Lance Cole: The new Saab 9-5 – now that the dust has settled…

Lance Cole is a writer living in England and has penned several books on automobiles and aviation. Saab enthusiasts would know him best for the book Saab 99 and 900: The Complete Story, which is an excellent and essential volume and available for sale at the SU Bookshop.

You can read Lance’s work at Trollhattan Saab here. Or his later work for Saabs United, here.

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Lance Cole takes a deep breath and adds his thoughts

The thing that makes us Saabists is the way that we love our Saabs as Saabs – not just as cars.

We love them in a way that (as proven by some recent academic research) we have a relationship with our Saab badged lumps of inanimate alloy, plastic and rubber that transcends the normal human-to-car relationship.

This also means that sometimes, we lose our sense of independent rational critique, and ignore faults that our Saabness blinds us to.

I know one thing – that when I wrote here in 2009 that Saab was in a spin and about to die (which it was – a wind down team had been appointed) I received criticism heaped upon me. This missed the point entirely – it was not negativism, but a healthy dose of situational awareness. Gladly things worked out differently.

I stand by every over-the-top, gushing word I also previously wrote here about the
new 9-5’s styling: It is a triumph of car design and brand identity and of presence: It is emotive and has a sense of occasion.

But, having read the global road tests and talked to the people who have driven this car for more than an hour or two, I know that what I said to others, including Swade some months ago, was correct – that is, that the new 9-5 is brilliant car, but it has some issues that need addressing – notably the seats and the confused suspension situation.

I also said that the driving experiences of the various 9-5 models and their three different suspension types – allied to the multiplicity of alloy wheel and tyre size options – would create road test impressions that were varied and unlikely to be understood by those with experience of only one version of this car: I believe I was correct.

Above all this is a car that seems to be more than usually affected by the differing engine, tyre and wheel combinations which it is available with – notably the fact that some models have different suspension and engine combinations to others. It’s all about the centre of polar inertia and pressure, the centre of gravity, the suspension compression and rebound rates, the issue of hysteresis loss in the tyres, and the aspect ratio interaction and wheel/spring/damper/steering tuning.

I think these factors may be the cause of the trouble.

But it is not terminal. I think a few well-brained tweaks for (at the latest) the 2012 model year – which means next summer’s build cars – could significantly redress the balance.

The fact is though, that these cars have been presented to the media and to the
buyers alike, now. I criticise no-one for that – it was the place Saab was in. JAJ and his team have moved mountains to get this car saved and on sale, urged on by us. I can understand why some Saabists and SU readers react strongly any criticism after such Herculean efforts.

My message to such people is that it is certainly not constructive nor in Saab’s long term interests to deny the issues and refuse to accept that the new 9-5 has some faults – and which are not just a British media issue.

OK, so what about the reported problems?

As a former motoring writer, one-time designer, and having done new model development and test driving for several car makers, I and my ego feel able to risk the wrath of our readers with the following observations:

The seats:
It seems that tall, lean people (like me) have more of a problem than those of average dimensions. The seat squab is short, the lumbar support weak, and the shoulder pad is over stuffed – which makes you lean forward at the top of your spine – pushed on by the head restraints. Oh, and crucially, the recline lever is stepped by pre-set angles – not the infinitely variable position. This issue is masked in media road tests when the cars have electric seat adjustment!

The seats are OK but they are not true Saab seats: Seats maketh the Saab and these do not. But this is any easy fix for the 2012 model year. Change the seats (what about the sports Aero-type seats in the 9-3 or old 9-5 – to save money?). Please make it so, Victor!

The wind noise:
The cars I have experienced had no wind noise, yet the media report lots of it. I reckon this a production spec or tolerance issue. I have certainly just seen a Saab UK car with a bigger gap around the A-pillar black plastic trim and the roof, than on other new 9-5s. And the split moulded mirror covers might be the source as well: It needs sorting – now.

The fascia trim:
We know that due to a supplier issue, early cars have a lower-spec black plastic insert around the fascia. Of course it is shame that the higher grade trim was not available, but the ‘make-do’ black plastic trim is not as bad as some say – I have seen far worse on other premium cars – especially in the USA and Asia – but I guess the Audi standard now prevails….

The black interior:
Yes, it’s dark and dull and makes the rear cabin feel lower roofed and smaller than it really is. If I had been Saab’s PR man, I would have sent out cars with the lighter coloured seat and door card and lower cabin trim panels. But maybe the pale beige interiors were not available in enough numbers – and you go with what you have got in tough times…. And I am not Saab’s PR man and after this, may never be…

The steering:
Three different suspension types, half a dozen alloy wheel designs in differing sizes, engines of differing weights with varying c.g points. Of course, the steering rack rate is a touch confused. At least it is not electric! Sorting the spring and damper interaction will help here.

The British press and their seemingly harsh words + the suspension issue:
The cars were given to the UK media on UK roads, which may mean their findings don’t relate in your country, but that does not make the UK media wrong about their drive of the cars on UK roads. The UK’s roads are worse than most roads in many developed countries. The heavy nosed diesel cars without HiPerStrut suspension option behaved as they did and the media reported their findings. Simple.

Perhaps a bit more development of this model was needed on UK specific roads – and you will note that media in other countries have not framed this issue as large as it has been in the UK.

Oh and I note that WhatCar? were given a TID 2.0 litre car with 18 inch wheels, not the standard 17 inch alloys (upon which Autocar’s car was shod). At least the 19 inch wheels were absent…AutoExpress also noted some issues.

The solution: Saab can easily re-tune the spring and damper rates – compression and rebound need fine tuning – but without the expense of making the HiPerStrut suspension standard. Again it is fixable for the 2012 model year. Stiff legged springs and ill-tuned dampers may be the cause.

Oh and if you drive the 4-cylinder petrol engined car on sensible alloys, it is lithe, balanced, and nicer to steer. The TTID, is of course much more responsive in torque terms – but has been pitched further up market.

The 9-5 2.0litre TIDs get a ‘sports chassis’ that brings a 10mm lower ride height and a stiffer front anti-roll bar, dampers and springs. And that is without the effects of the optional 19 inch alloys. I reckon that the 10mm lower ride height is probably the least of the culprits – as it lowers the roll centre fulcrum, but the stiffer springs may be the real problem. To me, the stiff legged springs will not soak up bumps, road camber and radius issues as well as softer springs, and the problem is then compunded in also having stiffer dampers – as these will fight hard to constrain bounce pitch and wallow off the springs. This will create what is termed ‘patter’ as the two mechanisms fight each other. All this will be worsened (as will the steering) by 19 inch low profile wheels and tyres which can be made even worse if you fit hard compound long life / economy / low resistance rubber.

So, yes to the lowered ride height – if you must, but no to stiffening the springs and the dampers- much better to tune them not to argue with each other: Once this is done – and the tyre type and alloys wheel size sorted, I am willing to bet that the wallow, patter and rough tuned ride as framed at worst on British roads, will be eased.

The situation is not that disimilar to when Audi bungled its first ‘S line’ suspension option on everything. The ride quality went to pieces – Audi revised the settings and things were much sweeter.

Other Issues:
The lower-spec models have a green sat nav! Yuk. But it’s not the end of the world now is it…

Does water seep off the boot / trunk lid into the boot? I hear it did to one 9-5 user after a deluge.

The lack of side body protection – there are no ‘rubbing’ strips to protect those big doors from car park ‘dings’. Trust me, in no-time at all you will see a rash of pock marked 9-5 doors. Time for a nice Saab designed side strip then.

The rear cabin – it’s dark and low roofed, why not fit lighter ‘C’ post cabin trims, oh and new, thinner front seats would allow more ‘slouch’ room.

Summary

The 9-5’s issues are not terminal. They are fixable and Saab needs to act soon. It will not be cheap, but it will save the car – and de facto – save Saab.

The new 9-5 is a good car with an even greater one waiting to get out. But fellow Saabists, it is not perfect and arguing that it is, is not going to do Saab any good in the long run. Denying that there are some problems is a river you can drown in.

Saab need to implement a recovery strategy to tweak the car into the vehicle it has the potential to be.

My 9-5 would be a silver blue Aero V6 with tan leather – please… Oh, and have you seen one in red yet?

Smart – really smart.

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