How, exactly, did this come to pass? For starters, unlike any other of GM's death-row divisions, owners and fans rallied in dozens of countries, urging anyone who listened to "Save Saab." Now, we're not naïve enough to think that a band of loyalists were all it took to change the course of automotive history, but it's telling that there were no pitchforks and torches – or even a handful of picket signs – produced over the axing of the other brands. Saab remains a seldom understood, much loved brand, and we know that the displays of unity from Saab's scorned faithful stoked the fire of unlikely suitor Victor Muller, CEO and owner of Spyker Cars, as his team waded through a stomach-churning series of negotiations. After watching from the sidelines while bids by other small automakers and investment groups fizzled, the Dutch businessman and his team eventually pried the battered brand away from GM – but not before Saab had been partially liquidated.
While Muller clearly has an affinity for the Swedish marque, he insists it wasn't boyhood sentiment that drove the purchase – it was the company's robust Trollhättan operations and a raft of promising, almost-here product that pushed his team to persevere. That stream of shiny new tin begins with the car you see before you: The 2010 9-5. Click through to the jump to see if Muller and Company have good reason to be optimistic.
Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
During our trip to Gothenburg, Sweden to drive the new 9-5, representatives vigorously pointed out that their new sedan positively brims with "Saabishness" despite being developed entirely under GM's corporate umbrella. We had to wonder: Could the same Detroit decision-makers that gave us the half-hearted Subaru-based 9-2 and the utterly cynical Chevrolet Trailblazer-in-drag 9-7X actually know enough about the brand to deliver a competent and authentic 9-5 as a parting gift to its new owners – a Saab Saab? As it turns out, yes.
As Muller told us, GM finally started to 'get the picture' with Saab in 2005, back when it decided to develop the stunningly canopied Aero X coupe. Despite never making it to production, the arresting 2006 concept (only the second showcar in Saab's entire history) actually gave Saab a much-needed fresh design direction, the production adaptation of which can be clearly seen in the new 9-5.
While the 9-5 doesn't have the Aero-X's jet-inspired tilting canopy, clear acrylic gauges or its novel drawer-style trunk, it does have an expressive, modern design that's extremely slippery (.28 cD). Its face is clearly evolved from the Geneva concept, along with details including blue-tinged 'ice block' lighting, turbine-style alloys, and blacked-out A pillars that lend the windshield a similar wraparound look. More traditional Saab cues including the 'hockey stick' greenhouse surround and prominent C-pillars also make the scene. Overall, it's a deeply handsome set of clothes that we think will wear the years particularly well because it doesn't rely on fussy surface development, tacked-on aero addenda or a lather of chrome.
Make no mistake – this is a very big car whose clean design helps it hide its bulk. At 197.2-inches long, the 9-5 shadows its chief rival, the Audi A6, by nearly four inches, and it's more than four inches longer than BMW's new 5 Series. Dimensionally, the closest comparison we can draw is actually to the Buick LaCrosse, which is predictable because they both ride on long-wheelbase derivatives of GM's Epsilon II architecture, the basic platform of which also underpins the Opel Insignia and Buick Regal (albeit in a shorter form).
Despite shared architectures and similar drivetrains, the 9-5 looks, feels and goes down the road in a wholly different fashion than its TriShield relatives. Indeed, sampled back-to-back, you'd probably be hard pressed to find much common ground. That's not a knock on any of the models in question, but instead a testament to the efforts of both Saab's stylists and its engineers. Perhaps we shouldn't be terribly surprised – GM made sure that the Scandinavian team had considerable input into the dynamics of the entire Epsilon II family, an assignment that apparently gave technicians the proper perspective to ensure adequate differentiation and, well, Saabishness.
That coherence may start with the exterior, but it carries over into the 9-5's cabin, which is unlike anything else in GM's stable. Traditional Saab cues like a driver-centric dashboard, joystick-toggled eggcrate vents, green instrument lighting, and a console-mounted ignition (now push-button instead of key-based) are all present and accounted for, as is a nifty new round information display nestled in between the analog tachometer and speedometer. The latter can display everything from trip mileage to speed limits to an amusing altimeter-style speed readout that's more fun than functional.
There's even Saab's excellent 'Night Panel' function that extinguishes all non-essential gauges for distraction-free nighttime driving – something that's particularly welcome now that there's an eight-inch screen in residence. Unfortunately, the Night Panel switch looks exactly like other automakers' start buttons in both form and location, and while that won't be a problem for owners who spend a few weeks with the car, it's an ergonomic snafu likely to haunt the unfamiliar.
More praiseworthy are the center stack controls and the easy-as-pie touchscreen infotainment unit. The buttons and knobs are all logically arrayed, and we're quite pleased that Saab has avoided the temptation to fit an all-in-one controller like those popularized by German rivals. One thing that is remarkably Teutonic in feel, however, is the 9-5's somber dashboard. Particularly on the doors and in front of the passenger, there really isn't enough to hold one's interest in terms of trim. We're not advocating for wood (we hear a grain package will be available, however), but something to break up the darkness would help make the interior feel more premium, be it piano black or some sort of additional aluminum trim.
We sampled both the front-wheel drive 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder 9-5 (due this Fall as a 2011 model) and the fully accoutered, grips-at-all-fours Aero XWD flagship, and they both have similar interiors with one distinct difference: the seats. In the 'base' car, we found the buckets to be comfortable enough, albeit a bit short on lateral bolstering. The Aero receives significantly better furniture – its front seats manage to have much more robust lateral support while being supremely comfortable – and there's a bottom cushion extender for those long-of-leg. We think that Saab should offer these seats to 9-5 intenders regardless of how many cylinders and driven wheels they choose to pay for. After telling nearby officials as much, a flurry of subsequent conversations and smartphone emails would appear to indicate that they're at least open to making them an option.
We noted plenty of space up front, and rear-seat legroom is positively mammoth, although that gracefully lilting roofline and a rather high bottom cushion means that headroom is limited for taller folks, and ingress and egress is a head-stooping affair (although not to the level of a Mercedes-Benz CLS). Tri-zone air-conditioning is an option, as is a twin-screen DVD entertainment package, so rear seat occupants should have few objections, even on longer trips.
One final recommendation: As appropriate as it might seem for a company steeped in aeronautics, skip the heads-up display if you can. While it imparts a wealth of useful information, we noted significant and distracting glare from the HUD's housing (cue additional executive conversations and emails). A fix is promised, and unlike the red-tape laden bureaucracy at GM, we actually believe an adjustment will be made in a timely fashion, so consider this a temporary warning.
But enough about the furnishings – how does it drive? We exited the parking lot at Gothenburg-Landvetter airport aboard a front-drive 2.0T six-speed manual transmission model and immediately felt at home. Despite being a large car, the 9-5 "drives small" – and not just when pushed. Even at everyday commuting speeds, its easy responses and good visibility make it feel significantly tidier of dimension – perhaps Volkswagen Passat-sized. There's none of that artificial forced heaviness that has creeped in to some Germanic rivals, but that isn't to say that the steering is featherweight, the brakes are soft or the gearbox is loose. On the contrary, the inputs are well judged, with a nicely weighted clutch with linear engagement, a gearshift that's orders of magnitude better than that of previous Saabs and a right-sized steering wheel that offers good precision and communication from the hydraulic rack-and-pinion setup beyond the firewall.
The direct-injected twin-scroll turbo four produces 220 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm, meaning that there's a slightly longer delay in reaching peak power than we've come to associate with some new DI engines of similar size. From where we sit, this is actually a source of entertainment and differentiation, as it subtly reminds us of Saab's 'big thwack' forced-induction heritage without resorting to actual massive turbo lag. Indeed, also unlike force-fed Saabs of yore is the conspicuous absence of torque steer, even with a conventional MacPherson strut front suspension on the base model. Saab indicates 0-62 mph arrives in 7.9 seconds, but surprisingly for such a small displacement engine toting a super-sized body, it feels a bit quicker than that, and it's good fun hearing the turbo whistle blow while keeping the engine in its powerband. Keep the throttle planted and the four-cylinder will run to 149 mph, with the V6 pushing to 155.
Regardless of how many cylinders you specify underhood, you can also get Saab's new DriveSense adaptive handling – it's standard on the V6 Aero and optional on I4 models. Basically, it's a three-position dial on the center console that optimizes the car's various systems for tailored ride and handling. Damping rates, steering weight, shift points and throttle mapping are all tailored to one of three modes Comfort, Sport or Intelligent. The first detent allows for more suspension compliance and a relaxed throttle for maximum fuel economy. The middle setting curbs power steering assist, raises shift points, makes throttle control more urgent, stiffens the dampers and, critically, sends more torque to the rear-wheels. As you might suspect, the third mode, Intelligent, seeks to find the best balance between the other two settings, and it succeeds. Of course, if you think you know better than Saab's engineers, it's also possible to alter the system's individual parameters through the touchscreen.
We didn't have the chance to sample a 9-5 without this trick bit of siliconry, so we'll need to try DriveSense on a wider range of road conditions to really judge its merits. Sweden has a beautiful network of rolling B-roads that threads through its densely wooded interior (it's not entirely unlike the Pacific Northwest), but its roads are in such good repair that we didn't get the opportunity to feel how it behaves over buckled pavement. Interestingly, we understand from Saab's engineers that the standard four-pot's setup is oriented toward a more sporting experience, so even though DriveSense appears to work as advertised, we suspect the base front-driver might be just as well without it. In fact, less supportive seats aside, we actually prefer driving the four-cylinder 9-5 to the Aero XWD.
It's not that there's anything wrong with the 300 horsepower (at 5,500 rpm), 295 pound-feet of torque (at 2,000 rpm) turbo V6. We've loved the torque-vectoring all-wheel drive since we first sampled it in the 9-3 Turbo X, and the six-speed automatic is largely commendable in its smoothness, although we do wish the paddle shifters worked when the gear lever was left in 'D.' Overall, the Aero may be more accomplished, but it's also not as engaging, in part because the addition of power and an automatic gearbox encourages less interaction from the driver and in part because at 4,464 pounds, it's significantly heavier than the 2.0T (3,472). While certainly not out-of-line for its class (particularly given its massive equipment list and all-wheel drive), the Aero's weight and grippier Haldex setup mean that it just doesn't feel as tossable as its FWD counterpart, even with its standard 'sport chassis' setup that includes a bigger front anti-roll bar, stiffer springs and a 10 mm lower ride height. Interestingly, V6-equipped models utilize a totally different suspension setup than the four-cylinder model, one that includes GM's new HiPer strut front suspension and a linked H-arm setup out back.
Rounding off the more polished V6 model is a note about noise: The 2.8 is seriously quiet – almost too quiet. With a quoted 0-62 mph time of 6.9 seconds, it's the quicker car, but if you're really that concerned about off-the-line snap, there are swifter offerings in this class. In short, the 2.8 Aero is a really fine cruiser, and it's the better bet for inclement weather, but enthusiasts would do well to sample the front-drive four-cylinder model first.
As a bonus, the four-equipped 9-5 figures to be much less expensive. Saab has already stated that the 9-5 Aero will retail for $49,995, and at first glance, the Aero seems to be priced uncomfortably close to that of its more prestigious European rivals – the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E Class all start in the same neighborhood. But it's important to note that at that price the 9-5 comes loaded to the headliner with features like sat-nav, moonroof, lane-departure warning, active bi-xenon headlamps, park assist, heated and cooled leather seats, iPod integration, 19-inch wheels and a heads-up display – all items that can easily add another 10 grand to its competitors' bottom lines. If you want to go for the full Saab smörgåsbord, there's the aforementioned tri-zone HVAC and rear-seat entertainment packages, Harman/Kardon audio, along with some rather nice (if unnecessary) Brembo brakes that we sampled on a test track (what's a Swedish car launch without the obligatory 'moose test'?). Oddly, the bigger binders actually require downsizing to a unique 18-inch alloy, as they don't fit under the turbine 19s. Alternatively, we understand that the base 9-5 2.0T will retail for somewhere in the neighborhood of $38-39k, and even with a few options, this package strikes us as a much more compelling buy, pricing out against much smaller cars like the A4 and C Class.
In our interactions with Saab's new leadership, we were pleased to find that they have a rich appreciation for what the Scandinavian brand stands for – and just as importantly, a plan for what it can and should be. While it's clear that Muller and company don't view theirs as a brand that should be all things to all people, the wider market seems to be finally cottoning on to many of Saab's traditional strongholds, placing an increasing emphasis on small-displacement engines, forced induction and foul weather performance. That bodes well for Saab's strategy to find profitability not by blending in with the mainstream, but by sticking to its oddly endearing knitting. After a belated birth following much disorder and chaos, the new 9-5 paints a promising future for Saab, and we can't wait to see what it can develop as a fully independent company. Skål!
Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
All-new top-of-the-line is big, solid and sophisticated.
The 2011 Saab 9-5 is all new, representing the first full re-design of Saab's large sedan in 14 years. Measured by features, interior finish, space and smoothness, this 9-5 is the best Saab ever.
The new 2011 Saab 9-5 is built to go head to head with the Audi A6, which offers similarly sized engines and front- or-all-wheel drive, like the 9-5. Other 2011 Saab 9-5 competitors include the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class, Lexus GS and ES, and Volvo S80. To a lesser extent, the 9-5 competes with more mainstream sedans like the Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus and GM's closely related Buick LaCrosse.
The Saab 9-5 probably isn't the most thrilling car in that set, in a visceral, seat-of the pants sense, but it's well designed and executed in nearly every respect. Its body structure is as solid as the proverbial brick outhouse, and our appreciation for the 9-5's strengths increased the more we drove it over winter-slick, beat-up roads during heavy commuting hours around Detroit.
This sedan was created when Saab was a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, and was ready to launch when financially strapped GM began negotiations to divest itself of the Saab brand. And while Saab is once again independent, the 9-5 carries a GM legacy. It's built on GM's Epsilon platform, which provides the foundation for sedans such as the Buick Regal, and its engines and transmissions and are drawn from GM's global inventory. Experts who drive lots of cars will notice the 9-5's similarities with some recent GM models, but consumers probably won't. Old-time Saab enthusiasts will certainly see familiar Saab traits in the new 9-5, both inside and out.
Think of the Saab 9-5 as a big car. It's roomier than most of its European competitors, providing interior space on par with the full-size Toyota Avalon and Ford Taurus. Yet it's a bit more responsive in terms of driving dynamics than either of those cars. We found the interior straightforward and nicely finished. It offers one of the largest trunks in its class, with folding rear seats that increase cargo volume.
The new 9-5 comes well equipped, with leather standard along with seat heaters and driver-seat memory. It has more standard safety features than the federal government requires, including side-impact airbags for rear passengers. Options include a fine-sounding audio upgrade, rear-seat DVD and climate controls, and safety features such as lane-departure warning. Saab's bi-xenon Smart Beam headlights might be the best we experienced. 17/27 mpg.
The 9-5's turbocharged engines are powerful for their size, more powerful than many larger ones, and they can run on E85 ethanol. The 9-5 offers four-cylinder and V6 engines. The turbocharged V6 comes with all-wheel drive.
The Saab 9-5 Turbo4 is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 generating 220 horsepower and 258 pound feet of torque. The Turbo4 is front-wheel drive. A 6-speed manual transmission comes standard, a 6-speed automatic is optional. We found the 9-5 Turbo4 delivers sufficient thrust with either transmission, and excellent fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 33 highway, according to the EPA.
The Saab 9-5 Turbo6 XWD is powered by a turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 and comes standard with all-wheel drive. The engine delivers 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Saab's full-time variable XWD is pronounced cross drive. V6 models are offered only with the automatic. We found the V6 models add horsepower and all-wheel drive to the equation, delivering fabulous all-season capability and a greater potential to thrill.
We like the new 9-5. It's different enough to satisfy the different-drummer vibe that has characterized Saab through its history, but close enough to the mainstream to deliver the interior finish, features and trimmings that premium sedan buyers have come to expect. And we liked it more the more we drove it. Bottom line, the new 2011 Saab 9-5 is a good car by virtually any measure.
The 2011 Saab 9-5 Turbo4 ($38,525) is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4. A 6-speed manual transmission comes standard, a 6-speed automatic ($1,350) is optional. It comes with front-wheel drive. Standard features include leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats with driver memory, power everything, pushbutton start, 17-inch alloy wheels and nine-speaker audio with single CD, a USB input, XM satellite radio receiver and Bluetooth connectivity for hand-held devices. Options include a panoramic sunroof ($1,105) and Saab's U-Rail trunk organizing system ($250). The 9-5 Turbo4 Premium ($43,435) adds the sunroof, headlight washers, front and rear parking assist, 18-inch wheels, power-folding, auto-dimming outside mirrors, and other features.
The 9-5 Turbo6 XWD ($48,030) is equipped identically to the Turbo4 Premium, except that it's powered by a turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 and comes standard with all-wheel drive. V6 models are offered only with the automatic.
The 9-5 Aero XWD ($49,565) is powered by the V6. Additional functional equipment includes variable-dampening suspension with Saab's DriveSense driver-adjustable electronic controls, and active bi-xenon headlights that automatically adjust in a range of conditions. Appearance features include dark titanium metal trim inside, unique wheels and other exterior tweaks.
The optional navigation package ($2,395) adds a GPS system with eight-inch screen, voice activation and a 10-gigabyte storage drive. The harman/kardon audio package ($995) adds amplifier power, speakers and surround-sound processing. The rear passenger package ($2,130) includes rear automatic climate control and two DVD video screens with auxiliary jacks, remote control and wireless headsets. The only stand-alone options are ventilated front seats ($695) and 19-inch wheels with summer performance tires ($750).
Safety features exceed federal mandates by adding rear passenger side-impact airbags to the required array of front-impact airbags, front passenger side-impact airbags and curtain-style head protection airbags for all outboard seats. Other crash-protection features include a rollover sensor and active front head restraints. All 9-5s are equipped with electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist, OnStar automatic crash response and a tire-pressure monitor. The optional Technology Package adds an adjustable head-up display and lane departure warning to all models (and the active bi-xenon headlights to non-Aero models). Optional all-wheel drive improves stability in slippery conditions.
Saab calls its all-new 9-5 sedan organic sculpture, adapting subtle surface curves inspired by the widely acclaimed 2006 Aero X concept car. The 9-5 was developed when Saab was still a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, and the GM influence is visible in its finish and proportions. Yet its styling certainly evokes Saab tradition.
The 9-5 is the largest Saab sedan ever. Its 111.7-inch wheelbase is nearly identical to that under the new Audi A6, which is the 9-5's primary competitor, in Saab's estimation. At a length of 197.2 inches, the 9-5 is longer than just about all potential European competitors, including the A6, BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class and Volvo S80. Compared to non-European sedans, the 9-5 is a bit smaller than the Ford Taurus and nearly identical in exterior dimensions to the Toyota Avalon or the closely related Buick LaCrosse.
The 9-5 follows the Scandinavian tradition of minimal exterior trim or stylized detail. Its prominent, deep grille is flanked by so-called ice block headlight clusters, trimmed with LED marker lights. The front and middle roof pillars are blacked-out, as is the top portion of the side mirrors. This creates the effect of a single, wrap-around horseshoe shape for the windshield and side glass. With Saab's signature hockey-stick bend in the rear pillars and the bright trim edging the windows, the Saab 9-5 hints at the old Saab 900 hatchback. It takes a bit of getting used to in a larger, longer sedan.
The top-of-the-line 9-5 Aero model is distinguished buy its 10-spoke turbine wheels, larger cut-outs around the fog lights in the front bumper and larger exhaust tips in the rear. In total, the 9-5 is a very handsome car, even if it seems a bit soft or marshmallow-y at first blush. The beholder's appreciation for its subtlety increases with time.
Beyond appearance, the 9-5's shape generates a low 0.28 drag coefficient, contributing to low wind noise and better fuel economy. The slightly concave shape to the trunk lid increases rear downforce, promoting better stability at high speeds, and the rear lights are shaped with small side spoilers to smooth airflow over the tail.
The upcoming Saab 9-5 SportCombi wagon might be the best looking 9-5 of all. Its long roof tapers slightly toward the rear, extended by a prominent spoiler over the sharply raked rear glass. The rear-most roof pillars are blacked out, creating the same wrap around effect as the forward windows. (The SportCombi is expected Fall 2011 as a 2012 model.) The wagon's power operated tailgate can be opened or shut with the key fob, and its opening height can be programmed with a simple rotary knob on the driver's door, from about halfway to full extension. It's a handy tool for opening the gate in tight garages.
The 2011 Saab 9-5 is easily the roomiest sedan Saab has built, with the most luxurious appointments. It's classified as a mid-size car by the federal government, but it's difficult to figure why. The 9-5 feels spacious inside, like a large car, and its interior measurements match those in the full-size Toyota Avalon or Ford Taurus.
It's easy to see a General Motors influence inside the 9-5, and that's no big surprise. GM owned Saab when this car was being designed and engineered, and many of the components inside and out are GM sourced. Still, the GM traits may be noticeable only to people who are intimately familiar with GM's latest cars. It's easier to find the familiar Saab quirks and design cues inside the 9-5.
The dashboard seems familiar all the way back to the Saab 9000, flowing from the gauges down to the center stack in a single sweep. The requisite Night Panel black-out switch and center-console starter switch are here. Yet with options like Saab's first head-up display and a lane-departure warning system, this 9-5 is not as minimalist as Saabs past. The upgrade harmon/kardon audio system is one of the best we've heard. The interior finish is better, richer, than ever, and there's way more room in the back seat.
The fit and materials are top-notch throughout. One test car had a two-tone interior scheme, black over ivory, and it was quite appealing. The leather is the thick, heavily grained type, rather than smooth and butter soft, with perforations in the seat inserts to allow for the optional ventilation feature. The standard wood grain trim is fine. The dark anodized metal in the Aero is sporty, but combined with the solid black dash, it seems a bit dense. The headliner is soft, thick and rich, but it's not prissy. The weak-link may be the dark plastic topping the dash and door panels. It's soft and rich to the touch, but the graining almost makes it look hard.
We like the 9-5's front seats a lot. They're large, probably great for big folk, yet they're both supportive and comfortably soft, and they're contoured properly to snug smaller bodies. The seat controls aren't overly complicated, but there's a great range of travel and seat-bottom adjustment.
There's also what we'd call a slight visibility issue from the driver's seat. The front roof pillars are flat toward the interior, with a big cross section for strength, and stretched fairly far forward to the front of the car. Factor in large side mirrors, which work fabulously for keeping track of what's behind the shoulders, and there's a noticeable chunk of real estate obscured in the forward field of vision. It can prompt some double- and triple takes when turning left from a driveway, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The 9-5's steering wheel feels great in the hands, covered in pleasantly tactile leather with a wide range of tilt and telescope adjustment. That on the Aero is squared off on the bottom, so the driver can drop it low without rubbing thighs while driving or bashing them on exit. There are redundant controls for audio and phone functions on the right spoke, and the world's best cruise-control switch on the left. It has an on-off master switch on one side with a big cancel button on the other, sandwiching a thumbwheel that flicks down to set or subtract speed, and up to resume or add speed.
The gear selector has a pistol-grip lever, leather-covered and substantial. To its left on the console sit round push buttons for the park-distance warning, the optional lane departure warning and the starter. The seat heaters have three stages, rather than infinitely variable rheostat dials, and the hottest one really, really cranks, perhaps for those long, cold Swedish nights.
The 9-5's dash layout will seem very familiar to current or former Saab owners. It sweeps over the steering wheel and down around the driver, almost completely separated in spirit from the front passenger. It's finished in black, and all business. The big Night Panel switch sits right of the wheel, eliminating all night-time illumination except the speedometer when it's engaged.
The gauges are readable and not overly complicated, with white script on a black background and Saab's traditional green needles. The speedometer is the largest, square in the center; the tachometer sits left, and a combination of fuel, coolant temperature and turbo boost to the right. The speed readout is a radial meter around the edge of the largest gauge. The space inside can display a range of trip data, vehicle info or compass setting, selected by a button on the turn-signal stalk. One choice is a larger speed indicator, rotating up and down in the style used on aircraft.
The head-up display projects on the windshield just above the steering wheel. We're not terribly fond of HUD, nor convinced of their value, but Saab's is a good one. The information displayed can be tailored by the driver, from simple speed to rpm to various vehicle readouts, projected in a compact space. It can be adjusted for location and intensity, and best of all, it can be turned off. Of course, if you aren't going to use it, why pay for it? In theory, it makes sense, however, as it provides the driver with speed information without requiring a glance to the instrument panel.
The door panels are nicely done. The release levers are easy to find, working without any awkward twists of the wrist. The window switches sit precisely at the fingertips, and the mirrors can easily be adjusted with the driver's head and shoulders in standard driving position. Garage-door buttons are overhead with the reading lights and sunroof switch. The OnStar call button is on the rearview mirror.
The main cluster of audio and climate-control switches are collected in the flat center stack, canted slightly toward the driver, below an LCD information screen or optional navigation touch-screen. The switches aren't the largest you'll find in an automobile, but we like the spread and intuitive design in their location. Most are pushbuttons, though there are radial knobs for frequently adjusted functions like tuning, volume and temperature.
There's decent storage space inside the 9-5, particularly as European brands go. The bins at the bottom of the doors are deep and lined with a grippy material, largely eliminating sliding objects and their accompanying, annoying sound. The cooled glove box is large, and more, its door swings wide and flat and makes a nice tray in front of the passenger. The center console box is big enough for a decent-sized handbag, with connection jacks, power point and a removable tray inside. The cupholders are deep enough to securely hold cups, and the covered bin that contains them can also hold other stuff.
The 9-5's outboard rear seats are excellent, carved out and supportive, but soft. The backs don't recline, but they're raked at a comfortable angle. There's adequate legroom for six-foot humans for extended drives, and only a bit less headroom. The center seat is usable too, though it's flat and higher than the outside positions. Whoever sits there will have to straddle the hump and center console.
There are also some useful features for rear passengers, starting with two large vents on the back of the center console, which can be directed or switched off. The optional three-zone climate control adds temperature adjustment and a separate fan. The reading lights are located in the center of the roof, rather than at the edge, but they work just fine.
Rear-seat storage includes smaller but still-lined door bins, stretchy pockets on the back of the front seats and a bin in the drop-down center armrest. The cup holders in that armrest are deeper and steadier than most others similarly located, but the armrest itself is a bit problematic. Its snug fit and lack of any sort of strap can make it difficult to pull out.
With 18.2 cubic feet of volume, the 9-5's trunk is one of the largest in its class, and larger than that in some longer, wider cars. It has an expansive opening, a high-swing lid, tie-down points, little closed bins in the space next to the rear wheel wells, and a power point. The pass-through into the cabin is large enough to slide a couple of 4x4s through, or either side of the 60/40 split seatback folds flat with one button.
The trunk comes standard with a cargo bag, hooks and an umbrella holder. An optional U-shaped track in the trunk floor holds an adaptable, telescopic cargo divider. It can split the trunk into sections, or quickly secure various sized items to prevent sliding.
The SportCombi wagon, too, will offer various cargo options, including the U-track and a slide-out load floor. The standard cargo shade automatically closes when the tailgate is shut, and with the rear seat backs folded forward, there is 56 cubic feet of space. The load area stretches more than six feet to the front seatbacks. It's perfectly flat and square between the wheel wells, and the lift-over height is just over two feet.
The 2011 Saab 9-5 shows key indicators of long term satisfaction, because the driver likes it more the more time he or she sits at the wheel. That suggests the 9-5 is good at the important stuff, regardless of how it delivers in some flashy sense. This sedan is thoroughly thought through and well sorted, and we suspect we'd like it better in a year than some other cars with more power or a bit more short-burst excitement.
What stands out first is the build quality and overall solid structure of the Saab 9-5. We never noticed a shimmy or rattle pounding down the Midwest's worst winter roads. It's very calm inside the 9-5, with little wind noise or road hum or undesirable mechanical sound, and just a muted thunk from the tires as they crack over some flaw on the road surface. That could be the biggest upgrade from Saabs past. If the newest model loses any of the brand's old character or quirk, it more than compensates with overall refinement.
The 9-5's engines are taken from the General Motors inventory, but they're among the newest in GM's vast worldwide line up, and very good. Both the four-cylinder and V6 apply the latest materials and control technology, including independently variable valve timing. The 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 has high-pressure direct gasoline injection, which delivers a host of power, economy and emissions control advantages. Both are flex-fuel capable, so they can operate on gasoline, E85 ethanol or any mix of the two.
If you think the four-cylinder seems small for a car the 9-5's size, don't. The four is big on power, with a peak of 220 horsepower, to be exact. Its 258 lb-ft of torque matches some V6s nearly twice its size. With the manual transmission, it will easily take the 9-5 from a stop to 60 mph in under eight seconds, so it's more than quick enough for real-world applications, and it still delivers 20 mpg city, 33 highway, according to the EPA. The four-cylinder is quite smooth in normal operation, thanks to built-in balance shafts, and in daily use it rarely seems to be working too hard.
That said, the 2.8-liter V6 feels like an upgrade. It uses a single, dual-scroll turbocharger to deliver 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. The V6 is smoother than any Saab engine in memory, and it's strong enough to move a substantial car with some urgency. Torque comes evenly from about 2000 rpm almost to the redline. By the numbers, the V6 drops the 0-60 time to well under seven seconds, a substantial improvement, but it also drops EPA ratings to 17 city, 27 highway, thanks partly to the added weight and friction of the all-wheel-drive system.
We like the 6-speed automatic transmission, too. It starts with an effective control program, which makes for good interaction between the engine and transmission. Shifts are smooth in both directions, and while the automatic downshifts can be just a hint slow for our taste, that problem can be addressed with the manual shift feature. With it, the shifts come at the driver's command. The steering-wheel shift paddles work well, with upshifts on the right side and downshifts on the left.
The 9-5 rides more comfortably than any Saab we've driven. The foundation is that solid body, which limits the transfer of road shock into the car. The ride is relatively soft, but it's well damped, which means it isn't bouncy or floaty.
Driven aggressively, the front-wheel-drive 9-5 tends to understeer, or push toward the edge of the pavement, like most cars. That's good for safety, because it typically makes the driver ease off the gas pedal and slow down. There's quite a bit of body roll or side to side lean in the front-wheel-drive 9-5, but at an aggressive pace on a twisty road, it remains cool, calm and collected. The shocks do an excellent job managing side-to-side transitions. Even when all four wheels drop over a sharp lift, the 9-5 keeps its composure.
The power steering system mixes new electric technology with more conventional hydraulic assist, using an electric motor (rather than a belt on the engine) to turn a hydraulic pump. The goal is a compromise between the fuel-saving efficiency of an electric system and the more familiar feel of hydraulic assist, and we like the way this system works. We found the steering direct, appropriately quick and accurate. Effort on the wheel decreases at slow speed and increases at high, and the power assist keeps pace with repeated, abrupt directional changes.
In the current fashion, the Aero model features a driver-adjustable electronics package called DriveSense. DriveSense alters steering weight, shock absorber rates, shift points, and front-rear power distribution in the all-wheel-drive system with a single three-option switch. The choices include comfort, sport and Intelligent, which automatically adjusts electronic controls according to the driver's inputs.
Saab's XWD all-wheel drive (pronounced 'cross-drive') was developed with a Swedish company called Haldex. It varies power delivery between the front and rear wheels, depending on which can provide more traction, theoretically sending up to 90 percent front or back. It also uses an electronically controlled rear differential that can vary the amount of power between the rear wheels. In hard cornering, or when undertaking a high-speed lane change, the brief application of more or less torque to either rear wheel helps the rear of the car more accurately follow the direction of the front wheels.
The all-wheel drive is a definite advantage in a snow storm, as we experienced first hand. Even traveling straight ahead, it limits any tendency for either the front or rear wheels to slip out of line, minimizing small steering corrections that might turn into something a lot harder to get a handle on. XWD also helps find whatever grip is available to keep the 9-5 moving forward at a safe pace.
Secondarily for some drivers, foremost for others, the all-wheel-drive also improves the 9-5's handling in the high-performance sense. It greatly reduces the amount of understeer during hard cornering, compared to front-wheel-drive models. With XWD, a driver familiar with its characteristic can tighten the 9-5's line through a turn by feeding it a bit more power.
Some of the 9-5's other high-tech systems pay big dividends on the road, starting with the optional bi-xenon Smart Beam headlights. These not only swivel in the direction the car is turning: they also automatically optimize light patterns to suit prevailing speed, road and driving conditions. At speeds below 31 mph, for example, Smart Beam delivers a wide, flat light pattern to better illuminate potential hazards or pedestrians along the road side. When the windshield wipers' rain sensor detects rain or snow, the lights cast an asymmetric pattern that helps the driver see lane markings. At high speeds, the lights project a dense beam as far ahead as possible. Smart Beam can also turn the high beams on and off automatically according to oncoming traffic, relieving the driver of that duty. In short, our 9-5 Aero test car had possibly the best headlights of any automobile we've tested, evaluated by the distribution, penetration and quality of light they deliver in all conditions. If there's a downside to Smart Beam, it's that you won't notice the familiar level of improvement when the high-beams switch on over a lightly traveled road because the low beams are so effective.
Saab's lane-departure warning works essentially as billed. Its crucial component is a mirror-mounted camera that sees essentially what the driver sees, scanning lane stripes and pavement seams. If the 9-5 wanders across a lane marker without a turn signal, the system beeps loudly and gets the driver's attention. Its value on dark, empty roads is obvious, but in typical urban driving it can be quite annoying. Then it's more encouragement to use turn signals, because if the driver doesn't the warning system is going to squawk with every turn or lane change.
Big-ticket technology aside, the new 9-5 is the smoothest, quietest Saab ever, certainly the most advanced and probably the best, by most objective measures. It's well sorted, but so are plenty of cars the 9-5 competes against. Buyers who can embrace its unique Saab character and GM underpinnings should be rewarded with a competent, comfortable, truly satisfying sedan over the long haul.
The all-new Saab 9-5 is smooth, quiet, comfortable and very well built. It's different enough to stand out, but generally understated in exterior design. It's the roomiest Saab sedan ever, with the most high-tech features. The four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive 9-5 Turbo4 is adequately powered, more than competent in every aspect of its dynamic performance, and surprisingly fuel efficient. The V6 all-wheel-drive 9-5 Turbo6 and Aero models are more exciting. In objective terms, the 9-5 is arguably the best, most advanced Saab yet. Saab loyalists should rush for a look at this car.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit.
Saab 9-5 Turbo4 sedan ($38,525); Turbo4 Premium ($43,435); Turbo6 XWD ($48,030); Aero XWD ($49,565).
Options As Tested
navigation system with eight-inch screen, voice command and 10-gigabyte storage drive ($2,395); Technology Package ($1,695) includes head-up display, advanced park assist and lane departure warning; harman/kardon surround audio with six-disk changer ($995); 19-inch alloy wheels with summer performance tires ($750).
Saab 9-5 Aero XWD ($49,565).
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