By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
If you buy a new Saab 9-5, you will be one of 806 people in the U.S. (so far, as of this writing in late 2011) to own one. That means only about 16 other people in each state have the same car as you. It’s possible you’ll go months before you see someone else driving a 9-5.
Maybe a lot longer than that.
For you, the owner, that’s an upside. It’s cool to have something pretty much no one else has. You know, like a BMW 5-Series or an Audi A6. For Saab, though, it means not enough people are buying the new 9-5, the first all-new Saab post-GM (Saab was, until the Great Implosion of 2008, under the control of America’s Biggest of the Three).
This new 9-5 is an interesting animal. It has a number of “Saaby” features that set it apart from the pack — including an aviation-style “altimeter” speedometer (remember Born from jets?) and — in the standard model — a pleasantly peaky little turbo four that likes to be worked.
Saab is trying to market the car as a potential BMW 5, Audi A6 or even Benz E-Class alternative — which is not Addams Family crazy at all. The 9-5 costs less (a lot less than an E-Class) and is — honestly — a more entertaining car to drive. If you can look beyond a few items — including some cheesy-fake looking wood trim — this car might be, well, something different for a change.
Let’s do a walk-around:
WHAT IT IS
The 9-5 is Saab’s mid-sized, four-door sport sedan … with luxury-sport aspirations. The base Turbo4 comes with (surprise) a turbocharged four cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission working through the front wheels. It starts at $38,525. In the middle is the Turbo6 AWD at $48,030 with (you guessed it) a turbocharged six and all-wheel-drive. The top-of-the-line Aero — so named because it comes with an aerodynamics-enhancing exterior body kit — also gets the turbocharged six-cylinder engine and AWD plus numerous suspension, luxury and technology enhancements.
Base price for the Aero is $49,565.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011/2012
Saab is trying to pick itself up off the mat after a brutal beat down by circumstances mostly beyond its control — the Great Implosion of 2008 and the anomie inflicted upon the small Swedish automaker by an indifferent GM for years prior to that. The 9-5 Aero was introduced as an all-new model in 2010, but only a few actually reached the U.S. market. In 2011, more Aeros made it here and mid-year, Saab added the AWD-equipped Turbo6 as well as the spunky Turbo4 six-speed versions to the lineup. So, with 2012 almost here, Saab finally has a full roster of new 9-5s to offer buyers.
In a few months, a SportCombi wagon version of the 9-5 will be added to the mix — and the rumor is that Saab will also make a few tweaks to all 9-5 interiors, using new suppliers (instead of GM’s suppliers) to further distance itself and its cars from its former Life Partner.
It’s so unusual.
Turbo four/six-speed combo is a driver’s delight. When on boost it pulls hard, like a just-hooked marlin.
Aviation-style instruments are neat.
Great seats; outstanding seat heaters.
Great deal compared with a BMW 5 (base price $45,050) or Benz E-Class (base price $50,490).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Name-brand Audi A6 is priced too close for comfort ($41,700 to start).
Turbo four in base model needs to be worked to extract its performance potential (enthusiasts won’t mind but mass-market types may).
Six-cylinder/AWD models not offered with six-speed manual.
Higher-trim versions aren’t as price competitive as they probably need to be.
It’s so unusual.
UNDER THE HOOD
Standard equipment in the $38k Turbo4 is a punchy little 2.0 liter turbocharged “BioPower” four cylinder rated at 220 hp and 258 lbs.-ft. of torque. It’s called BioPower because it is capable of running on regular gas or E85 (ethanol). You can pick either the standard six-speed manual or an optional six-speed automatic. This version of the 9-5 is front-wheel-drive-only.
It’ll do 0-60 in about 7.3 -7.5 seconds, depending on the transmission — and driver. Launching the turbo four/manual combo properly requires some practice — and skill.
Alert car people will recognize the 2.0 liter engine as being sourced from GM — and shared with the current Buick Regal — where it’s called “FlexFuel.”
Regardless of its pedigree, the 2.0 liter is a strong performer when called upon that also delivers not-bad gas mileage for a mid-sized performance sedan: 20 city and 33 highway. It’s also 10 hp stronger than the 2012 Audi A6’s base engine and competitive with the $7k more expensive-to-start BMW 528i’s 240 hp six.
Also, while premium fuel is recommended with this engine (to get maximum power/performance) it is not required. In the A4 2.0T and BMW 528i, premium fuel is mandatory.
The Turbo6 and Aero 9-5s (and probably the soon-to-be-here SportCombi) come with a 300 hp turbocharged 2.8 liter V-6 teamed up with a six-speed automatic and full-time all-wheel-drive. So equipped, the 0-60 time drops to about 6.3 seconds, which is on par with the 310 hp Audi A6 3.0T Quattro and 300 hp BMW 535i xDrive.
Gas mileage slips to 17 city, 28 highway — just slightly below the BMW 535i xDrive (19 city, 29 highway) and Audi A6 3.0T Quattro (19 city, 28 highway).
But here again, Saab says you don’t have to burn only premium unleaded; regular’s ok. In the Audi and the BMW, you’re told that nothing but premium is acceptable. That 30-40 cents per gallon difference can add up fast and definitely negates the slight overall mileage advantage the BMW and Audi have over the 9-5.
ON THE ROAD
So many new cars are lifeless, personality-free appliances that it’s a real treat for someone like me (and maybe someone like you, too) to find one with a pulse. The Turbo4 six speed I drove was notable for the following things you don’t often encounter in mass-produced new cars:
The engine literally forces you to be involved in the process of driving. You have to keep it on boost, in the right gear for each situation — not just for best response but to keep things moving along. Leave it in fifth (note, not merely sixth) at lower road speeds or ascending a hill and the engine will start to bog. You must decide — fourth? Or maybe third? Engage. Feel the surge, very jet like by the way. There’s a whistle as the turbo draws breath, then you’re pushed back in that most excellent (and endlessly adjustable) seat. The green backlit “altimeter” in front of you registers the forward progress — and it’s not hard to imagine the 9-5 rotating, wheels up and off into the great blue yonder.
On torque steer: It has been dialed out. That’s the one thing missing from the new 9-5 that used to be there — or was the last time I test drove a Saab. A plus — or a minus — depending on how much of a hooligan you are.
In the ride and handling department this Saab is top drawer — absolutely more fun to drive than an Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series, both of which are suffocated by over-technology. In the 9-5 you are much more involved — a driver, rather than a passive passenger. For the most part, what occurs is entirely up to you. The clutch action is your job, not a computer’s. The traction/stability control system can be turned off (really off, not “limited” off) at the press of a console mounted button. Fry the tires, if you want to. True, it is probably easier to wreck the 9-5, if you’re inept or reckless. But if you’re neither, the relentless idiot-proofing that’s encrusting so many new cars with too many early interventions, electronic nannies, bells, whistles and buzzers is happily minimal in this Saab.
The Turbo6 and Aero versions with the 300 hp engine are quicker but not as wild child because for one they’re automatic-only and for two come standard with a full-time AWD system. But from a marketing point of view, they are power/performance (and poor weather) competitive with the equivalent competition, such as the A6 3.0 Quattro and the 5-Series xDrive35i.
One thing Saab will likely address later in 2012 or by 2013 is the six-speed automatic that comes standard in these two. It needs one or two more gears to make par with the boxes used in the BMW and Audi — the latter of which now has eight (count ’em) forward speeds.
AT THE CURB
Some people thinks Saabs are great-looking while others think they just look, well, weird. There’s no point in trying to make conversions. You either get it or you don’t. Traditional Saab themes include the frog-faced, flat-wide front end, forward-opening clamshell side-profile and tapered ducktail rear clip. No mistaking the 9-5 for anything else. I parked my jet black test car in a large shopping center parking lot and when I came back to collect it I could pick it out visually from 100 yards out.
Neat. Sweet. Petite!
Owning a Saab is not unlike owning a Ferrari or other rare exotic. You will receive looks and attention — and everyone will know, “hey there goes Fred.” Do not use the Saab to make a furtive midnight rendezvous with your money-launderer or girlfriend-on-the-side.
Rent a Camry.
Inside, the unusualness continues. There’s the already mentioned LCD “altimeter” in the center of the main gauge cluster. To the right of this is a conventional analog speedometer, plus an available Heads-Up Display (HUD) in the driver’s line of sight. So, you can monitor your speed at least three ways — at the same time! The HUD can also be toggled through different menus to display engine RPM, compass heading and outside temperature, too. The iconic “night panel” switch — a feature only Saabs have ever had — lets you kill not just the dashboard lights but also their actual life. They just turn off, including the analog needle gauges for turbo boost, temp and fuel. Only the analog speedo on the right stays on. What is the point? Honestly, I don’t know. I guess it reduces night-time glare or lets you run stealth mode. It’s a conversation starter, either way.
The console-mounted ignition switch is also still there, but it’s (unfortunately) no longer a key you turn but a button you push — with a transmitter fob you keep on your person. I’ve written a couple of rants about the push-button ignition craze. Count me among the grumpy old men who are not fans of this item, which may be cute (and even helpful in some ways) when the car is new but could leave you stuck down the road sometime and beyond the help of a locksmith or even AAA. I wish, wish, wish you could delete option this thing and get a physical key instead.
The seats, as I’ve already mentioned, are superior. You can adjust them to conform to almost any bodytype and more, to crutch almost any anatomical weak area, such as a sore lower back (just push the round button to puff up the lower lumbar support). Also the seat heaters, which come on fast and get actually hot — not just vaguely warm.
The big glass all around you provides excellent visibility and the tallish roof profile plenty of head room. Also trunk room — of which the 9-5 has much more than either the A6 or the the BMW 5: 18.2 cubic feet vs. 14.1 and 14.0 respectively.
There’s also an adjustable cargo rail system built into the floor — and on either side of the trunk hinge points, a pair of secret stash places.
Only one thing mars this otherwise appealing cockpit and cabin: Horribly cheap-looking plasticky-shiny faux wood trim panels. This stuff has the look of early ’90s Chrysler Sebring and is unworthy of a $40,000 car. It is a small thing in the grand scheme of things — one that has nothing to do with the car’s function or basic soundness. But it’s also the equivalent of encountering shag carpet in the foyer of a new house you’re touring for the first time. I hope Saab fixes this soon.
Saabs are not for everyone — literally. With so few being built (and sold) owning one will set you apart from the crowd. But it may also risk who-knows-what down the road. Saab will hopefully survive and even thrive but it’s not inconceivable that it won’t do either. If Saab retreats from the North American market, Saab owners will find themselves owning orphaned cars; dealers might be few and far between and service parts hard to find. This is a worst-case scenario, of course. But it has to be taken into account.
Also, if I were in charge at Saab, I’d do some ferocious price-cutting to lure in buyers straddling the fence and leaning toward Audis and BMWs. It might be necessary to operate at a loss for awhile, in order to get buyers into Saabs. But it is worth doing because the car truly is good — and once you get a buyer in one, he is likely to buy one.
The key is getting them to get in one — and undercutting Audi and BMW by say $10k or so would probably do that.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’m a bit of a kook so I found myself gazing with admiration at the somewhat Addams Family-ish 9-5.
If you’re one, too, I think you’ll do the same.