From the December 2010 issue of Car and Driver.
Saab’s 11th-hour rescue at the hands of Spyker recalls one of our favorite stories of redemption. Although few would call GM’s stewardship of Saab “excellent,” it was certainly an adventure, and the parallels to the 1989 cinematic masterpiece Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure are strong. The heroes in both stories coasted for 20 years or so before being saved from the brink of disaster: Bill and Ted by a time-traveling rock groupie from 700 years in the future, Saab by an equally unlikely Dutch supercar maker. And forecasts for Saab’s future under Spyker are dubious—“Bogus Journey” may turn out to be as apt a descriptor for the follow-up to Saab’s GM interlude as it was for the Bill and Ted sequel. Spyker scooped up the gasping Saab for a $74-million song, plus $326 million in shares of the newly formed Saab Spyker Automobiles.
More on the Saab 9-5
2011 Saab 9-5 Turbo Four Tested
Saab Spyker CEO Victor Muller says that, by 2012, the company will break even, with worldwide sales totaling just 85,000. Saab sold fewer than 18,000 cars in the U.S. in 2008, but its global sales total actually exceeded the magical 85,000 by roughly 10,000 units. And this was with mostly outdated and/or badge-engineered products. Prior to this 2011 model, the 9-5 had gone 13 years without a redesign—twice as long as most cars today.
And then along comes this knockout. The taut styling invites long stares, and the aggressively tapered greenhouse and blacked-out pillars identify this as a Saab—the first in a while that doesn’t look like a ’90s model. Two trim levels ultimately will be available. The base model will be powered by a 220-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four and will be offered with a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmission and front- or all-wheel drive. For now, only the uplevel Aero is available, powered by a turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6 that churns out 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. This is paired exclusively with a six-speed auto and Saab’s XWD all-wheel drive.
Cool touches abound inside, neutralizing the sea of black plastic in which they swim: The IP needles are rendered in neon-slime green; the shifting-matrix air vents look likethey were inspired by the same ’80s music videos that Bill and Ted watched; and the start button is mounted in Saab’s traditional ignition-switch location on the center console. Nestled into the middle of the speedometer is a high-resolution display showing supplementary vehicle, navigation, or audio information; a head-up display is optional. In a nod to Saab’s aeronautical past, the IP display can show speed in an altimeter-style scrolling readout that, combined with the traditional speedometer surrounding it and the head-up display, results in triplicate reporting of velocity and zero convenient alibis for the question, “Do you know how fast you were going?”
HIGHS: Bodacious bod, smart luxocar tech inside, seriously sticky cornering performance.
A chassis controller that Saab calls DriveSense is standard on Aero cars, optional on the upcoming 2.0T. It offers three positions: comfort, intelligent, and sport, with intelligent being the default. In sport mode, the steering gets heavier, the throttle and the shift mapping become more aggressive, and the shocks firm up. “Intelligent” is the same as “comfort,” but it mimics the sport mode’s shock and steering settings under hard cornering.
Even widely available gadgets and functions are executed here with an extra degree of thought. For example, Saab’s lane-departure warning chime is particularly shrill when the car drifts over a line, but it is programmed not to beep if it detects steering input. So, while most systems scold the driver for making unsignaled lane changes, the Saab does a better job of detecting the driver’s intentions and spares most of the nannying.
JOHN ROE, THE MANUFACTURER
It’s comfortable inside, too. The fantastic bolstering of the front seats had some staffers suggesting that GM keep these thrones and install them in the Corvette. Firm bottom cushions keep them comfortable all day long. Those confined to the back seat will be pleased, too, as the Saab offers more space than the BMW 5-series and Mercedes-Benz E-class. Saab may not enjoy the cachet of those cars, but comfort doesn’t care.
What appears to be a haphazard scattering of buttons across the center stack turns out to be highly intuitive, and specific functions are easy to locate. Most tasks are controlled via an eight-inch display, navigated either by poking the screen or twirling a knob below it. The menu structure is logical and the range of options offered is impressive, allowing drivers to tailor exactly what differs, for example, between DriveSense’s comfort and sport modes.
JOHN ROE, THE MANUFACTURER
Although the 9-5 tested here is the top-of-the-line Aero model with a turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6, its speed is only middle-of-the-road. Zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds isn’t slow, but we expect a bit more from a 300-hp, $50K luxury car. This is the same engine we savaged for its nonlinear power delivery in our review of a Cadillac SRX [August 2010] and the same V-6 that Saab has been using for years. With the 9-5, we noted nowhere near the dissatisfaction we found with the SRX and attribute that to the Cadillac’s extra 400 pounds and resultant slower acceleration magnifying the fluctuations. However, this aging engine is far less linear than the latest direct-injection turbo mills.
Still, power builds so quickly that, in first gear, you need to grab the paddle to upshift by 5500 rpm if you don’t want to crash into the fuel cutoff at 6500. Turbo lag isn’t much of an issue—it’s just one continuous pull unless you’re slow on a shift and hit the redline. Then the drivetrain takes a second to collect itself, shift, and spool back up before you get full acceleration.
LOWS: Awfully expensive for a Buick LaCrosse, could use more power for the money.
The automatic has paddle shifters mounted to the back of the steering wheel, and in manual mode refuses to upshift until ordered to do so. There’s an attempt at mimicking rev-matched downshifts, but the result is obviously an automatic transmission falling down a gear.
The 9-5 rides on GM’s Epsilon II platform, architecture it shares with the Buick LaCrosse and Regal as well as assorted GM products. Up front, Aero models pack GM’s new-for-2010 “HiPer Strut” suspension, a sort of modified MacPherson strut that GM says better maintains negative camber under hard cornering (resulting in a more consistent contact patch) and also reduces torque steer; 2.0T models get conventional struts. Out back, both cars ride on a multilink arrangement. Our results are a testimony to the efficacy of the setup, as the 9-5 was utterly free of torque steer, although all-wheel drive tends to help minimize that, too. It stuck to the skidpad with 0.89 g, a number that matches the last 335i sedan we tested. Braking from 70 mph also approaches the 335i’s, taking 173 feet, just five feet more than the BMW. Saab’s XWD mitigates understeer in the front-heavy 9-5, though the nose still leads the way at the limit.
The 9-5’s steering is heavier than the LaCrosse’s and weights up nicely as cornering forces build, but the wheel offers only slightly more feedback than the Buick’s. The car’s cornering ability, however, comes at the expense of ride. Even with DriveSense in comfort mode, the driver feels—and hears—a lot of movement from below. Rotate the knob to the sport setting, and the car’s body is tied even more directly to the road surface. Body movements are much more restrained, but surface imperfections send sharp jolts through the structure. Unless the asphalt is still steaming, it’s better to leave the car in comfort mode.
At the 2.0T model’s expected starting price of about $40,000, the 9-5 is a compelling luxury alternative. But an Aero version loaded up like the one tested here crests $50,000. That price nets a fully loaded 335i, a car that is pretty much perfect. Or, if you need the back-seat space, a comparo-champ Audi A6 3.0T.
THE VERDICT: Strange things are afoot in Trollhättan, and, for once, they are good.
Compared with the pedigreed European luxury marques, Saab is all but invisible to consumers who don’t think it’s already dead. Spyker’s first task is to proclaim to the masses that Saab is indeed destined to survive—and is about to do so with the marque’s best-looking frontman in a long time. While we can’t see the new 9-5 stealing many sales from the German elite, if Saab can keep that break-even point low, the handsome new sedan ought to divert enough sales from GM and other mid-luxury players to keep this new adventure from turning out to be way bogus.
2011 Saab 9-5 Aero XWD
front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
PRICE AS TESTED
$52,360 (base price: $48,390)
turbocharged and intercooled V-6, aluminum block and heads
170 in3, 2792 cm3
300 hp @ 5500 rpm
295 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm
6-speed automatic with manumatic shifting
Wheelbase: 111.7 in
Length: 197.2 in
Width: 73.5 in
Height: 57.7 in
Curb weight: 4265 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
Zero to 60 mph: 6.3 sec
Street start, 5-60 mph: 7.0 sec
Top gear, 30-50 mph: 3.6 sec
Top gear, 50-70 mph: 4.4 sec
¼-mile: 14.9 sec @ 97 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 158 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph: 173 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.89 g
EPA city/highway driving: 16/27 mpg
C/D observed: 17 mpg
c/d testing explained
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