Back in 1983, my father, entranced by its idiosyncracy, nearly bought a Saab 900 Turbo. He even would have bought one, but with Detroit showing new signs of life I was on a “buy American” kick (the decade ultimately cured me). So he ended up buying the second-place finisher in Car & Driver’s infamous Baja comparison test instead. Down the road very different qualities drew him to Lexus. Apparently, Saab wants him back. How else to explain the new 9-5?
The new 9-5 looks about as much like a Saab as a car based on GM’s second-gen Epsilon platform possibly could. The rounded nose, curved windshield, and sweeping C-pillar provide clear visual links to that 1983 900 Turbo. No one will mistake it for the related Buick LaCrosse. And yet, not so Saabish: a high beltline, and the evident size of the car. Compared to the antiquated sedan it replaced, the new 9-5 is over half a foot longer (197.2”) and three inches wider (73.5”). It’s a big car, and appears even larger and more massive than it is. Handsome, perhaps, but neither striking enough nor distinctive enough to draw in new buyers the way the 900 did back in the mid-80s.
To Saab’s credit, they’ve clearly worked hard to retain the marque’s defining characteristics within the new 9-5’s interior. Sweeping fighter jet-inspired IP, egg crate air vents, start button between the seats (now keyless)—all present and accounted for. Aside from the aforementioned high belt, brand loyalists should feel at home. But how many are seeking a car this large, and are willing to spend so much for it? How many Saabistas are there at this point, period? Nearly everyone else shopping for a $50,000+ sedan is likely to be turned off by the predominance of black plastic. The leather seats look the part, and the design of the door-mounted upholstered armrests is interesting, but these cannot compensate for the stark ambiance and an IP that would look cheap in a car half the 9-5’s price.
Saabs have been blessed with excellent seats since at least 1983, and the new car’s are no exception. The front buckets are firm, yet comfortable, and provide much better lateral support than the typical GM parts. The back seat is nearly as comfortable and very roomy—as it should be given the car’s exterior dimensions. This is the size the S80, with nearly four fewer inches of rear legroom, should have been. But should the new 9-5 have been the size of the S80?
At launch, the 9-5’s only available powertrain is a 300-horspower turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 driving all four wheels through a six-speed automatic. Even burdened by 4,400 pounds (plus passengers), this engine accelerates the car with no apparent strain. In fact, no apparent anything. Even at the 5,500 rpm power peak the boosted six remains nearly silent. After the drive I popped the hood, expecting to find the engine fully encapsulated. Nothing looked out of the ordinary, but something most certainly is. Partly because of the engine’s almost eerie silence, the car never feels quick.
Given the new 9-5’s size, mass, and genetics, agile handling is out of the question. The active rear differential is no more evident than in other GM applications. On the pavement throttle-induced oversteer will be sought in vain. But understeer is almost equally elusive. For a nose-heavy car, the 9-5 possesses commendable balance and poise, with a tautness you won’t find even in the latest, German-engineered Buicks. The well-weighted steering is firm, especially in “sport mode,” which for once makes an obvious difference. The 9-5 can be hustled along a curvy road, if need be, and will feel better than the current Mercedes E-Class in the process. For better or worse, it just won’t feel like it’s hustling.
As with the engine, the wind and the road have been nearly silenced. Even the clomping of the tires over road imperfections seems faint and distant. The ride is smooth regardless of which mode is selected—if “sport” had an effect on the auto-adjusting shocks, I didn’t notice it.
I still can’t get my head around a Saab that’s so smooth, so quiet, and so large. There were clearly top priorities. But should they have been? Saab’s Swedish cost structure forces it to charge luxury car prices, so it must provide suitable levels of luxury and refinement. It’s also usually easier to get a higher price for a larger car. But unless a Saab retains the idiosyncracies for which the marque is known, why would anyone buy it? With the styling, and especially the interior styling, they opted to make the new 9-5 distinctively a Saab. But, drive the car, and this styling seems a veneer over what’s essentially a very well behaved Swedish Lexus. Though not soft like a Lexus, the new 9-5 manages to be surprisingly silent and smooth, and so insufficiently engaging. The evident charisma of that 1983 900 Turbo has been sacrificed. It’s not just Saab, of course. A Mercedes E-Class is completely soulless, and even BMW has been heading in this direction.
But was this “Swedish Lexus” a viable solution for Saab? Perhaps now would have been the right time to once again buck industry trends and truly do their own thing? We’ll probably never know. With the company striking out on its own and hanging by a thread, even most people who might have bought a new 9-5 now won’t.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data