First impressions last. Or in this case, first. Anyway, the slightly-new-for-‘06 (but mostly unchanged since ‘99) Saab 9-5 SportCombi misses the mark at first glance. GM's Swedish division crafted a wagon that looks like a slightly larger Saab 9-3, only uglier. The SportCombi's low greenhouse, swoopy rear windows and huge up-curving C-pillars combine all the worst elements of a ‘00 Saturn SW wagon and a Cadillac SRX. The design says "We wanted to make a wagon, but we only had enough cash for a car-camper shell." Volvo continues to master Skandinavisk chic. Saab goes for cheap chic– and fails.
Sigh. The General bought Saab in the early '90's to create "premium vehicles;" the 9-5 moniker is a throw-down to BMW's 5-Series. Step inside the SportCombi and you'll understand why the Germans and Japanese only have each other to worry about. From tacky vinyl sun visors, to an economy class "jet inspired" reading lamp, to plastics that are more B210 than BMW, all the SportCombi's beans have been carefully counted.
That said, the 9-5 SportCombi's freshened dash is suitably swish. The car's cockpit finally ditches the million button layout for a tasteful array of modern gauges (including the signature turbo gauge) and decent HVAC controls. Saab ergonomicists spent design time on what drivers touch most: the steering wheel. Regular and perforated cow combine to form a tasteful tiller– albeit swizzle stick thin with freakishly shaped grips reminiscent of Ross Perot's head.
Saab's blessed the base SportCombi with an attractive, fine sounding, easy-to-use audio system. Customers
crazy enough willing to lay down $2,945 for the satnav are not so lucky. The system may look at home in a Chevy Trailblazer, but the vast sheet of plastic surrounding the small screen and the ugly rectangular holes are, well, horrible. It's not as ghastly as the wimpy foldout front cup holder, but close.
Below the dash, the bargain-basement mentality returns. The gigantic buttons to the driver's left don't match those on the center console for size, shape or feedback. There's only one set of window switches and one door lock button, positioned in the middle of the car. The rubber coin holder and the ignition key housing in the center console are catchpenny haptic horrors, while the SportCombi's door panels are a riot of low-budget plastics and mismatched coloring.
While your money buys you a whole load of load-lugging, the unrefined feel and design of the SportCombi's major switchgear and minor do-dads are simply not appropriate for a car stickering between $36k and $45k (or a lot less with the inevitable discounts). Oh, and last year, JD Power's mob rated Saab's reliability second to last. So not only does the SportCombi feel cheap, it breaks like it too.
Fire up the engine and the SportCombi reveals its heart and soul. Unfortunately, it's the heart and soul of a squirrel with pneumonia. The sounds under the hood are neither luxurious nor sporty, and the vibrations from the 2.3-liter inline four are obnoxious enough to make Saturn shoppers think twice.
The SportCombi's blown mill stumps up a seemingly adequate 260hp. Provided you don't mind listening to an automotive impression of a cement mixer churning a bag of bolts or wrestling with torque steer for 7.4 seconds, she'll sprint from zero to 60mph handily.
Considering the turbo's spool-'n'-go power delivery, the automatic transmission is by far the better choice; it's a responsive unit that makes the most of the SportCombi's ample torque. But the slushbox lacks the spongy manual's Road Warrior-style overboost feature– 20 seconds of 272 ft.-lbs. of twist, mate– and both five-speed transmissions are a cog shy of the SportCombi's erstwhile competition.
Our tester sported Saab's Aero Package, which includes wonderfully supportive seats with [optional] ventilation, a "lowered sport chassis," and metallic effect trim. Buyers also receive an invitation to Saab Aero Academy where drivers learn how to tame the torque steer monster and modulate the SportCombi's mushy-feeling stoppers.
If you forget sprints and emergency stops (incomplete with reluctant ABS) and point the Saab wagon down a straight, smooth road, no sweat. Throw the SportCombi into a corner and its stiff suspension and thick anti-roll bars work hard to quell the car's natural tendency to plow nose-first towards the scenery. It's doable, but it's a long, long way from nimble. I only hope the Academy offers a crash course in steady throttle application and hanging-on.
It's almost impossible to imagine anyone opting for a Saab 9-5 SportCombi over any alternative. The BMW 535ix Sports Wagon may cost $20k more, but a used one slaughters the Saab in just about any metric you can name. As does the Volvo V70, for roughly the same money as the Swede. Let's face it: unless Saab gets some heavy development dollars STAT, its first impression will be its last.