First introduced in 1999, the 9-5 has become a fixture in the Saab lineup. After years of neglect, Saab made a number of improvements to the 9-5 in 2006; for 2007 Saab ups the ante with a longer warranty and an appealing 60th Anniversary option package. But that doesn't change the fact that the basic 9-5 design is still in its ninth year. How's it holding up? Better than I expected, that's for sure. Base price (9-5 sedan) $36,185, price as tested $41,770, EPA fuel economy 20 MPG city/30 MPG highway (manual), 19/29 (automatic).
First Glance: Rich history and bad plastic surgery
Sedan: front rear
Wagon: front rear
Saab is to cars what Samuel Adams is to beer. Since 1956, they have sold just shy of 1.1 million cars in the US -- fewer than parent company General Motors sells in three months. Founded 60 years ago by 16 aircraft engineers (only two of whom, according to company legend, had a driver's license), Saab was years ahead of the industry in applying technologies like turbochargers and front-wheel-drive, and to this day their cars have an air of individualism that adds greatly to their appeal.
Designed just before General Motors bought the Swedish automaker, the 9-5 is regarded by many as the last true Saab. With the ignition key slot (link goes to photo) between the seats - a Saab tradition - and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine in place of the now-ubiquitous V6, the 9-5 retains most of its "Saabishness". But membership has its privileges: As a GM division, Saab now boasts a 5 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty with free roadside assistance. And the Saab 9-5 is very attractively priced for a European car, with bargain factory-backed lease deals popping up all the time.
The 9-5 received a thorough going-over last year, with revised styling outside and in. When it comes to the exterior styling changes, I am not a fan. The chrome and dark plastic nose job makes the 9-5 look like it's wearing too much eye makeup, while the monochrome taillights look like someone broke out the lenses and covered them with red cellophane. Exterior styling wasn't the 9-5's problem, and they should have left well enough alone.
In the Driver's Seat: The simple life
It was the 9-5's interior that needed rescue, and here Saab really came through. Gone are the Clinton-era steering wheel with its oversize airbag enclosure and zillion-button controls (photo of the old dashboard here). Today you'll find a new dash with a svelte three-spoke steering wheel, three-dial climate controls and a touch-screen stereo/navigation system (overpriced at $2,945) that's almost too simple, with just a handful of buttons and a big black plastic surround that contrasts with the wood trim around it. Next to the nav system is a cool cupholder that folds into a vertical slot in the dash. Materials are top-notch, with the possible exception of the cloth covering the pillars and roof, which looks like it's trying to shed its winter coat.
What hasn't changed are the remarkably comfy front seats, self-adjusting seat belts and the Night Panel feature, which dims all the gauges except the speedometer for distraction-free night driving. If anything on the panel needs attention -- say the car starts to run low on fuel -- the gauge that needs attention automatically lights up.
During my drive I sampled both sedan and wagon versions of the 9-5. Both have comfortable back seats with seat heaters, a nice touch. The sedan has a nice-sized trunk, but the wagon's cargo bay is really impressive -- it's so big you could rent it out as office space. But what's with the folding cargo cover? It's bulky, awkward to use, and is covered in what looks disturbingly like animal fur. A window-shade-style retracting cargo cover would work much better.
On the Road: Thumbs up for power, handling and fuel economy
I drove manual and automatic versions of the 9-5, both with 5 speeds; the automatic has steering-wheel-mounted buttons for manual gear changes. Though I'll deny saying this until the day I die, I liked the automatic better. The 9-5's automatic does such a nice job of managing the turbo engine's power and promptly serving up lower gears when acceleration is needed that I think it's the way to go. That said, the gentle clutch and well-chosen gear ratios mean that those who do buy the stick-shift won't regret it when they get stuck in stop-and-go traffic.
My test car had the Aero package with sport-tuned suspension, and handling and roadholding were magnificent. The car responds so promptly and smoothly to steering inputs that it feels as if you can round curves just by wishing. That said, the ride is very firm -- thank goodness for those super-comfy seats -- and road noise levels are higher than in most Japanese and American luxury cars.
Journey's End: An oldie but a goodie
Still, the 9-5 is getting long in the tooth and Saab knows it. I don't have a problem with an older design if it looks good and works well, and if you can forgive the styling "improvements" the 9-5 does both. If you must have the latest-and-greatest, then wait; rumor has it that an all-new 9-5 is due for 2009.
The 9-5's biggest threat is its little sister, the Saab 9-3. Though slightly smaller, the 9-3 is nearly as roomy and offers many of the same choices (sedan or wagon, manual or automatic). The 4-cylinder 9-3 doesn't feel as quick as the 9-5, but it offers an optional turbo V6, not to mention crash tests scores that make Volvo owners green with envy. Saab purists may argue that the 9-5 is the last true Saab; the 9-3 shares its DNA with other General Motors cars, as the future 9-5 no doubt will. Having driven them back to back, I think the 9-3 is just as Saabish as the 9-5, plus it's quieter and has a smoother ride.
I went into this test drive regarding the 9-5 as the elder statesmen of European cars and came away with a new-found respect for it. Yes, it's been around a while, and its face bears the scars of questionable plastic surgery. But the 9-5 can still hustle with the best of 'em, and that's what really counts. -- Aaron Gold