Last week I got a chance to take a very short drive in Saab's new 2011 9-5. So what's it like? Well, my first impression was that there are a lot of General Motors parts. (Saab was owned by GM until just a few months ago.) The steering wheel, column stalks, transmission selector, even the heads-up display are all from the GM parts bin. Even the start/stop switch is a GM part, even though they've moved it down to the center console, where Saabs normally have their ignition keys. I'd heard that the Saab folks were frustrated with GM's stewardship, and I could understand why.
But after a few minutes sitting in the car, little bits of "Saabishness" began to peek through. I saw the egg-crate air vents, last seen on the old 9-5, as a bit of a sop to Saab loyalists. But then I noticed the almost complete lack of adornment surrounding them -- not my favorite Saab trait, but a Saab trait nonetheless. The 9-5 has the Night Panel feature, which darkens and shuts off all the gauges save the speedometer, only lighting them up if they need attention. And then there were the seats... oh, those seats! I don't know how Saab manages to make such comfortable seats, but they do. My drive wasn't long enough to form any meaningful driving impressions, but I did notice the snap of the turbo engine. No wonder GM borrowed that motor for other products, including the Cadillac SRX -- it's a gem.
Overall, the 9-5 feels like a car in a holding pattern. Maybe I'm projecting a bit, but I can see that the 9-5 was designed at a time when GM was squeezing Saab's budget. The smaller 9-3 is also based on a GM platform, but it doesn't seem to have as many corporately-generic details as the new 9-5. That said, it's not as if GM designs bad cars anymore; they don't (well, except for the Pontiac Solstice Coupe). The 9-5 is certainly not bad; it's just not as unique as I expect a Saab to be. Now that Saab is owned by Dutch automaker Spyker -- another fiercely independent company -- it is my hope that they will loosen up the reins and let Saab be Saab. Product development is a slow process, and it'll probably be at least two or three years before we see the results of Saab's new ownership.
With any luck, I'll be getting a 2011 Saab 9-5 for a full test soon. Who knows -- if a few minutes with the car revealed some surprises, perhaps a week with the 9-5 will reveal even more. -- Aaron Gold
Photo © Saab