Saab 9-5 SportCombi Review

Alex L. Dykes
by Alex L. Dykes

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.

Alex L. Dykes
Alex L. Dykes

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  • Autoboy Autoboy on May 11, 2014

    I understand that this is an old thread, but having just come across it, wanted to comment. Sta8of9's post was masterful. I also own Saab 9-5, a 2008 to be exact. It was bought used with 61,000 miles for $11,000. One-owner car with all service records. I had been shopping for a new/used car for quite some time. My original target was a 2013 VW Passat TDI. At $32,000 I felt it was a little high...and then I started to research the car. The DSG transmission is very cool...until you have to spend $800 every 40,000 miles for a DSG tune-up. The Direct-Injected engine has great economy, until you have a carbon build-up problem with the valves. The fuel economy is incredible, until you have to spend at least 70-cents a gallon more on diesel. I deduced that the best Passat to buy is the basic 2.5 litre Inline 5 with the Aisan 6-speed slushbox. Pretty bulletproof. Used they go for around $18,000 with a roof...and as little as $14,000 for the base. Not bad. Then I looked at the 2014 Mazda6. Beautiful design to be sure. But again, a Direct-Injected engine. No thanks. At least they put a nice slushbox in the car. At the time, to get the car with a moonroof and heated seats, you had to spring for the Grand Touring at over $30,000. Now you can get the iTouring with moonroof and Bose for around $25,000. I also looked at the 2013 Honda Accord. A fine looking car with excellent interior space. But the 4-cylinder comes with a Direct-Injected engine and a CVT. No way! I don't even want to know how much that CVT will cost to repair. So then I started looking at other used cars. The Volvo V70 was nice...but had nightmare reliability ratings. I didn't want a Camry, because I live in NYC and don't want the same car that's driven by thousands of cabbies and car services. Plus it's boring as hell. And then I thought about a used Saab. I had once owned a 1985 Saab 900 turbo and loved the car. I racked-up 175,000 miles on it, and unbelievably it is still on the road clocking 325,000 miles(sold it to a friend). A little research led me to Roland, who owns Swedish Service in Brooklyn. He only works on Saabs...nothing else, never! He guided me to which 9-5 years that I should concentrate on...2008-2009, 2003 (he said that was the absolute sweet spot for the 9-5). I finally found the right 9-5 at an Audi dealer in Connecticut. It was pristine. Snow Metallic Silver with Black Leather. A pretty basic car. No Aero, folding mirrors, ventilated seats, or backup sensors. Still though, lots of standard equipment, including moonroof, leather, 9-speaker Harmon-Kardon audio, heated front and rear seats, and fog lights. I just love this car. Extremely comfortable seats, excellent audio, a huge trunk with a very spacious 60-40 fold-down backseat, rain-sensing wipers...and it's fast! It also gets incredible highway gas mileage. On a recent trip to the Hamptons, I averaged 32.7 mpg, with a little city driving mixed in. And hit the pedal and the car leaps like a bat out of hell. The 9-5's Sport Mode is also fantastic. Really transforms the car on twisties, and even around town. Reminds me of my 1991 Toyota Cressida when I disengaged the OD button. I am absolutely delighted with the driving aspects of the 9-5. I'm pretty soft on my cars, but when asked, it delivers. I have friends with out of warranty BMW's, Audi's, Volvo's, and Cadillac's. Their horror stories are excruciating and painful to listen to. Immediately after purchasing my 9-5, I had the DIC (Direct Ignition Cassette) preemptively replaced, as well as the plugs. I also replaced the battery since I didn't know its history. But so far I have had many miles of problem-free motoring. My only complaint is mediocre city gas mileage...and having to use premium gas. But I also think that I got a reliable $30,000 car for $11,000. That's a lot of money to make up in gasoline and mileage. So before commenting on these Saab's, please don't go by automotive reviews, where the reviewer spends a tiny amount of time with the car. Forums like Saab Central are invaluable, and a trusted resource. With luck I will own this car way beyond the 200,000 mile mark.

  • Charles Charles on Dec 10, 2023

    When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.

  • 3-On-The-Tree I don’t think Toyotas going down.
  • ToolGuy Random thoughts (bulleted list because it should work on this page):• Carlos Tavares is a very smart individual.• I get the sense that the western hemisphere portion of Stellantis was even more messed up than he originally believed (I have no data), which is why the plan (old plan, original plan) has taken longer than expected (longer than I expected).• All the OEMs who have taken a serious look at what is happening with EVs in China have had to take a step back and reassess (oversimplification: they were thinking mostly business-as-usual with some tweaks here and there, and now realize they have bigger issues, much bigger, really big).• You (dear TTAC reader) aren't ready to hear this yet, but the EV thing is a tsunami (the thing has already done the thing, just hasn't reached you yet). I hesitate to even tell you, but it is the truth.
  • ToolGuy ¶ I have kicked around doing an engine rebuild at some point (I never have on an automobile); right now my interest level in that is pretty low, say 2/5.¶ It could be interesting to do an engine swap at some point (also haven't done that), call that 2/5 as well.¶ Building a kit car would be interesting but a big commitment, let's say 1/5 realistically.¶ Frame-up restoration, very little interest, 1/5.¶ I have repainted a vehicle (down to bare metal) and that was interesting/engaging (didn't have the right facilities, but made it work, sort of lol).¶ Taking a vehicle which I like where the ICE has given out and converting it to EV sounds engaging and appealing. Would not do it anytime soon, maybe 3 to 5 years out. Current interest level 4/5.¶ Building my own car (from scratch) would have some significant hurdles. Unless I started my own car company, which might involve other hurdles. 😉
  • Rover Sig "Value" is what people perceive as its worth. What is the worth or value of an EV somebody creates out of a used car? People value different things, but for a vehicle, people generally ascribe worth in terms of reliability, maintainability, safety, appearance and style, utility (payload, range, etc.), convenience, operating cost, projected life, support network, etc. "Value for money" means how much worth would people think it had compared to competing vehicles on the market, in other words, would it be a good deal to buy one, compared to other vehicles one could get? Consider what price you would have to ask for it, including the parts and labor you put into it, because that would affect the “for the money” part of the “value for money” calculation. An indicator of whether people think an EV-built-in-a-used-car would provide "value for money" is the current level of demand for used cars turned into EVs. Are there a lot of people looking for these on the market? Or would building one just be a hobby? Repairing an existing EV, bringing it back into spec, might create better value for the money. Although demand for EVs is reportedly down recently.
  • ToolGuy Those of you who aren't listening to the TTAC Podcast, you really don't know what you are missing.