Anoraks. To most, they're simple articles of clothing-- light parkas for inclement weather. To embattled Swedish automaker Saab, they've long made up the company's core clientele.
Let us explain. Some time ago, British tastemakers took to using the rain-repellant outerwear's term as a synonym for those overly studious, many of them "enthusiasts of unfashionable activities." In other words, Saab owners. Oddball styling, left-field small-displacement powertrains, persistent ergonomic idiosyncrasies and a healthy dose of 'willfully different' have conspired to mold the marque into the roadgoing equivalent of London Fog, and not without a little pride.
But don't misunderstand, or take the anorak remark as slander-- this writer has enjoyed a long history with Saab and doesn't take issue being jacketed with company's attendant left-field label. But as the company's chronically unprofitable history attests, it is difficult to craft a solvent brand solely on the backs of such consumers. Thus far, the General has yet to credibly decipher the recipe for selling Saab's intellectual-grade creds to a larger audience, but there's reason for hope: In recent years, fellow granola-crunchies Volvo and Subaru have managed to increase market share by at once parlaying their unique selling points and reveling in their inner-geek. Those lurking within RenCen doubtlessly continue to hold out hope for a similar outcome, but whether they on the right track or living in a protracted state of denial remains an open question.
Enter the 2006 Saab 9-5.
While hardly a clean-sheet proposition, the big Swede has nevertheless arrived bearing a commanding new look. Up
front, a prodigious proboscis has taken up residence, visually extending the front overhang of the previous iteration
in dramatic fashion. While not exactly pretty, the chrome-lipped trapezoidal grille and huge new headlamps are
impressively bold. An aggressive new bumper cap is also part of the mix, with a three-element midsection and inky
inlets bookended by large round driving lamps complete the front's nip/tuck. Interestingly, where Saabs of yore have traded on countenances that appeared good-natured (if a little awkward),
the new 9-5 sports an altogether more serious mug, a trick largely due to the headlights' blacked-out housings.
Dechrome the beak (9-5 Viggen, anyone?) and the resulting effect would pass for downright sinister. As it is, the
Swedish massage treatment rendered is a mote heavy-handed, but at least it doesn't lack presence. Critically, Saab
registered our tester in Michigan (a state that doesn't require front license plates). We prefer not to contemplate the
visual consequences of clipping a shiny smear of legal matter to the 9-5's nose. When viewed side-on, the dramatic wraparound sweep of the 9-5's aforementioned dual-element light
fixtures perceptibly reinforces the stretch of the front overhang. We're not sure if the General was simply hoping
to craft a dramatic new face or even whether the revamped snout is actually longer at all, but it certainly looks it.
If the schnoz has actually grown, we'll let Saab's stylists chalk it up in the name of higher European pedestrian
safety scores, a suitably anorak pursuit. Unlike the wonky-yet-practical hatchbacks of Saabs past, the 9-5 seen here strikes a strictly
three-box sedan profile. Largely devoid of ornamentation, the 9-5's side view is marked out best by its attractive bisected 17" alloy
wheels, trademark oval door
pulls, a small 'sharkfin' antenna on the trailing edge of the roof, and a pair of oh-so-European fender resident
turn signal repeaters. Nicely
integrated mirrors, svelte body-colored rub strips and subtly formed rocker trim mark out the rest of the 9-5's
silhouette as the very picture of restraint. Around back, things are somewhat less successful, with Saab among the latest to adopt the eagle's-head/interrupted-line
taillamp school of design that's inexplicably sweeping the automotive universe one BMW 7-Series, Audi A6 and Honda
Civic sedan at a time. The blacked-out lower
reaches of the rear bumper are scalloped in a manner that subtly recalls that of the front valance, marked out here
with four reversing-sensor pimples and a restrained single exhaust pipe exiting on the driver's side. Tastefully
discreet chrome alphanumerics clues-in the clueless: 9-5, 2.3T, with a small round Saab griffin emblem taking center
stage over the rear license plate pocket. All-in, this Trollhattanite terminates with little of the aesthetic impact
that it arrives with. Over the coming week or so, we'll take full measure of the 9-5, beginning with its interior
appointments and then pulling away from the Autoblog Garage to see how Saab's latest in anorak apparel makes out over
the road. Will it be the versatile top-shelf model the troubled automaker needs, or is the marque another bulldozer
swipe closer to being buried? Stay tuned.
While hardly a clean-sheet proposition, the big Swede has nevertheless arrived bearing a commanding new look. Up front, a prodigious proboscis has taken up residence, visually extending the front overhang of the previous iteration in dramatic fashion. While not exactly pretty, the chrome-lipped trapezoidal grille and huge new headlamps are impressively bold. An aggressive new bumper cap is also part of the mix, with a three-element midsection and inky inlets bookended by large round driving lamps complete the front's nip/tuck.
Interestingly, where Saabs of yore have traded on countenances that appeared good-natured (if a little awkward), the new 9-5 sports an altogether more serious mug, a trick largely due to the headlights' blacked-out housings. Dechrome the beak (9-5 Viggen, anyone?) and the resulting effect would pass for downright sinister. As it is, the Swedish massage treatment rendered is a mote heavy-handed, but at least it doesn't lack presence. Critically, Saab registered our tester in Michigan (a state that doesn't require front license plates). We prefer not to contemplate the visual consequences of clipping a shiny smear of legal matter to the 9-5's nose.
When viewed side-on, the dramatic wraparound sweep of the 9-5's aforementioned dual-element light fixtures perceptibly reinforces the stretch of the front overhang. We're not sure if the General was simply hoping to craft a dramatic new face or even whether the revamped snout is actually longer at all, but it certainly looks it. If the schnoz has actually grown, we'll let Saab's stylists chalk it up in the name of higher European pedestrian safety scores, a suitably anorak pursuit.
Unlike the wonky-yet-practical hatchbacks of Saabs past, the 9-5 seen here strikes a strictly three-box sedan profile. Largely devoid of ornamentation, the 9-5's side view is marked out best by its attractive bisected 17" alloy wheels, trademark oval door pulls, a small 'sharkfin' antenna on the trailing edge of the roof, and a pair of oh-so-European fender resident turn signal repeaters. Nicely integrated mirrors, svelte body-colored rub strips and subtly formed rocker trim mark out the rest of the 9-5's silhouette as the very picture of restraint.
Around back, things are somewhat less successful, with Saab among the latest to adopt the eagle's-head/interrupted-line taillamp school of design that's inexplicably sweeping the automotive universe one BMW 7-Series, Audi A6 and Honda Civic sedan at a time. The blacked-out lower reaches of the rear bumper are scalloped in a manner that subtly recalls that of the front valance, marked out here with four reversing-sensor pimples and a restrained single exhaust pipe exiting on the driver's side. Tastefully discreet chrome alphanumerics clues-in the clueless: 9-5, 2.3T, with a small round Saab griffin emblem taking center stage over the rear license plate pocket. All-in, this Trollhattanite terminates with little of the aesthetic impact that it arrives with.
Over the coming week or so, we'll take full measure of the 9-5, beginning with its interior appointments and then pulling away from the Autoblog Garage to see how Saab's latest in anorak apparel makes out over the road. Will it be the versatile top-shelf model the troubled automaker needs, or is the marque another bulldozer swipe closer to being buried? Stay tuned.
Depress the ‘unlock’ button on the integrated remote-control key, and 9-5 intenders are greeted with the same electromechanical whirring of power locks that's been Saab’s auditory entry signature for ages. Pull the meaty oval-shaped door handle on the driver’s door, climb in, and take measure of the 9-5’s accommodations.
Clock those seats. Beautifully rendered in small-grain black leather with contrasting white stitching and livened by khaki inserts, the power-articulated, memory-equipped chairs engender a sporty flair, adding color to what otherwise would've been a dour interior. Seatbacks are keenly supportive laterally and offer adjustable lumbar support, but the bottom squab’s foam is quite a bit softer than we like. As is consistent with Swedish automobiles, prominent headrests make their presence felt immediately on the backside of one’s skull. On most vehicles, the latter often act as pillows for those with lazing necks— with the 9-5's active anti-whiplash headgear, they’re very clearly supportive elements. It’s a quality that some may find intrusive during normal driving, but we find reassuring. The upright driving position says 'sedan' more than it does 'sport,' but we'll wait for a full dynamic assessment before proclaiming the whole thing a little too family-friendly.
A quick scan of the dashboard is unlikely to jar Saab loyalists. The same bluff-faced kidney bean motif that’s been a Trollhattan trademark for eons resurfaces here, integrating the gauge array and a center stack canted dramatically towards the driver. Silver trim and low-gloss, high-quality plastics dominate to create an attractive place in which to while away the miles, though detractors are likely to carp (with some justification) that the IP’s form is dated and po-faced.
The 9-5’s steering wheel’s rim is hidebound and thick in all the right places, with integrated audio and trip-computer switches sensibly located at thumb’s length. The airbag boss is a bit large for our tastes, but it’s a minor aesthetic quibble. Adjustable for rake and depth, the three-spoker remains a confidence-inspiring piece. Control stocks govern the rain-sensing wipers, turn signals, and cruise-control— the latter of which could be easier to manipulate.
The instrument binnacle is a straight-forward affair, with a 160 mph analog speedometer flanked by a rev counter (with just a 6k redline), and combination fuel/engine temp/turbo boost gauge. A narrow screen underneath the speedo keeps tabs on miles covered, distance-to-empty, outside temperature, and so on.
Most secondary controls strike as surprisingly well-integrated and ergonomically correct, from the simple three-knob HVAC system with dual-level seat heaters, to the simple twist knob on the dash that supervise the headlamps. Nothing groundbreaking or modish, mind... just logical, proven interfaces.
The same can be said for the five-speed manual, whose gubbins are shrouded by a baggy leather boot. The large shift knob is unremarkable, save for the Saab-standard plastic collar that one must pull up in order to engage reverse. (a necessity not just for backing-up, but for removing the key as well).
Thankfully, Saab has avoided the carpet-bomb school of stereo controls that’s become entirely too trendy these days. A large center knob that controls volume neatly surrounds the 200-watt harman/kardon's on/off switch, with remaining buttons supervising the integrated six-disc changer and AM/FM/XM tuner. It’s a self-explanatory unit, with control sprawl neatly curbed by multi-use buttons whose functions change assignment via on-screen ‘labels.’ Sound quality is reasonable but not overwhelming, though at least it comes with an input jack for iPods and such.
Traditional Saab cues are out in force, with the most obvious being the center-console resident ignition. There’s nothing inherently wrong locating the keyhole in the center console—it’s a bit of novelty, keeps larger keys from rattling about, and reduces wear on the ignition switch itself. That said, ours was damned with a rubberized surround that routinely popped loose. The bigger issue here is that for those carrying anything beyond a couple of keys, the location will find their fobs crowding the power window switches (themselves located too far back for ergonomicists in the crowd). We prefer regulators on the doors, thanks. The small overhead console is likewise a Trollhattan tradition, integrating ‘eyeball’ reading and seatbelt warning lights in an array sure to have serial travelers looking for the flight attendant call button. Controls for the standard-fit moonroof live here as well. We appreciated the one-touch open, but curse the safety-nannies responsible for the same switch requiring constant finger-pressure to close. As expected, Saab's unique 'Night Panel' button makes the scene as well, allowing drivers to reduce eye fatigue at night by extinguishing most dashboard lights, save the speedometer (okay, so subtle button backlighting remains on the center console). Leaving the distance-to-empty counter might be a smart choice in the future, lest lobster-shift pilots in search of a new TSD record forget to mind their fuel reserves.
Niceties? Well, the double-sun visors that allow drivers to simultaneously block out glare in front and to the side are a welcome touch, as is the vent in the glovebox that will chill/heat its contents depending on what the HVAC unit is up to. Speaking of which, the vents are particularly robust and well-designed, with the driver’s side having bi-directional vane control, allowing the clearing of side window and warming of frigid digits simultaneously.
Front seat nits to pick? Storage space is limited, with narrow door pockets and a smallish center console beneath the (extendable) armrest being one’s main options. Cupholders are in annoying short supply, with a single unit that acrobatically gyrates into position from the vertical slot to the right of the stereo. It’s a trick-looking piece, but only accommodates straight-forward 12-ounce cans and paper cups from the local coffee shop. Plastic bottle? Big Gulp? Bring an understanding passenger, because the only other option remains a plastic liner in the center console (which requires the lid to be up, doing away with the armrest).
Space is quite generous for both front and back-seat passengers, with rear seat legroom being particularly capacious for the class. Rear seat passengers enjoy a wide fold-down armrest that has a thin lidded storage compartment and spring-loaded cupholders, though the elbow-rests on the door cards could be a bit wider. Rear seat occupants benefit from rump-roasters as well, though there's only one switch, so the kids had better play nice. Peel back the leather flap in the rear seatback to reveal a standard-issue pass-through for skis and such. Seats also fold flat in typical Saab fashion (60/40 split, with the bottom cushions flipping forward first).
Even without the seats folded, the 9-5’s trunk is particularly capacious, with significantly more luggage space that we can recall in the BMW 3-Series and Acura TL—the large cargo area goes some way towards explaining the Saab’s lengthy overhangs. The load floor is flat and wide, and high-quality struts hold the lid open without intruding on available space.
All-in, the 9-5’s interior is a pleasant place in which to operate, offering confines that largely belie its age. In true anorak fashion, this isn't a showy specimen that envelopes in a crush of luxury features-- it's the type that manages 'feature creep' in a credibly unobtrusive manner, allowing owners to concentrate on the business of driving. Enough ideosyncrasies remain that few will mistake the big Swede for anything but a Saab, but most everything is intuitive enough that brand virgins won't be lost for long-- at least once they figure out where to slot the ignition key.
But how does she drive? Be sure to keep an eye peeled later this week for Day 5 of our 9-5's stint in the Autoblog Garage. Need a refresher? Check out the review's first installment here.
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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Comfortable, luxurious, sporty and Swedish.
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.
Saab 9-5 2.3T sedan ($34,370); 2.3T wagon ($35,370); 2.3T Aero sedan ($35,465); 2.3T Aero wagon ($36,465).
Options As Tested
Sensotronic 5-speed automatic transmission ($1,350), OnStar assistance ($695), roof rails ($250), navigation system ($2,945), 60th Anniversary Edition package ($1,595).
Saab 9-5 2.3T Aero SportCombi ($36,465).
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