Saab 9-5 SU review: part 1

This is going to be a tough one (and a long one). The weight of expectation is pretty high and even more importantly, there’s a heck of a lot of information to get out there.

So how do you go about reviewing what is probably the most important vehicle launch in Saab’s history?

First, you have to look at it in perspective.

Yesterday we did a factory tour and much like the Saab Factory Tour that I did back in 2007, I saw cars going down the line and people working at putting them together. I saw hundreds of cars in the carpark and people/vehicles moving around constantly from place to place. The perpetual buzz of a big manufacturing company in action.

Whilst the 9-5 is the main story here at Saab right now, there is a second story for the press to see this week – Saab is alive!

Seeing all that movement around the factory yesterday, it would be easy to forget that just a matter of a few months ago, this place was under severe threat of extinction. In fact, it was effectively idle for 10 weeks (seven with no production and three whilst it ramped up to recommence). 2010 is only just over five months old as I write this, and for nearly half that time, the Saab plant was effectively idle.

So to see two ranges of vehicles on the production line, and one of them a brand new model, is a significant story in itself and a testimony to the work that was done to save this company at the executive level, and the work done to actually get the wheels turning again on the factory floor.

Having set the scene, we’re still talking about a car here and this car has to sell in various markets of the world. To do that, it has to appeal to customers and it must provide them with an experience that will make them happy to be back in a new Saab again.

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So what of the new 9-5?

I’ll talk more specifically about the variations that I drove in subsequent entries, but here’s my overview of the model itself.

Exterior

It’s been almost nine months since I first saw this car in the flesh at the Frankfurt Motor Show last year and the impression it makes hasn’t diminished with time. It looks superb.

It’s a large car, no doubt, which lends it plenty of presence on the road. I spent some time watching the other cars in our press group as we drove various routes over the last few days and I love the look of this car from every angle I see.

The big grille makes a major statement as to who’s coming down the road and even the headlamps make an impression, letting you know that this is a technical car (subtle, but true).

Likewise, elegant touches like the two-tone treatment of the door handles and rear view mirrors show an attention to detail in the exterior design that create expectations for the rest of the car. They really do look superb.

The ice-block tail lamps complete the picture at the back and of course, there’s the signature lighting strip across the rear deck that’s complimented by the signature lighting below the headlamps at the front. It’s like many things about this car, subtle but effective.

It really is a Saab that looks great from all angles. It’s complete.

Interior Space

The one thing that hits you first about the interior is that it’s very, very spacious.

The driver’s seat can go so far back that I’ve got to extend my foot forward at the ankle in order to press the pedals. With the front seat set to a driving position suitable for a 6ft tall guy like me, there is ample room in the back seat, too. We’re talking inches of clearance between the passenger’s knees and the back of the front seat (and note: that’s another 6ft tall person sitting in the back that I’m talking about here. Kids could actually get lost back there).

I found the seats to be of good quality – definitely up to Saab standards – in the 2.0T and absolutely brilliant in the Aero. The Aero had fantastic quality black leather, with perforated facings for the ventilation fitted to the seats (yes!). Seat heating was very quick. I drove both cars for multiple hours over the last few days and both proved to be very comfortable long distance cruisers, in the best Saab tradition.

There’s also a combination leather/cloth seat that I tried out in one of the TTiD Vector display cars (TTiD comes MY2011) and that’s a good quality seat as well. It’s quite comfortable and the cloth has as premium a feel to it as you can have with cloth.

There’s been some talk about headroom in the rear. Let me cover that for a minute.

The roofline does slope down more than in previous Saabs. Headroom in the back of this car is therefore not as generous as headroom in the front, especially when the car is fitted with the optional sunroof. The sunroof eats up some headroom for two reasons: 1) It’s quite big, and 2) it has a sun shade that has to slide back into the roof cavity. In addition to that, there’s the interior lighting, which sits behind the (large) sunroof and has to sit below the cavity set aside for the sunshade.

With that said, here’s a photo of me sitting in the back of a Saab 9-5 equipped with sunroof and the associated lower roof.

And here’s a photo of one of the journalists I met on my first day here. He told me (whilst sitting down, mind you) that he was 6ft 5in tall and in this photos, he’s sitting in the back of a car without the sunroof fitted. As you can see, there’s still some clearance there.

It’s possible that taller rear-seat passengers could feel a little claustrophobic in the back seat of a sunroof-equipped Saab 9-5. However, it’s not something that I’d place great importance on. The amount of time spent with unusually tall adult passengers in a car would be negligible for us as a family and I imagine that would be the same for a large majority of others.

Visibility from the front seats is fantastic. I had no issues at all. The glasshouse is quite accommodating for the driver and the A-pillars are thick enough to save your life but shaped in such a way so as not to intrude.

Rearward visibility was OK for the little bit of parallel parking I did. The passenger side mirror lowers itself automatically when you shift into reverse so that you can see the kerb.

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Interior Materials

I mentioned the lack of a dashboard fascia a few days ago but I must mention it here again in the main review of the Saab 9-5.

Both the original press material and the Frankfurt show cars featured a dashboard fascia panel that really set a sophisticated tone for the new Saab 9-5. Personally, I was spellbound. I loved it and was very very excited to think that a production Saab dashboard would look this good.

The design of the dashboard still looks great, but a supplier problem has meant that that fascia panel is not available for the car’s release and I have to say that in my opinion, the car suffers for it as a result.

There has been talk in a number of reviews about the black plastic currently adorning the Saab 9-5’s dash and how it’s a little too much. This would have been overcome if that supplier problem hadn’t occurred, but Saab had to press on with the release of this car.

Having lived with the car for a few days, the dashboard design is superb and you get used to the black plastic – which is good quality stuff, by the way, if un-spectacular.

Saab reps that I spoke to said that the dashboard issue was something they’re looking to address as quickly as possible. I don’t know if that means we’ll see the design used in the show cars or if they’ll go for a piano black, or some other sort of finish. Internal documents that we’ve previously seen here on SU show intentions to release an iceblock panel for MY2011 (similar to the panel on the 9-4x Concept Car) and I don’t know if those plans will be interrupted by the supplier issue mentioned above.

That’s a lot of time spent talking about a dashboard fascia….. on to other things.

The rest of the interior materials are all of good quality. I’ve already mentioned the seat surfaces and the dashboard plastics. The faux-aluminium trim used inside the car is mostly good to look at, but not so good to the touch. It makes sense around the dashboard and in the doors, though I’m not a fan of the center console storage are (which covers the cupholders), but I’m probably getting into the nitpicking stage there. That area is the only faux-aluminium area that you’re likely to touch regularly, a surface for which I’d prefer a non-faux-something surface.

The switchgear is also of good quality. It’s soft-touch plastics all around, and all with a solid feel to them. Feedback from using the controls is generally very good.

The steering wheel in the Aero model (see photo above) is superb. It’s quite thick-rimmed, the perfect diameter and the flat bottom gives a sporty feel as well as practical advantages for someone with chunky legs (not mentioning any names).

It’s not often I pay much attention to gearshift levers, but the automatic shifter in the Saab 9-5 is worth a tick in the designer’s ledger, too.

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Equipment

One area where this new Saab 9-5 takes the company on a great leap forward is the equipment that’s available with the car. Some of it is standard and some of it is optional, but there are many things that were never available in a Saab before (in some markets) and for those items we have seen before, the functionality of many has been greatly improved.

For example, I drove a Saab 9-3x from Gothenburg to Trollhattan yesterday, straight after spending the day in a 2.0T XWD Saab 9-5. I was heavily reliant upon the navigation units of both to get me to my destination. The satnav in the new 9-5 is far clearer and more intuitive than that in the 9-3x, which wasn’t a bad unit at all.

That’s an improvement (one of many). Then you’ve got the stuff that’s brand new.

An advanced infotainment system featuring iPod control, other MP3 player control and a full-scale and very flexible DVD system with true 5.1 Surround Sound. The Head-Up Display. Lane Departure Warning System, Speed Zone Recognition, Parallel Parking assistance, keyless entry and exit, Adaptive Cruise Control, Bi-Xenon Smart Beam lighting….. the list goes on and on.

Saab’s new DriveSense real-time damping control is a great new feature. It offers Sport, Comfort and Intelligent modes and hopefully you got to see the way the Intelligent mode reacts to your driving inputs in the Saab 9-5 handling video.

It’s all very effective, very useful and exceptionally well integrated. In short, this is the best equipped car that Saab have ever offered.

Some models can also option up to Advanced Rollover Protection, which uses pre-tensioning on the outer rear seats and longer side curtain airbags to protect occupants if the car’s sensors detect a rollover taking place.

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On the road

That’s something you’re going to have to wait a little longer for. Sorry, but time’s at a premium and I have two different models to write up:

  • 2.8T V6 Aero with XWD
  • 2.0T I4 with XWD

I’ll get those underway on my return home.

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A word about markets

Something that I have to ask more about is the timing of various models for various markets. I have some heightened concerns that some good combinations of this car won’t be available in important markets around the world. I want to find out more about that before I say too much more.

Suffice to say, though, that if your dealer can order you a 2.0T with XWD, DriveSense
and the H-arm rear suspension, then you’re going to be one heck of a happy customer. eLSD is optional at a cost.

BioPower will be available again in the 2011 model year for appropriate markets. The engine is the same 2.0T engine as in other markets, but the fuel tanks and lines will be different.

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The early conclusion

This car isn’t perfect (yet) but it’s a fantastic launchpad for the new era of Saab. The size of the car is going to be right for most of their important markets (a little big for others) and the powertrain options available are going to appeal to many.

The level of comfort and equipment is exceptional if the car is optioned the right way. Standard equipment is very good, though I can’t comment on standard driving comfort as both cars that I drove were equipped with uprated suspension systems and XWD.

It would be wrong to look at this car through only one prism. I tend to look for a car that I can have real, genuine fun with. Hence I appreciate uprated suspensions and engines and don’t fuss too much about the electronics (though the electronics in this car made a significant impression on me, so much so that I may reassess that position).

That point of view isn’t the same as everyone else’s, though, which is why so many base model Saab 9-5s sold to happy buyers in the past. Many of these cars will be leased by executives wanting a comfortable business commuter. For them, flat-out performance will not be a big consideration. I caught up with a friend of mine last night, for example, who’s boss wants a base engine and chassis but all the electronic gizmos they can stuff into the car. Different strokes for different folks.

With the combination of suspension and engine packages that Saab have access to, there will be a 9-5 configuration that will be appropriate for everyone (at a price).

Saab needed one heck of a great car to launch themselves into a new found independence. And they got one.

Still to come:

  • Specific views on driving the 2.8T XWD and the 2.0T XWD.
  • Answers to the People’s Road Test questions.

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