Saab 9-5 vs BMW 5-series

Sometimes the motoring journos don’t ‘get’ Saab. So it’s up to we Saab owners to sing the virtues of these little Swedish cars.
A three year old Saab 9-5 against a new 5-series? Any motoring journo worth his seat on the gravy train would scoff. Surely, given a choice, anyone would prefer the 5, yes?
Introducing Chris, an Aussie and for the last 12 months, the owner of a 2004 Saab 9-5 Aero.
Saab 9-5 Aero A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go for a drive in a friend’s 2006 BMW 525i. We had all been out for lunch and he didn’t feel like driving home so I was given the keys. My usual ride is a 2004 9-5 Aero with automatic transmission and I was keen to compare it to the “ultimate driving machine.”
Technically this is not a true comparison as the 5 series BMW is not a direct competitor of the 9-5. It is also a very new design and a newer car than mine. Although I didn’t ask I believe the BMW I drove featured professional navigation, electric seats, full blue tooth kit and probably a few more gadgets that I couldn’t see (or find a use for). My 9-5 Aero is stock standard and the only option I would want (but unfortunately don’t have) is the ventilated seats.
The exterior
This comes down to personal preference. I prefer the previous 5 series exterior design and am not attracted to the current one. Of all the new BMWs i think the 3 series Coupe is the only good looking one.
Saab 9-5 AeroVerdict- On this count you know I will always prefer the 9-5 because that is the car that I chose for myself. I think the 2004 model year was a great combination of body kit and alloys. The new 9-5 is growing on me but I still prefer the older version.
The Driver’s Seat
The BMW’s seats, with full electric adjustment and memory, lacked lateral and thigh support and felt too short. A previous ride in the front passenger seat had indicated that the seats were uncomfortable and this drive confimed it. Whilst I didn’t slide around, the seats just didn’t seem right. The 9-5 Aero’s sport seats on the other hand provide lots of support, are very comfortable on long drives and look brilliant in their two tone grey/black leather.

Although I didn’t test it I understand the memory setting for the seats includes the mirrors and, possibly the steering wheel which also has electronic adjustment. This is better than mine which only has memory for the seat itself and manual steering wheel adjustment. I think the BMW also offers more adjustement for the seats than SAAB. Of course all the adjustement in the world is not going to make those seats comfortable but at least they tried to make it up for it with extra electronics.
Verdict – 9-5 Aero’s sports seats hands down winner.
The electronic gadgets in any BMW will always be about 5 years ahead of SAAB. The question is, are these gadgets necessary? The head up display which included your speed and navigation directions was very useful. I adapted to it after about 10 minutes and think this is a really good feature. You keep your eyes on the road and don’t need to look separately at navigation and speedo. This is good technology. The parking sensors are much better and use a TV Display to show the distance between your car and obstacles with colour coding and graphics. This is much clearer than the SAAB system, which features beeps only, and also has front sensors.
Apart from that I didn’t touch anything else but I did note standard AUX input for i-pod and seamless blue tooth integration. (not that bluetooth is a very important option anyway) Like new SAABs the air conditioning is controlled by dials and it seemed to work quite well. However, I think the digital display on mine and other pre 2006 SAABs is easier to read than dials.
Verdict – BMW wins for high tech gadgets, some of which are useful.
The BMW features good leather and excellent quality materials on all surfaces. The design is not to my taste but there is no doubting the quality and the care that went in to putting it together. Overall the cabin, which was in a sand coloured leather, felt very light and spacious making my 9-5 feel small in comparison. Although in terms of actual measurements I am sure they are very similar.
The front seats are carved out at the back making them much smaller and thereby increasing rear leg room. Does the BMW have anything like SAAB’s active head restraints that protect the driver and passenger in the event of a rear collision? Probably not, but let’s not get too technical.
The BMW also has much more storage space with useful storage on the centre console and in the door bins on all doors. The 9-5 has very limited interior storage with tiny door bins and only a small storage space under the centre front armrest. It does have map pockets on each front seat but other SAABs that I have been in, such as 9000s and 900s, had much more storage space.
The boot (or trunk for non-Australians) in the BMW had some handy storage boxes in there together with first aid kit. Mine on the other hand can’t fit the SAAB storage box because I have a CD stacker. This is a shame as I would really like a storage box in there given the lack of storage in the cabin.
Verdict – Personally I prefer the 9-5’s interior design but that is more of a subjective judgement. I have to admit the BMW is a few grades above my 9-5 in terms of quality of materials and construction.
The Drive
I had the opportunity to drive on some highways and back roads that were fairly light on for traffic and had good quality tarmac. After checking that I was covered by his insurance I started the car up. This was an elaborate process – I had to insert the key into the ignition turn it as if I was starting the car and then press the start button on the dash. I had two goes at this and both times found it confusing. This has all the hallmarks of technology for the sake of it.
I have heard this straight 6, good for 160kw, is one of BMW’s best engines and apparently a great improvement over the previous straight 6 used in the entry level 5 series. This engine delivers smooth and linear acceleration and drives very quietly. I couldn’t make it accelerate quickly enough and it took a lot of prodding to get a spirited reaction. Apparently the transmission needs to learn your driving style and towards the end it started to “learn” how to accelerate. I would say it still needed a few more years of education though. The BMW, at any speed, feels taut and it is never going to get out of control but it will never be exciting.
My 9-5 Aero, on the other hand, responds much better to pressure on the accelerator. There may be a slight pause as the turbo fires up or the transmission finds the right gear but after that it is lightening fast. Of course it doesn’t accelerate with the same precision as the BMW, and there is sometimes a hint of torque steer, but I enjoy the rush all the same.
The transmission, a 6 speed auto, did its job competently and unobtrusively. It was always in the right gear and the changes were seamless and in some fairly slow hill climbing it was very supportive. My 9-5’s auto on the other hand is vastly inferior. At slower speeds and on hills it can shift between gears awkardly and at inconvenient times. I can now understand why some people prefer manuals.
The BMW’s steering was very light and precise. I felt in complete control when driving the car and really noticed how well it took corners. It has a smaller steering wheel with a thick leather rim. The 9-5’s steering is certainly not of this standard and doesn’t feel as precise as the BMWs. You do get more feedback in the 9-5’s steering but I would still say the BMW’s is better.
Verdict – objectively the BMW drives better in that it is more controlled but I prefer the 9-5 for the excitement and driver involvement.
The 5 series is clearly a ‘better’ car for its build quality, technology and refinement. It is also a very expensive vehicle and I would say that it would have been a good $AUD 20 000 more than my 9-5 brand new once all the options were added in. I don’t think the BMW is the ultimate car and even though my 9-5 has some shortcomings I would still choose it as an overall package. The BMW is clinically precise and built to the highest standard. I just prefer the 9-5 for its character, comfort and clever innovations like night panel and the special speedometer with enlarged 0-140km zone. As a driver I think a comfortable and supportive seat is essential and the BMW, as a $100K+ car, is very disappointing in this regard.