Saab may have been "Born from Jets," but there's little about the brand's current offerings that you'd call state-of-the-art. The 9-3 has changed little since its ‘03 introduction. The 9-7X dates back to the ‘02 Chevy TrailBlazer. And the 9-5 has been stuck in holding pattern since ‘98. I recently tested a 9-5 to see if the quirky car lives up to its high tech brand proposition. My range-topping tester's trim designation: "Aero." That pounding sound you hear is GM's marketers driving home the high-altitude hype.
Luxury sedan buyers tend to place beauty at the top of their list of priorities. Fortunately, the 9-5's lines have worn well over the past nine years. But they have, well, worn. In 2006, Saab applied a masked-rider makeover to the front fascia. The result: a familiar face wearing Ray-Bans. In today's world of flame-surfaced shapes, it's not enough. The Saab's crisp, formal three-box shape lacks presence, and displays less than modern panel gaps.
Unfortunately, the 9-5's exterior is the apex of its aesthetics. Stepping into the cabin admits you to the Museum of Premium Interior Materials, circa 1997. The 9-5's instrument panel is utterly artless, a drab plastic escarpment with scatter-shot secondary controls. Buttons and knobs feel hollow to the touch, and a single cupholder collapses loosely out of the dash. Born from a U.S. Airways galley, perhaps.
With petrified polymers filling your peripheral vision, it's difficult to feel much love at the 9-5's helm. Is that a Suzuki Forenza's mirror-adjuster pod? It is! Assessed discretely, some of the cabin's bits delight. Chief among these are the 9-5's seats. The chairs are wide, soft and all-day supportive: a welcome departure from the Teutonic class norm. Ditto the large windows and low beltline, which afford an airy view out. Passenger space is first-class.
I'll avoid the usual hoopla over the 9-5's console-mounted ignition, and focus instead on what happens when you twist it: turbulence. On paper, the Aero's 260-horse, 2.3-liter turbo four seems like a timely alternative (20/30 mpg med stick) to the thirsty sixes and V8's common to this class. In person, the mini-mill idles with an economy car's dry, raspy drone, sending the wrong sort of tingles up your spine in the process. In a car that purports to rival 528is and E350s, what we have here is a failure to communicate.
Despite its hopelessly proletarian character, the 9-5's engine has its charms; specifically, its ability to inhale straightaways in strong, gratifying lunges. Unfortunately, with the standard five-speed manual transmission, such efforts are accompanied by strong, less-than-gratifying lunges towards the hedgerows. Torque steer, the tendency for the front wheels to squirm in a rubber-smoking hunt for traction, is obvious by its presence.
Thus, while I normally implore shoppers to consider the stick shift rather than defaulting to the automatic, I'm flip-flopping this time. The autobox quells the 9-5's tendency to torque steer and spares you the numb, ambiguous shift action typical of Saab sticks.
You might expect the 9-5's driven front wheels to spoil its handling, too. In fact, its at-the-limit behavior is remarkably poised. The Aero benefits from a lower chassis (10mm), firmer springs and more aggressive shock absorbers. Hustled around a closed course, the Aero exhibits surprisingly gluey grip and a wispy, tossable nature that eludes most German iron.
Driven below the limit, however, the Aero feels significantly less graceful. Its power-assisted rack and pinion steering is precise enough but over-light, and there's a gritty, insubstantial quality to this aged platform's ride. Arthritis? More like Parkinson's. Textured surfaces feed a steady stream of high-frequency shivers through the 9-5's structure and steering column. Combined with the tingly engine vibes, this car's manners are better compared with Mazda than Mercedes.
Which brings me to a pointed question for prospective 9-5 buyers: why buy a new Aero when you can spend Mazda6 money on virtually the same car, used? For $25k, a low-mileage 2005 Sport Wagon certainly represents a more interesting (and roomier, more agile) family taxi than the CamCord.
Moreover, as competition for the current 5-Series and Infiniti M, the Aero is worse than marginal; it's a curio, an irrelevance. No discerning luxury buyer would suffer the 9-5's downscale tactile sensations, and the Birkenstock-shod professors who used to resonate with Saab's brand values are now tooling around in Prii.
So what does the future hold for the 9-5? Um… nothing, really, unless you're squinting into the hazy distance that is model year 2009. That year's all-new 9-5, built on GM's Epsilon 2 platform, must be a true flagship product. It has to be evocative in design, unique in character and engaging on the road. Otherwise, Saab's promises will continue to ring more hollow than a Viggen's intake nacelle, and must eventually fall silent.