 and quickly built a cult following. When the 9000 evolved into the 9-5 for model year 2000, Saab made its largest car even more powerful and, as some Saab-philes believe, more mainstream. Since then, the 9-5 has been steadily refined.
For 2004, Saab makes a few changes to the 9-5 model lineup. Both sedans and wagons are available. This year, however, the base 9-5 Linear comes only as a wagon. The mid-level 9-5 Arc has been freshened with lower-body cladding, while the line-topping Aero gets even more aggressive cladding. Saab has revised some of the standard and optional equipment packaging for the 2004 Arc and Aero models.
The biggest change: The 9-5 Arc drops its V6 and automatic transmission in favor of a more powerful turbocharged four-cylinder engine with a 5-speed manual. Automatic transmission remains optional across the line, and we recommend going with the automatics.
The 2004 Saab 9-5 isn't the cheapest car in the class, but the upper models are terrific cars and good choices for drivers who don't want a cookie-cutter car.
The Saab 9-5 (pronounced "nine-five") is available in three trim levels, Linear, Arc, and Aero, and the differences among them go well beyond their distinctly Swedish names. Each has a distinct personality, with individual interior styles, different performance levels, and different price points to suit the priorities of their buyers.
The 2004 Saab 9-5 Linear is offered only as a wagon. The Linear SportWagon ($32,220) is powered by Saab's 185-horsepower 2.3-liter light-pressure turbocharged four-cylinder engine, comes with an impressive level of standard equipment, including 16-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, leather-faced seats with leather-trimmed steering wheel, a walnut-trimmed instrument panel, power heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, cabin air filter, power windows, power central locking, steering-wheel audio controls, AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo with seven speakers, and front and rear fog lights. Also standard are a host of features you'll pay extra for with many cars in this class: a cooled glovebox, heated exterior mirrors, an integrated antenna in the rear glass, and a removable parcel shelf in the back. The 9-5 Linear delivers a good value among luxury wagons.
Options available on the Linear SportWagon include a five-speed automatic transmission ($1,350); the OnStar emergency communication system with hands-free telephone ($699); a Cargo package, which includes a park assist system and retractable cargo net ($795); and the Comfort package, which adds a power sliding glass sunroof, high-pressure headlight washers and heated front seats ($1,695).
The Arc model is intended to fill the 9-5's sports-luxury role, and to emphasize that point, it gets a sportier engine for 2004: a 220-horsepower 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission. The 9-5 Arc sedan ($34,430) and wagon ($35,140) come standard with everything you'll find on the Linear SportWagon, adding unique 16-inch alloy wheels and walnut interior trim, color-matched body trim, heated front seats, headlight washers, power glass sunroof and integrated front fog lamps. Ventilated seats are no longer standard on the Arc, but they're available as an option.
Options for the 9-5 Arc include a five-speed automatic transmission packaged with the ventilated front seats ($995). The Premium package ($1,495) includes auto dimming rearview mirror with integrated garage door opener and digital compass, three-position memory function on the driver's seat and an upgraded nine-speaker, 200-watt Harman Kardon stereo system. The Touring package ($795), which requires the Premium package, includes rain-sensing wipers, Saab park assist and auto-dimming outside mirrors. OnStar is available with a hands-free telephone. A 17-inch sport wheel and tire package ($750) and bi-xenon headlamps ($500) have been added to the Arc's option list for 2004.
The Aero delivers the ultimate in 9-5 performance, starting with a 2.3-liter High-Output Turbo (HOT) four-cylinder engine rated at 250 horsepower. Aero sedans ($39,465) and wagons ($40,170) also get the full-on sports treatment with features not available on other 9-5 models. These include a lowered sports suspension, unique 17-inch wheels, chrome exhaust tips, a sport steering wheel, special bolstered leather sport seats, and metallic-finish dash trim. Also standard are the an auto-dimming rearview mirror with digital compass and integrated garage door opener, power glass sunroof, memory for the driver's seat and the nine-speaker Harman Kardon audio. Perhaps the most exciting standard feature of Aero models: an intensive two-day driving school at the Road Atlanta circuit exclusively for Aero owners. We recommend taking advantage of it.
Aero options include the ventilated seats, Touring package, automatic transmission and bi-xenon headlights. A Sport Tech package ($500) adds two-tone seats and a carbon-fiber instrument panel.
The 9-5 is instantly recognizable as a Saab. It has that familiar Saab profile, embodied in the rake of the hood, the shape of the C-pillar and the short rear deck. Its body features smooth bumpers, an integrated grille, and clear-lens composite headlights, all of which help emphasize the car's performance-minded intention. Sedans get clear tail lamps, while the wagons have a rear panel that visually unites the tail lamps for a tighter, more solid appearance. Overall, the 9-5 has a sculpted, Scandinavian appearance. Its aerodynamic lines are tautly drawn.
The 9-5 gets some minor exterior updates for 2004. The Arc models now feature some lower body cladding, while the Aero features a more aggressive lower body treatment. Most significant is the deletion altogether of the Linear sedan body style.
Exclusive wheels differentiate Linear, Arc, and Aero models. The Linear rides on 16-inch, 10-spoke alloy wheels, while the Arc runs on five-spoke 16-inch alloys. The Aero comes with sporty 10-spoke, 17-inch alloy wheels and low-profile performance-tuned 225/45WR17 all-season radials.
The Saab 9-5 is roomy for its exterior size, making for a comfortable cabin front and rear. Interior materials are high quality. Its leather seats are supportive and comfortable. The seats in the Aero offer sufficient side bolstering for hard cornering, yet sliding into and out of them is easy. There are plenty of adjustments, yet it isn't critical to adjust them just so in order to get comfortable.
The Arc we tested had a nice leather interior, with perforated inserts on the front seats to allow for the optional cooling fans to do their work. Those seat fans, two each in the seatbacks and bottoms, are nice when it's very hot or very cold outside. Perhaps to show them off, the fans are also noisy, and you can vary the noise by switching among three speeds. They do a good job of keeping things aired out down under on those sultry days. The noise is either annoying or a good feature when showing off the fans to your passengers. When it's cold, the seat heaters can be turned on and adjusted to reduce the warming effect as the car warms up. The Arc features an attractive center dash, though the burled walnut wood trim is so shiny it looks like plastic. The black upper dash helps reduce glare and attractively sets off the available light-colored interior in the Arc.
Brushed aluminum dash panels give the Aero its sporty look. The Aero also has a leather-wrapped, four-spoke sport steering wheel that's the perfect diameter and thickness. It's pocked for better grip, between 2 and 4 o'clock on the right side and 8 and 10 on the left.
The 9-5 instrument panel is curved at the top in the same shape as the steering wheel, affording an unobstructed view of the speedometer, tachometer, fuel, temperature and turbo boost gauges.
Big buttons for the sound and climate systems are located in a large rectangle in the center stack, and they're easy to understand and operate. The audio controls for the Harman/Kardon stereo are great. Redundant audio controls on the steering wheel reduce distraction from the road, and the radio is wired hot so it can be turned on without the key. We wish all cars had this capability. The 9-5's dash vents are attractive and designed well for aiming over a broad range.
The leather-stitched shifter knob is pear-shaped on both automatic and manual transmissions; it has a great feel, making it pleasant to operate. Manual models feature a dash light indicating when it's time to upshift to conserve fuel, a feature we could live without.
Saab has historically offered unorthodox but generally effective solutions to interior needs, perhaps partly because Sweden is somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, perhaps partly because Saabs are designed by Swedes. In the 9-5, these solutions are clever and successful. A cup holder pops out of the dash from a vertical slot the size of a CD and pivots around to hold cans of soda or that grande cappuccino; it works well, but feels flimsy. A fixed cup holder in the center console is more stable but less convenient, especially if there's already lots of stuff in there.
The far end of the right side-view mirror glass bends to produce a convex effect that provides a wider view of the right lanes. It requires familiarization to determine the location of an approaching car at a quick glance. When moving from the left lane to the right lane, it could sometimes make an approaching car look like it was changing lanes and moving toward us. And we found it didn't work very well at all in the rain.
Interior lighting is excellent, including another one of those uniquely Saab features: A map light rotates in a directional ball, like the older-style adjustable reading lights in some jetliners. It's perfect for directing light to specific tasks. The placement of the gauges, the cup holder, radio switches and the map light indicate real thought on Saab's part. Most instrument lights can be switched off by pressing the Night
The Saab 9-5 is a wonderful car for working through freeway traffic. It's as stable as a rock at elevated velocities. It tracks around sweeping, high-speed curves like it's on rails. The 9-5's precise handling and excellent feedback inspires driver confidence.
The 9-5 Arc leans in corners, a traditional Saab trait that improves handling on bumpy pavement and gravel roads. At the same time, the Arc offers good grip in smooth, paved corners. Steering was a bit slow, again, a Saab trait, but precise.
The Aero, meanwhile, feels firm over light bumps. The chassis jounces up and down noticeably. It's not sharp, nor uncomfortable, but if you peek out the corners of your eyes to the edges of the windshield, you can see the bouncing. The steering remains very steady through this, nonetheless.
Torque steer, that tugging sensation on the steering wheel when accelerating hard in a powerful front-wheel-drive car, is minimal in the 9-5, even in the 250-horsepower Aero, but you will notice it when you nail the accelerator. We also noticed a slight amount of road vibration coming through the Aero's steering wheel at low speeds, but this allows the driver to better read changing road surfaces. The Michelin Pilot tires on the 9-5 Aero are superb: quiet, responsive for handling and threshold braking, yet reasonably capable for all-season driving.
The 9-5 is very quiet on the freeway. We noticed only the slightest hiss of wind noise, and that was eliminated when we closed the interior panel under the sunroof.
The Aero offers quick, responsive performance with its 250-horsepower turbocharged engine. It can generate impressive acceleration from a standing start, but it's best appreciated on the open highway. Squeeze down on the throttle while cruising at 70 mph and you are instantly past that string of cars, a great feature when trying to pass on a two-lane highway. It's easy to modulate the throttle, to get just as much thrust as you need. Squeeze gently on the gas and more power sends the car smoothly ahead. Push down harder and you're suddenly going very fast.
The five-speed automatic transmission is very responsive, downshifting smoothly to the appropriate gear without wasting time. Five gears keep the engine revving in the ideal power band for better response. In Normal mode, this transmission works like a standard automatic. Manual mode activates the Sensotronic manual-shifting feature, allowing the driver to change gears by pressing a pair of buttons on the steering wheel. There's also a Sport mode that shifts automatically with sportier response, and a Winter mode that locks our first gear for more for stable traction in icy conditions. We prefer the Normal mode, letting the responsive automatic do its thing.
The manual transmission shift smoothly, especially between third and fourth gears. For enthusiast drivers, heel-and-toe downshifting is relatively easy. Saabs with manual transmissions have to be shifted into reverse before you can pull the key from the ignition.
The Electronic Stability Program (ESP) helps drivers maintain control by selectively applying the brakes to individual wheels to correct a skid. If the driver goes into a corner too fast for the conditions the system can correct for oversteer (when the rear tires lose grip) by automatically applying the brakes to the outer wheels to bring the car back into line. This occurs automatically; the driver doesn't need to do anything but continue to steer the car along his or her intended path. The system also works when a slippery road causes the car to understeer (when the nose of the car refuses to turn in). Saab worked closely with Bosch, the German company that supplies the system, to achieve optimum tuning. Saab tested the system extensively in the slippery Scandinavian Arctic and at very high speeds at the Hockenheim racing circuit in Germany. Saab claims its stability program is one of the best in the world, and
The Saab 9-5 doesn't look like other cars. It's fast and luxurious. It feels very stable on the highway and has a comfortable, well-designed interior. The wagons have a flat load floor and add a ton of cargo space.
Aero and Arc models work great with the optional automatic transmission, which is smooth and responsive. The five-speed automatic works well with the Saab turbocharged engines, eliminating some of the legendary Saab quirkiness, although longtime Saab owners may prefer the 5-speed manual.
The Saab 9-5 Aero is our favorite. It's stylish, comfortable, luxurious, fast, and great fun to drive. If you like the performance of a turbocharged engine, the 9-5 Aero is a real winner.