Saab 9-5 SportCombi Review

Alex L. Dykes
by Alex L. Dykes
saab 9 5 sportcombi review

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.

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  • Sta8of9 Sta8of9 on Jun 26, 2012

    Perhaps with the demise of SAAB after the failed restart attempt by Spyker, some may find the response mute. However, I feel the need to express a more accurate review of the first generation 9-5 and the brand as a whole. I love “Truth about Cars”, but must admit the review had me questioning if they really drove the car and if they understood the audience for SAAB. We sure know that the General didn’t, which is why my favorite car line has been relegated to an electric entity in China. See…SAAB’s are about a bond, a spirit, a connection in what some may deem an appliance that amazes and thrills. Yes SAAB’s embody this mantra. One can truly connect with their car! The reality is that SAAB’s are more than an appliance. I am sure I have lost all the Camry audience who have gone to the cupboard for some reduced fat wheat thins…to each his own. The first generation 9-5 (1999-2009 - not the bloated Lacrosse replacement) embodied the spirit of SAAB motoring and really was a universal car. What other vehicle out there transports five in comfortable orthotic cradling, all their luggage and shopping treasures, providing safety and reliability, excellent ingress/egress, acres of glass for superb visibility, impressive fuel economy, and a unique “I am different” style? On top of all of this, a vehicle that can literally blast the passengers back in their seats with its fantastic turbo mid-range? Some may attempt the mix, but few even come close to the overall combination of a SportCombi. I have test driven a lot of cars in my lifetime and owned a good many as well. I have experienced the offerings of Audi, BMW, Honda, Jaguar, Jeep, and even Mercedes, yet I always came back to SAAB. Why? Because…I like to “Move my Mind!” The 9-5 can go from the boardroom to the beach with a stop at soccer practice and a trip to Home Depot in between. The 9-5 can haul your precious antique find or your precious offspring with equal aplomb. The 9-5 just always feels right for whatever you ask and does so willingly leaving a smile as its reward. Of course the General’s 2006 refresh did engage the GM bean counter and de-contenting mentality. Interior materials quality did suffer in the transition and the traditional SAAB cockpit of buttons vanished with off the shelf Chevy replacements stuffed in their place. Yet the spirit still remained. The amazing seats and high quality leather emitting delicious scents were fortunately retained. The quirks were still there. Thankfully the amazing 2.3 workhorse survived in its highest tuned capacity. Some may fault the torque steer – yes it remains but what 260 HP front driver does not have just a bit? I personally think it adds to the fun quotient. Because…when all the bashing and judging vanish what you have here is the most FUN automobile every produced! The 9-5 lets you engage this FUN whenever you wish as if it is your option. Keep in mind the 9-5 can also be driven as a respectable daily commuter just sipping fuel and protecting its passengers…if you so choose. But wouldn’t you like to have amazing FUN with your practicality? Fancy onboard electronics, media centers, and blinking lane departure gimmickry are thankfully missing. Call me old school but the living room is home to this gadgetry, cars are for driving. Give me a knob or a switch any day! (In true classic SAAB spirit – lots of buttons please) I had to cringe the other day when I went out with my lady friend and her teenage son. She stopped at a convenience center and left us in the Lexus RX Hybrid. It was getting warm and I literally had to ask her son how to use the mouse to switch through multiple media screens to adjust the AC level. Keep in mind I have two degrees and work in IT! A mouse driven CRT screen in a car – one may wonder how functional they will be in say two or three years baking in the Florida sunshine. So can the 9-5 be all things to all people? Well that depends on the people. You see American’s prefer the Camry or when they move up-market, that German entity with the blue and white badge. Why because a car is an appliance and when you make it in this world, a badge is everything. I prefer my appliance to have a soul. Wagon’s and hatchbacks are passé on these shores yet in some European countries more coveted than sedans. Practicality again – something American’s never embraced before this last blip of the gasoline surge. Newsflash – that gas hogging land barge SUV is just a wagon with a higher suspension prone to low crash test scores and the driving prowess of a your childhood Radio Flyer. What would have come of SAAB had the General only embraced the brand. What would have happened if the General had approved the investment from the China group for Spyker? What would have happened had SAAB been the first electric hybrid turbo with four wheel drive? What would have happened if SAAB was given a chance to be itself? What would have happened if the 9-5 replacement was actually a SAAB and not a beautifully bodied Lacrosse? We may never know. The first generation 9-5 may have been put out to pasture, but if you find one on a used car lot – take the precious thing for a spin. You may just delight in that you did. Long live SAAB (in memory and thought) and all that it embodied. Long live the first generation 9-5. Signing off from the land of “What if” and heading back to my “State of Independence.”

  • 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.

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