Last week we traveled to Frankfurt for the much-anticipated unveiling of the new 2010 Saab 9-5. Apparently we weren’t the only ones, as the Saab stand was practically overrun with journalists, photographers and video crew in the moments leading up to the press conference. After a few minutes worth of comments on the current and future state of Saab’s business, the 9-5 was rolled out and made available for review. Here are our first impressions.

Exterior Design
We learned long ago not to judge new cars by press pictures; especially today’s complex surfaces that often rely heavily on the interplay of light and shadow. And to be totally honest, the first images of the new 9-5 made it look ridiculously long, especially in the rear. The earliest shots, with checkerboard camouflage and decoy cladding, left me unconvinced the new sedan would even look much like a Saab. Of course, once the wraps started coming off, little by little, it was clear that a fair amount of detail work had been employed to ensure an overall Saab-ness in the design.

The most notable elements, both in pictures and in life, are the unmistakably-Saab face and the “hockey stick” greenhouse treatment. The nose wears a mild reinterpretation of the current Saab grille, and the front lighting cluster is much more cleanly executed than the current 9-5’s. The openings in the lower part of the front bumper, which incorporate both cooling air inlets and foglights, is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but overall the effect works well, drawing its overall look from numerous Saab concept vehicles of the past few years.

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It’s truly sad to see the clamshell hoodline disappear in favor of a traditional shutline. That panel gap has typically been a major character line for the profile of any Saab. As a result, the front clip of the new 9-5, when viewed from the side, looks fairly generic; the fenders lack any sort of detailing, except at the bottom, where a fake vent has been pressed in. The vent itself isn’t such a bad detail—it establishes the foundation of the body’s lower character lines—except that it’s adorned in brightwork that doesn’t flow onto the other panels.

Looking at everything below the greenhouse, the new 9-5 is clean, but not terribly distinctive; modify the shapes of the front and rear light clusters ever-so-slightly and it could be anything from a Ford Fusion to a Mazda 6 or Nissan Altima. None of which is European, nor particularly premium. Thankfully, the greenhouse is indeed included with every new 9-5, and it may very well be the best part of the exterior design. The seamless graphic that is created as the windscreen wraps into the A-pillar and down the side of the cabin is very classy and quite elegant. It leaves the impression of a floating roof and reinforces an aircraft-inspired ethos; the shape of the glass area alone looks very much like that of a small airplane. The blacked-out upper half of the side mirrors is a clever extension of the theme as well. The highlight, of course, is the way the brightwork of the lower window trim fades itself into the blackness of the upper window trim.

The new 9-5 may well be best recognized by its long, flowing C-pillar and short deck lid. Thankfully, the treatment works better in reality than in pictures. While it certainly lends visual length to the rear of the car, its main goal appears to have been recreating the look of classic Saab five-door “Combis” while still getting away with a conventional trunk. As with the hood, it seems unfortunate that Saab didn’t take a bit more risk and reintroduce the 9-5 as a five-door. The timing is certainly right for premium hatchbacks (sorry, Grand Touring sedans) as everyone from Audi to BMW and even Porsche and Aston Martin are finding ways to convince buyers that a wide-open backend is the newest must-have luxury feature.

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The rear graphic is otherwise clean and modern. Just as the headlights of the new 9-5 are far more attractive than the outgoing model, so too are the rear lights. While the shape of the rear clusters is not terribly original or distinctive, the detailing with them sets a Saab-like character and is executed cleanly. The full-width aluminum trim lends interest the tail, and the exhaust bezels give the 9-5 a very upscale look when viewed from behind. Still, the access height to the trunk is rather high, a General Motors hallmark the Swedes would have been better off rejecting in favor of a lower, larger opening.

The wheel designs chosen for the new 9-5 seem very appropriate, with their impeller-inspired “blades” for spokes. The split-five-spoke design finished in anthracite paint with machined faces is distinctly Saab—as in, that wheel design would look wrong on just about any other car, but seems perfect for the 9-5.

All in all, the new 9-5 is clean, handsome and will no doubt be recognized as a Saab almost instantly by anyone who knows much of anything about cars. The new design is not offensive in any way, but it also doesn’t take many risks. The if there was a “Saab-o-meter” that went from zero to ten, the new 9-5 would probably register an eight and a half. It needs to be tightened just a bit to register a full ten in our book.

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Interior
At first glance, the cockpit of the new 9-5 is a direct descendent of Saabs past. The wide, sweeping instrument cluster is canted slightly toward the driver, and the center console looks like it might have been penned by someone who’s also worked on military jets. It’s when you get closer that you see a lot less Trollhattan and a lot more Detroit. And this may be the new 9-5’s downfall as a premium European sedan.

While the general layout is solidly Saab, the choice of materials and finishes sends mixed messages. Take the door panels, for instance. The top rail is a pebbly moulded plastic that looks and feels really good for GM, but would be laughed out of an Audi or BMW design hall. The main panel, however, is nicely trimmed in soft, hand-stitched material. The aluminum-looking blade that runs behind the grab handle looks appropriate and original for the car, but the door-release D-ring lacks the tactile heft of a real aluminum piece. Not only does it feel cheap, but we suspect right about the time these start showing up as CPO cars, the faux-metal finish will be showing signs of wear-through. The look is premium, but the feel is not; in this segment it’s these little details that sway buyers.

Moving onto the dashboard, the first thing we notice is just how cheap (sorry, there’s just no other way to express it) the grid-patterned fascia trim looks. Buried beneath a deep layer of clear plastic, the silver-on-grey crosshair pattern looks neither techy nor premium, but rather like an item from the Cobalt SS accessory catalog. While we don’t necessarily think every premium car needs a wood dash, the new 9-5 would certainly benefit from some natural veneers.

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The controls for entertainment and HVAC functions, particularly the knobs, appear to have been pulled directly from a Malibu, right down to the GM-specific font on the buttons. Less forgivable than shared lettering is the fact the knobs feel rubbery and loose in their action and lack the precision feel of, well… just about anything else in the premium segment. On top of that, they’re trimmed with chrome rings, a detail that is clearly out of sync with the aluminum (looking) trim on the doors. It’s not too late to at least order the knobs in a satin aluminum finish, is it?

The last bit of nitpicking is cast upon the seats, specifically the front ones. Arguably these are probably the best sport seats in GM’s collection right now, but they seem like a mismatch for the new 9-5. Saabs have long been known for having great, comfortable “chairs” in which to drive and ride. The problem isn’t that these seats are bad; it’s that they are too narrow and aggressively bolstered for the typical 9-5 prospect. And this criticism is coming from an exceptionally average six-foot-tall, 200-pounder who is a sucker for a good Recaro. The 9-5 should be blessed with broader, less aggressive seats as standard, and these sport seats should be reserved for a more aggressive sports version.

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Those details aside, the rest of the 9-5’s cabin quite good. In fact, “business class” is the term that comes to mind. The leather seating surfaces feel quality, and the square perforations are an interesting change of pace, lending a more Scandinavian design flair to the interior. The rear seating area is ample for even Swede-sized adults, and the optional flip-up rear-seat entertainment system should prove popular with families of all ages on long trips.

The trunk, while conventional, is generous and functional. The rear seats naturally fold down to provide additional cargo space, and there is a new cargo retaining system that is nearly infinitely adjustable to hold loose items in place while driving. The trunk lid uses a conventional C-hinge design, taking away marginally from the available cargo space, but still leaves behind 15.9 cubic feet.

Obviously we didn’t have a chance to drive the new 9-5 at the show, but we’re eagerly anticipating the opportunity to do that in the near future. If early pre-production drive reports from Europe are accurate, the new 9-5 still has a chance to win over buyers who may have long ago written off Saab as a contender in the premium car segment.