Saab 9-5 Aero Review

P.J. McCombs
by P.J. McCombs

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.

P.J. McCombs
P.J. McCombs

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  • Jjthegreat Jjthegreat on Dec 28, 2013

    I had a 2004 9-5 that just had a major rear end smash due to an idiot. The impact was so hard it popped out the rear window and pushed the rear bumper to behind to where the gas tank was. Had my wife and 8 year old son in the backseat and were completely fine, doors opened and closed just fine even though the damaged extended that far in. The other guys needed an ambulance. I am a firm believer in the saftey aspect of these cars and am rapidly sourcing another 9-5 to replace it, I just cant go back now. That being said, I know how to turn a wrench and have a garage lift in my garage to service these things. They do have their foibles, but there is no reason for these cars to not last 500k if properly taken care of. Ride is good, heaters are like a furnace in winter weather and can handle just about anything you can throw at it. Id stick with the manuals tho. I am not a fan of anything Aisin autobox. The 2006+ got a facelift to give it the "Dame Edna" look which I cant say I am a fan of. The cheaper GM style interior also doesnt hold up as good as the 1999-2005 styles do. However to each their own.

  • Autoboy Autoboy on Jul 03, 2014

    I was recently looking to buy a new car. My choices came down to a VW Passat, Honda Accord, and Mazda6. Then I started to do more serious research. I keep a car about 12 years. I quickly learned that I don’t want any car with a CVT and Direct-Injection engine. Bye-bye Accord and Mazda6. The Accord has both, and the Mazda6 has Direct-Injection. The Passat had Direct-Injection in the 1.8 turbo. If I went for the TDI, I had to deal with the very-expensive-to-fix DSG, which is also terrible in stop & go driving. The only Passat that has a normal slushbox and decent engine was the Passat 2.5 automatic. But even that used with a sunroof is $18,000-$22,000. I was with a friend who was looking at an Audi and I saw a used 2008 Saab 9-5 in the lot. It had been traded in on a new 2014 Audi A6. The car was immaculate. Frankly it did look like it had just been driven off the proverbial showroom floor. Silver with a black leather interior. Yes, it’s the criticized post-2006 refresh, which I happen to love. I drove the car and put down a deposit. I then called a well-regarded independent Saab mechanic to check the car out. He said that the only thing it might need is the DIC Cassette, which runs about $400 with labor. I negotiated hard, knowing that the demand for preowned Saab’s isn’t great. I bought the car for $11,100 with 60,000 miles…and the car had brand-new Pirelli P7’s. So far the car has been incredible. Having owned a 1983 Saab 900 turbo years earlier, I always appreciated Saab’s for what they are. They are not for everyone, but are my kind of car. The 9-5 is very safe…and I’m not talking about all of the normal safety tests. I’m talking about a bulletproof structure…what really saves lives. The car is also very comfortable. I love the seats. Both front seats are 8-way adjustable, something that you never see on the Japanese. Even the rear seats are heated. In-fact, the passenger seat in the Accord is a joke…good for about a half-hour of sitting. I can drive my 2008 Saab 9-5 for 8 hours straight and I’m not fatigued. I regularly travel from New York to Boston and average 33 mpg. And that’s with some pretty steep hills. Passing at 40-70 mph is Porsche 911-like. My Saab mechanic was going through the points of the car and showed me the S (Sport) button on the shifter. He said, “You’ll have a lot of fun with that.” Boy was he right! My gosh, when engaged, the car has spectacular pickup. It’s exhilarating when that turbo kicks in. What’s interesting is that the first generation 9-5 was produced from 1998-2009…yet looks fresh. I love the interior also. Frankly, the dash is clean, gauges are clear, seats incredibly comfortable, and the trunk is huge. My only gripes has been the lack of cupholders, premium fuel, and mediocre stop & go fuel mileage. Considering the quality of car I purchased for $11,100 and what an equivalent new or used car would have cost me, I can buy an incredible amount of gasoline. Plus parts are plentiful because the same car was basically produced for 12 years. I also looked at the 2010-2011 Saab 9-5. I loved the body and interior (another 4” of rear seat legroom), but lack of parts were a consideration. Additionally, there have been panoramic moonroof issues, as well as rear light and heated seat issues. So don’t criticize what you don’t know. All car buyer’s needs are different. For me, I wanted a reasonably compact mid-size car that got decent gas mileage, easy to park (Manhattan is torture), fast, agile, and comfortable. As a bonus the car accelerates like a bat out of hell. Plus you rarely see another one on the road. It’s a shame that Saab is no longer producing cars. I hope to have my 2008 9-5 for the next 10 years.

  • Ted Lulis Head gaskets and Toyota putting my kids through college👍️
  • Leonard Ostrander Plants don't unionize. People do, and yes, of course the workers should organize.
  • Jalop1991 Here's something EVangelists don't want to talk about, and why range is important: battery warranties, by industry standard, specify that nothing's wrong with the battery, and they won't replace it, as long as it is able to carry 70% or more of its specified capacity.So you need a lot of day 1 capacity so that down the road, when you're at 70% capacity with a "fully functioning, no problem" car, you're not stuck in used Nissan Leaf territory."Nothing to see here, move along."There's also the question of whether any factory battery warranty survives past the original new car owner. So it's prudent of any second owner to ask that question specifically, and absent any direct written warranty, assume that the second and subsequent owners own any battery problems that may arise.And given that the batteries are a HUGE expense, much more so than an ICE, such exposure is equally huge."Nothing to see here, move along."
  • Roger hopkins The car is in Poland??? It does look good tho...
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X The push for EV's is part of the increase in our premiums. Any damage near the battery pack and the car is a total loss.