by Stuart Fowle
Sitting at the hotel bar following our first drive in the 2011 Saab 9-5, the topic of the company’s near-death experience inevitably came up. An unnamed engineer visiting from Sweden told me, “You know, back in December when we thought it was the end I stood there looking at one of the few 9-5s we had built. I stood there and thought about how I could buy it simply because, otherwise, my wife would have never gotten to see what I had made. I wanted her to experience what those hours had been spent on.” This man’s wife wouldn’t have been the only one missing out; the new 9-5 is the best car the company has built in decades and probably the most capable car ever to come from Trollhattan.
You’re all surely aware of the turbulent year Saab has had and the unexpected luck behind that fact that you’re reading this review at all. Spyker Cars NV and its outspoken owner, Victor Muller, bought a company that was for all intents and purposes stripped out and boarded up. But what makes the new 9-5 such an interesting story starts long before the general public despised names like Goldman Sachs and before General Motors started throwing its sinking brands overboard to keep its main ship afloat.
It’s easy to love the underdog, and for much of its existence Saab was just that. Competing in and winning rallies with the oddball 96, building quirky two-stroke sports cars when the industry was shifting to advanced fuel-injection motors, then unexpectedly debuting a very progressive small-displacement turbocharged motor to leapfrog the competition. From floor-mounted ignitions to four-seat convertibles, it’s all part of the Saab experience that captured such a loving and loyal fan base.
And then General Motors came along. As we moved toward the end of the last century, Saab’s cars had started losing the funky feeling, yielding to the corporate homogeny that long defined the GM product approach. They weren’t the little guys any more, they were the misunderstood and unloved byprodcut of the biggest car corporation in the world. Entering the Twenty-first Century, the Swedish arm was victim to decade-long lifecycles, uninspired Subaru rebodies, and the most offensive Saab of all, the body-on-frame 9-7X with a Corvette motor. A V8 from the company known for small turbo cars? An autonomous Saab would have been laughed out of business for that move, but not so under the General.
That’s why it’s both depressing (for GM) and exciting (for Spyker) that the first thing we notice getting into the new 9-5 are all the signs that GM had started changing its ways. Admittedly, there’s still some obvious component sharing happening here, but it’s different this time. GM decided to stop giving Saab the bottom-of-the-barrel slop; bits from the latest Cadillacs now serve where decade-old Chevrolet parts once did. The gauge cluster is from a Cadillac SRX 2.8T, only with new colors. It features a very slick, high-resolution circular display in the center that displays not only fuel economy and other trip information, but also features a rolling aircraft-style auxiliary speedometer. The infotainment screen is from an SRX, too, and it’s a huge touch screen with incredible functionality and a 40-gig hard drive tucked behind it. The light tubes, used to detail the headlights and taillights, are downright artful; the HIDs lighting the road ahead bend, twist, and even jump between high and low beams automatically. Not to mention that the design as a whole, out on the street among other vehicles, still looks like a concept right off the show floor.
Beneath the surface, it’s much the same. The Haldex XWD system first seen on the 9-3 Turbo X is the most surefooted drivetrain in GM’s arsenal. The HiPer strut system in the front suspension is cutting-edge stuff for carving corners and eliminating torque steer. Our test car’s 2.8-liter turbo six is thoroughly Saab-y, putting out 300 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. However, the base 2.0-liter turbo available later this year sounds like it’ll be a very Scandinavian blend of power and sensibility, boasting 220 hp and a projected highway fuel economy in the mid-30s. No other manufacturer even has the guts to offer a four-cylinder in this segment here in the States. In the days leading up to the recession, GM was ready to take some serious risks to put Saab exactly where it needed to be. Finally.
Saab’s management team thought long and hard about how to position this car, and we’ll tell you right now that BMW fans won’t be interested. The way the product planners see it, potential Saab buyers want a solid balance of comfort, style, speed, and safety that aims the 9-5 solidly at the Audi A6. Trageting the Audi makes sense on a deeper level too, if you’ll remember that Audi, before its current sales success, had a small and tarnished presence here in America.
It takes only a glance at the 9-5’s minimalist, ultra-modern design too see the crosshairs pointing at the A6, and after living with it for a whole day we’ve come away loving the new design. The 9-5 manages to do so much with so little, making a striking vehicle by letting the details — not wild sheetmetal — tell the story. The turbine wheels, the black A-pillar, the soft flow of the C-pillar into the tail of the car — we could admire the small things for days.
The cabin, we fear, is a little too sparse even for the target customers. The shapes are great and the seats, obviously not touched by anyone at GM outside of Sweden, are phenomenal. But the navigation screen and the “Night Panel” button next to it both look poorly integrated and in some of the places we’d expect a more contemporarily-Swedish matte finish wood or sheets of real brushed aluminum, there’s just more black plastic. When you’re aiming for the company with the best interiors in the business, corners can’t be cut this much. Based on the Spykers we’ve driven, we know Victor Muller realizes this and certainly must have a team working on a great mid-cycle update. He isn’t a normal car industry exec; Muller walks around with a very entrepreneurial aura to him. When people talk, he listens. Then he makes things happen.
While it’s lacking in a few areas, the 9-5’s cabin is still a nice place to live, and it feels quite large in there. At the same time, the car itself drives smaller than it is, a good trait and one thing GM has actually executed well through most of recent history. The cabin feels a bit narrow but very long, perhaps intentionally replicating the feel of a small personal aircraft.
The driving experience is eerily similar to what you’d get from an Audi A6 3.0T. Even if we hadn’t just been told it was the case, it’s easy to tell that car was used as a benchmark. The steering is just a touch on the light side but has less slop to it than an A6’s, and the ride and handling compromise is similar but with fewer jitters over small road imperfections. The Saab, however, can’t quite compete with the Audi’s high-speed stability.
Buying the top-spec 9-5 Aero, however, brings with it a few choices of driving dynamics. A “Drive Sense” adaptive chassis offers choices of comfort, sport, or an “intelligent” middle ground that judges driving style and automatically adjusts the car’s steering, damping, and throttle sensitivity. There’s a noticeable difference between sport and comfort — more so than with most adaptive drive systems, but we weren’t in love with the intelligent mode, simply because we preferred consistency in the responses of each system. Comfort makes the steering too light and the transmission far too lazy, so we’re content leaving the system in sport mode for our whole drive. Doing so doesn’t seem to have any drawbacks as even in sport mode the suspension is still quite forgiving.
We have to admit were pretty worried about the Aero’s drivetrain going into this drive. We tested this combination of the 2.8-liter turbo and six-speed automatic in the Cadillac SRX a few months ago and were justly underwhelmed as a result of a slow-spooling turbocharger and a clumsy transmission. The engine’s downside isn’t as noticeable in the lighter (the “er” is important here since it still weighs a hefty 4300 pounds) 9-5, which is decent off the line but not amazing with a 0-60 mph time of just under seven seconds. Engine smoothness at speed is impressive, and the speedometer always seems to be climbing quicker than our senses indicate.
The transmission could still use some work. Shifts are a bit slower than the German competition, and when left in automatic mode the car doesn’t like to downshift unless the driver really begs. There’s a set of shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel, but two issues make them tough to use. First, the tachometer isn’t well placed for easy glances between the needle and the track ahead (in our case, Monticello Motor Club in New York, where Saab invited us to wring the car out). Additionally, the current gear is indicated in very small font, among other readouts, on the circular screen inside the speedometer. It’s quite hard to glance down at as well, and we suggested to Saab Cars North America President Mike Colleran that in manual mode, that entire screen is dedicated to showing the current gear in large font. Hopefully this is one of those situations where a late change can be passed through quickly.
Our laps at Monticello also reveal an interesting dynamic between the chassis and the amazing Haldex XWD system, which can send almost all the engine’s torque not only to the front or rear, but also vectors the power from side-to-side at the rear axle. As a whole, the car is set up with a heavy bias toward understeer, but when provoked properly, the Haldex system will make the rear end light and even kick it out just a bit before all the computers straighten the car back out. Because of this underlying neutrality and the virtues of the HiPer strut front suspension, we were actually convinced that the car’s low-ish limits were the result of the tires. We were surprised to see 19-inch Eagle F1 rubber under the car, then, making us realize that the car is simply set very much on the safe side. Anyone hoping to get the most out of his 9-5 will want to play with different sway bars, we think. The car has more potential than the engineers have tapped. For most buyers though, it will feel just fine.
Like the transmission, the brakes exhibited some of the same qualities as the Cadillac SRX, feeling like too much effort has to be put in for the speed scrubbed in return. It’s something that you’ll get used to after a few hours driving the car, but we’re told that the Brembo brake option available in Europe will eventually make it here as a stand-alone option.
No one would expect the new 9-5 to come out and blow away the BMW 5-series in terms of dynamics, and it doesn’t; but then again, a lot of people didn’t expect the 2011 9-5 to happen at all. After driving the Aero model, we’re incredibility happy it survived. It has its flaws, sure, but it also has a design that’s hard to stop staring at, some of the best seats we’ve ever put our butts in, and some pretty impressive technology. Those are the thing a majority of buyers look for, and perhaps a future Viggen model pushed forward by the eccentric new company president will go BMW hunting.
In all honesty, we’re actually just as excited about the upcoming 2.0T model as we are the possibility of an even faster 9-5. The four-cylinder, 220-hp will be offered with front- or all-wheel drive and with a manual or automatic transmission. That should be perfectly adequate power for this car, and we think combining the rest of the 9-5’s assets with a turbo motor that returns fuel economy in the mid 30s fits Saab’s ethos pretty well. For now, the 9-5 Aero comes packing a lot of features for $49,990. Go visit your local Saab dealer for a test drive — those guys could really use some company right about now and with this new car, they deserve a new friend or two.