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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.
Saab updated the 9-5 with a new front and rear sheetmetal and a revised instrument panel for the 2006 model year. For 2007, Saab has added a sporty 2.3T Aero model to replace the previous Sport package.
The Saab 9-5 (pronounced "nine-five") is available as a sedan or wagon called the SportCombi. Each is offered in 2.3T or sporty 2.3T Aero trim levels.
The Saab 9-5 is among the less-expensive cars in the near-luxury class. All 9-5s are comfortable and sporty, and the wagons are excellent alternatives to gas-guzzling SUVs. As always, any 9-5 is a good choice for drivers who don't want a cookie-cutter car.
The Saab 9-5 2.3T sedan ($34,370) and wagon ($35,370) are powered by a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 260 horsepower at 5300 rpm and 258 pond-feet of torque from 1900 to 4000 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, and a five-speed automatic ($1350) is optional.
The equipment list is impressive. It includes leather-seating surfaces and front seat heaters; eight-way power-adjustable seats with memory, a leather-trimmed, tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls; wood interior trim; dual-zone automatic climate control; cabin air filter; power windows; power locks; trip computer; AM/FM stereo with in-dash six-disc CD changer, MP3 connectivity and standard satellite radio; variable-intermittent wipers; automatic headlights; front and rear fog lights; 17-inch alloy wheels. Also standard are a host of features you'll pay extra for with many cars in this class: a cooled glovebox, heated exterior mirrors, sunroof, and headlight washers.
Saab 9-5 2.3T Aero sedans ($35,465) and wagons ($36,465) have the same powertrain and standard equipment, but add a lowered sport suspension, sport seats, metallic interior trim, and power steering calibrated for increased effort. Aero buyers also get enrollment in the Saab Aero Academy driving program.
One major option package is available for all 9-5s. The Visibility package ($1295) includes rear obstacle detection, self-dimming outside mirrors, rain-sensing wipers and xenon headlights. Other options include an expensive ($2945) navigation system, GM's OnStar assistance ($695), ventilated seats ($995 2.3T, $895 2.3T Aero), and roof rails ($250) for wagons.
A special 60th Anniversary Edition package ($1595) includes dark walnut interior trim, xenon headlights, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, rear obstacle detection, rain-sensing wipers, and special wheels.
Safety features include dual frontal airbags, front head and torso side-impact airbags, side-impact protection beams, Saab Active Head Restraints, LATCH-style child seat anchors, and front seatbelt pretensioners. Active safety systems: antilock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and power assist, traction control (TCS), and electronic stability control (ESP). Rear obstacle detection is optional.
The Saab 9-5 is instantly recognizable as a Saab. It has that familiar Saab profile, embodied in the rake of the hood. Sedans have raked C pillars that lead into a short rear deck, while similarly raked C pillars on wagons give a sleek look despite the squared off rear end. Both body styles feature smooth bumpers, an integrated grille, and clear-lens composite headlights, all of which help emphasize the car's performance-minded intentions.
The 2006 exterior redesign gave the front end an attractive, sinister appearance, with a dark grille and headlights outlined by chrome trim. Overall, the 9-5 has a sculpted, Scandinavian appearance. Its aerodynamic lines are tautly drawn. We don't love the tinted headlights.
All models ride on low-profile performance-tuned 225/45VR17 all-season radials with alloy wheels. 2.3T Aero models are slightly lowered, adding to their sporty appearance.
The Saab 9-5 is roomy for its exterior size, making for a comfortable cabin front and rear. Interior materials are high quality.
Leather upholstery and heated seats are standard. The 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. Front leg room is plentiful, but taller drivers may have a problem with head room. The seat heaters have two settings.
The rear seats offer about as much leg room as anything in the class.
The center dash is attractive, though the wood trim is so shiny it looks like plastic. The black upper dash helps reduce glare, and there is Saab's now-traditional Night Panel setting that switches off most of the instrument lights to reduce eyestrain when it's dark, good for long, lonely night drives.
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. All of the controls are within arm's reach, and the layout is easy to understand. The standard dual-zone climate control system features three big dials that couldn't be easier to use. The audio controls for the Harman/Kardon stereo are also simple, and redundant audio controls on the steering wheel reduce distraction from the road. The radio is wired hot so it can be turned on without the key. We wish all cars had this capability. On the downside, the cruise control switch is located on the end of the flimsy feeling turn signal stalk and is hidden by the steering wheel.
Our 9-5 2.3T Aero wagon was outfitted with the optional navigation system, which absorbs some of the audio functions but is still straightforward to operate. The navigation system is more expensive than most. Ordering navigation moves the six-disc changer to the rear of the car, and it eliminates standard satellite radio. So this navigation system is not a bargain.
Saab has historically offered unorthodox solutions to interior needs. In the 9-5, these solutions are clever, but not always successful. In accordance with Saab tradition, the ignition slot is located on the center console, and so are the power window switches. This placement reduces the size of the console bin and leaves no room for cup holders. Instead, 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 inside the center console is more stable but less convenient, taking up space and preventing front passengers from resting their arms on the console.
More useful are the split sunvisors, the rotating map light, and the right side-view mirror. The split sunvisors can block the sun from the side and front at the same time, and the map light rotates in a directional ball, like the adjustable reading lights in older jetliners. The right side-view mirror has glass that bends at the far end to provide 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 can sometimes make an approaching car look like it is changing lanes and moving toward you. We found it didn't work very well at all in the rain, but it does give a wider view.
Wagons feature a large, flat cargo compartment. Flipping the rear seat bottoms up and folding the rear seatbacks down reveals 73 cubic feet of cargo space. Smooth black painted metal covers the bottoms of the rear seats, making a nice clean surface that won't dirty or damage cargo, a nice attention to detail on Saab's part. The 9-5 offers significantly more cargo capacity than the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6 wagon, and slightly more than the Mercedes-B
The Saab 9-5 is a wonderful car for working through freeway traffic. It's as stable as a rock at elevated velocities. The standard 2.3T models offer good grip in smooth, paved corners. They lean a bit in corners, a traditional Saab trait that improves handling on bumpy pavement and gravel roads. Steering is a bit slow, but precise, another Saab trait.
The 2.3T Aero feels sportier than the standard model. The steering is quicker and more direct. It holds the road well around sweeping, high-speed curves, though it doesn't have the precise, rear-drive handling of rivals such as the BMW 5 Series or Audi A6. Still, the 9-5's handling and excellent feedback inspire driver confidence. Despite the improved handling response, the 2.3T Aero still deals deftly with bumps. In fact, it's a wonder that the 2.3T Aero rides so smoothly with a sports suspension and low-profile 45-series tires.
Torque steer, that tugging sensation on the steering wheel when accelerating hard in a powerful front-wheel-drive car, is minimal in the Saab 9-5, but you will notice it when you nail the accelerator. The Pirelli P6 tires on the 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 turbocharged four-cylinder engine that comes on all 9-5 models offers quick, responsive performance. Producing 260 horsepower, 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. There is only the slightest hint turbo lag, which is impressive because turbo lag has been a problem in Saabs in the past.
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. In Sport mode, it still shifts automatically but with sportier response, holding lower gears longer. Manual mode activates the Sensotronic manual-shifting feature, allowing the driver to change gears by pressing a pair of buttons on the steering wheel. For most driving, we preferred the Normal mode, letting the responsive automatic do its thing.
The manual transmission shifts smoothly, especially between third and fourth gears. For enthusiast drivers, heel-and-toe downshifting is relatively easy. It's not as awkward as older Saabs. Models with manual transmissions have to be shifted into reverse before you can pull the key from the ignition.
All 9-5s are equipped with Electronic Stability Program (ESP), anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), and an electronic traction control system (TCS). ESP works with the rest of this alphabet soup, helping the driver to maintain control in all sorts of conditions. It allows the driver to maintain steering control when jamming on the brakes, while stopping the car in the shortest possible distance. Several repeated ABS stops from 70 mph showed that the brakes are extremely effective, bringing the 9-5 to a rapid, uneventful halt with no apparent fade. Whether used for a panic-stop or high-performance applications, the brakes are up to the task.
The Saab 9-5 doesn't look like other cars. It's fast and luxurious. It feels stable on the highway and has a comfortable, well-designed interior. Wagons have flat load floors and a ton of cargo space, making them wise alternatives to bulkier SUVs. The 2.3-liter turbo is powerful, with only a hint of turbo lag, and it works well with the optional automatic transmission. The Aero's ride quality is impressively smooth given its sports suspension.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell contributed to this report, with editor Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.