- Mar 17, 2006
2006 Saab 9-5 2.3T Sport: In the Autoblog Garage Day 5
Depress the clutch (right foot on the brake, please), reach down between the seats, and twist the key, putting Saab’s 2.3-liter on turbocharged notice. [Long] throw the gearshift into the lowest of the transmission's five available forward ratios, and point the 9-5's Darth Vader proboscis down the road like you mean it.
But hang on a sec. In true anorak fashion, before engaging in a bout of Swedish shenanigans, turn off the engine, get out and pop your gourd underneath the hood to see what sort of vehicular fury Saab's engineers have rendered. The 9-5's inline-four marshals a respectable 260 horsepower (ten more than last year), and indeed, offers damned-near class-leading torque incredibly low down in the powerband-- particularly impressive for such a small engine (try 258 lb.-ft. @ 1,900 rpm).
But here's the thing: Saab has loosed those steeds from the corral via the wrong gate-- the one out front. Overly analytical-types are invited to carp about foul-weather practicality all they want, but in a proper sport sedan, the front roundies are best left to deal with turning and braking duties (or at least sharing power-distribution chores with the rears). Expecting the lead wheels to cope with Saab's turbocharged brand of gumption is a program for corrupted helm feel and understeer, and the 9-5 reads the recipe chapter and verse.
Admittedly, when driven in isolation (particularly at 7/10ths or less), the Saab largely manages to escape most criticism. Despite being down two-to-four cylinders on its competition, forced induction goes a long way toward balancing the scales. This is particularly true out on the highway, where the 9-5 makes for a credible long distance cruiser, with 5th gear at 75 mph keeping the turbo on the lip of its tipping point for excellent passing reserves. But even if Saab has managed to extract class-competitive numbers out of its inline quadbanger, refinement remains an issue, as revs arrive and depart neither quickly or sweetly. Fortunately(?), said revolutions don't exactly have to fall from a great height -- the redline is pegged just a hair north of 6,000 rpm. Not exactly banshee wailers, the Swedish.
One might expect to reap big dividends at the pump given the Saab's thrifty-sounding mill. But given the 9-5's class 'heavyweight' status, the engine’s reserves are called upon more often than might otherwise be the case, and mileage suffers as a result. According to the trip-meter, we averaged about 17 mpg in spirited city driving, with a tankful or two of highway high-test quaffed to the tune of 25 mpg. In other words, resolutely average stuff.
Given what was surely a sow's ear budget, Saab has somehow scrimped together nearly 1,500 changes for the 2006 model year. We've a distinct feeling that a goodly portion of those adjustments are the parts-count stemming from the 9-5's exterior restyling, but regardless, Saab has been kind enough to re-jigger the suspension, widen the rear track and make other adjustments of dynamic consequence.
The payoff is that the Saab's tired bones don't let slip their AARP card-carrying status at the offset of enthusiastic driving (older 9-5s do exactly this). But try and play 'tag' on a wavy stretch of asphalt with a contemporary mount of Germanic or Japanese persuasion, and prepare to feel cheated. In order to ensure all of 9-5's ponies don't run off into the hedges (or worse, generate tons of axle-tramp), Saab's engineers have imbued the 9-5 with an overly compliant front suspension. This is a fine solution for making sure the power gets to the ground and for doing the interstate hustle, but the result is significantly more body roll than expected from a $35k European 'Sport' package sedan.
Cornering isn't the Saab's strong-suit, either. We've already discussed how the 9-5's restyling gives viewers the impression of tremendous overhangs, and this isn't an illusion. By way of illustration, the 9-5 is better than 1' longer than a BMW 325i, yet its wheelbase is more than 2" shorter. The same 'tale of the tape' plays out with everything in class from the Acura TL to Volvo's S60 and the Lexus IS. The big overhangs do lovely things for Saab's trunk space (and likely something for pedestrian safety), but for the car's performance envelope, the ramifications aren't as welcome. This is particularly true in light of the 9-5's naughty-by-nature front-wheel-drive setup. When hurtling along one's favorite twisty road, the effect is roughly akin to loading a 30-pound bag of dog kibble into the leading edge of a (decade-old) shopping cart, then attempting to swiftly navigate Wal Mart's swollen aisles the day after Thanksgiving. Possible? Perhaps. Rewarding? Not so much. Don't blame the 17" Pirelli P6’s... they're just being asked to freight too much Purina.
For those anoraks who think we're a bunch of sour lingonberries grapes, it bears repeating: Most of 9-5's shortcomings don't let on without comparison shopping or back-to-back driving. But the fact remains, even among the segment's other front-drivers, the Trollhattenite feels dynamically dated.
In day-to-day slogging, the Saab is perfectly adequate, with a surprisingly forgiving ride (save a peculiar aversion to sharp single impacts like that of unexpected potholes), enough torque to zip away from stoplights with genuine authority, and gobs of space for passenger and canine chow alike. In other words, the 9-5 is unlikely to offend brand loyalists. And given the doubtlessly modest sums GM invested on the Big Swede’s elderly platform, the 9-5 makes a surprisingly good show of itself. But for an as-tested $37,760 outlay, both assiduous anoraks and the proud griffin on Saab's crest deserve better.
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