You’d better get used to the striking front end of the latest 9-5, because it’s the template for all future Saabs. Andy Enright reports
Straight talking is an attribute that’s rarely found in business these days. All too often, the honest truth is couched in bland and cliched euphemisms designed to fudge the issue. Therefore when Saab’s UK managing director admitted that the latest 9-5 wasn’t going head to head on pricing with the likes of Audi and BMW because the car "isn’t quite there yet" it was like a breath of fresh air. Saab are nothing but realistic about the 9-5 and it’s a better car as a result.
The company is aware that the 9-5 slots into a role that can be described as sub-premium. Positioned above most mainstream marques but below the likes of BMW, Audi and Mercedes, the 9-5’s best hopes are to pick off weaklings like the Peugeot 607, nibble away at Volvo’s S80 and attempt to take a few chunks out of Jaguar and Lexus’ sales figures. Most manufacturers would proudly show a presentation that demonstrated, via carefully chosen criteria, how their car was way superior to, say, a BMW 5 Series and retailed for thousands of pounds less. Saab are far more sanguine about this car’s chances, but they may well have underplayed their hand. The latest 9-5 saloons and estates, priced from £21,545, have a lot going for them.
Let’s start with that front end. It’s not exactly easy to overlook, based as it is on the 9-X concept car and it’s a template upon which Saab’s future design direction looks set to follow. It’s certainly not lacking in impact and unlike many bold designs that often take a long time to bed in on the eye, this works very well right from the get-go. The chrome headlight surrounds and clean finish to the grille and bumper sections give the 9-5 serious presence without resorting to the sorts of me-too contrivances that have afflicted certain rivals. The facelift goes a whole lot further than a mere windowdressing, however, and Saab claim that every piece of panelling ahead of the windscreen pillars is new. The rear end has been tidied and modernised with a more streamlined-looking rear valance and bumper assembly.
"Saab have successfully modernised the styling of the 9-5"
Drop inside and you’ll be able to tell it’s a Saab even if you’re wearing a blindfold. The cliff-like fascia, the odd combination of super-soft thermoplastics and harder materials more akin to a mainstream car and the key slot on the transmission tunnel mark the 9-5 down as a product that could only have come from Trollhattan. The rather unusual steering wheel design debuted in the 9-3 (not in the Flash Gordon movies as some may suspect) and is actually rather more pleasant to use than its looks would suggest. There are also a number of small detail changes to the instruments and cabin. Chrome-ringed dials, an uprated information system, better quality ventilation controls and the repositioning of some minor functions to help ergonomics are all welcome, but expect a cutting edge executive car interior and you’re likely to be disappointed. Swedish functionality wins out over design flair in this instance.
Elsewhere there are some more fundamental changes. Saab’s persistence with a front-wheel drive layout for an increasingly powerful line of executive cars limits the 9-5s ultimate power delivery and also has a mildly corrupting influence on steering feel. The latest car sets out to improve ride quality and agility, although the 9-5 still isn’t a car that you’d fling down a back lane just for the fun of it. Where it has improved significantly is in terms of high speed ride and refinement with many suspension components being subtly finessed to offer the sort of silky ride comfort that some manufacturers seem to view as a throwback but which is hugely relevant for most buyers.
The 9-5’s chassis is based on the GM Epsilon platform, as used by the likes of the Vauxhall Signum and Vectra Estates. Over the years, Saab have fettled this pig’s ear into something that may not feel like a silk purse but comes laudably close. Whereas the original 9-5 model felt quite skittery when you applied the power to the front wheels mid-corner, the current generation car deploys its power a little more cleanly, although the 256bhp generated by the 2.3T aero model can still have the steering wheel tugging and the traction control working overtime. Corner it hard and Saab’s reputation for safety intervenes with the improved ABS and ESP skid control combining to quickly put a lid on any slip sliding away. Many would argue that it cuts in somewhat prematurely and they’d have a fair point, although the more lenient system employed by BMW highlights the difference in driver appeal between the two marques. With weight taken out of the subframe and more rigidity built in, the Saab feels lighter on its feet than of old, and the chassis engineers have also had a fiddle with the damper, springs and roll bar settings, leaving only a few bushes unchanged.
The 150bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol unit kicks the range off, whilst the 185bhp 2.3-litre is a familiar favourite and both of these engines are available in Biopower form capable of running on a mix of unleaded and E85 bioethanol. The 2.3 makes sixty from rest in just 7.9s and now manages an average of 31.7mpg. The manic 256bhp Aero model translates into an overtaking weapon with few equals and represents keen value too.
A 150bhp 1.9-litre TiD unit is now the only offering for diesel customers. Developed in conjunction with Fiat and produced at the FMA plant in Italy, Saab have a quality powerplant. With development budgets being what they are, if Saab were still an independent company they would never have been able to afford the design, testing and construction of such a sophisticated powerplant.
This 1.9-litre unit replaces both the 2.2 and 3.0-litre TiD engines previously used in this line-up. Mated to a six-speed manual gearbox as standard with the option of a six-speed auto, there’s plenty of scope for plugging the car straight into the meat of the torque curve. With at least 90% of peak torque available in a broad load running from 1,750 to 3,250rpm, you’ll be guaranteed respectable progress. After all, peak torque for the 16v engine is 315Nm so you’ll not be lacking overtaking response.
Saab know that the 9-5 isn’t going to be a huge seller, but this model will nevertheless turn over respectable numbers for the Swedes. It’s good looking, quietly well engineered but above all an honest car. Private buyers looking for speed, safety and serenity would do well to check out the 9-5 before buying something tardier and Teutonic.