New technology mixed with Saab tradition.

by Paul A. Eisenstein

Base Price $37,350
As Tested $38,775

This is a big year for Saab: the 9-5 is the first new product to roll off the Swedish automaker's assembly lines since 1994, and it has been quickly followed by a new 9-3. Saab doesn't introduce new models often, so this sudden burst of activity shows big changes are underway. With the introduction of its new 9-5 sedan (pronounced "nine-five"), Saab hopes to broaden its appeal.

General Motors, which has controlled Saab since 1990, is working hard to reduce Saab's financial losses and build its image. But GM is not interested in turning Saabs cars into Swedish Pontiacs. Though it can't be described as "mainstream," the new Saab 9-5, which replaces the 9000, certainly has broader appeal than Saabs of the past. The question is whether that's enough to grab its share of a market niche dominated by such mainstays as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.

Saab is hoping several factors will build word of mouth and persuade potential customers to put the 9-5 on their shopping lists. "Safety without boredom, performance without pretense," is how Joel Manby the head of Saab's U.S. subsidiary sums it up. With its roots in the Swedish aerospace industry, Saab has always emphasized technical innovation. Often, that's meant ignoring convention. It was pushing aerodynamic styling when the rest of the industry thought boxy was beautiful, and Saab touted front-wheel drive long before it became the norm.

The 9-5 adds a number of firsts, such as its Active Head Restraint System, designed to prevent whiplash in rear-end accidents. On the performance side of Manby's equation, all new Saabs are now turbocharged, which ensures good acceleration performance. If nothing else works, Saab is betting the 9-5's attractive price tag will win some consideration in a hotly competitive luxury market. Will the strategy work? Here's what we discovered during our time behind the wheel of the new Saab 9-5.

Walkaround

The new Saab 9-5 doesn't go quite so far off on its own as the previous Saab 9000. Whereas the 9000 was a five-door hatchback, the 9-5 is a four-door model. The hatchback market in the U.S. has all but vanished, so most people will find the layout of the new Saab 9-5 more appealing.

With its wraparound headlights and aggressive, aerodynamic nose, the 9-5 still says Saab. The new look is much less bulbous, with bumpers, lights, glass and mirrors all flowing together in one gracefully sculpted form. The 9-5 is much more distinctive than many of the other recent entries into this segment, especially some of the Japanese bland-mobiles. It is handsome and sophisticated, but not stodgy.

These days, with gasoline costing less than bottled water, automakers aren't paying as much attention to aerodynamics, but it's still worth noting that the 9-5 has the lowest drag coefficient in its class: 0.29. That translates into better fuel economy, lower wind noise and improved highway stability, something Saab's TV commercials point out.

The 9-5 comes with a headlight washer/wiper system Saab originated back in 1970.

GM's influence shows underneath with structural pieces shared with the Opel Vectra, but you'd be hard pressed to find any visual similarities. The 9-5 is longer, wider and a bit heavier. More important is the fact that its chassis is significantly stiffer than that of the Saab 9000 it replaces and that translates into a markedly improved ride.

The Inside Story

Inside, the dashboard and windshield wrap around to provide a cockpit feel. There's just enough wood to furnish a sense of luxury, without making you feel like you're sitting in a backwoods cabin. The analog instruments are easy to read. Saab has retained a nice driving feature dubbed the Night Panel. With the touch of a button, everything but the speedometer blacks out, reducing distractions on a dark road. Warning lights will come on to alert the driver if the car is running low on gas or starts to overheat.

The leather seats in our 9-5 were sumptuous and roomy. Increased space up front adds to this roominess. In back, however, there's slightly less hip room on the rear bench than you got with the old 9000. But in compensation, the seat splits and folds down; it also has a pass-through for long items, such as skis.

Several things to note about Saab seating. All 9-5 sedans are equipped with the new Saab Active Head Restraint system. In the event of a rear impact, the headrests sweep up and forward to help reduce potential whiplash injuries. Along with the usual assortment of power seat controls, our test car came equipped with a unique ventilation system. It's designed to suck air through tiny perforations in the fabric, keeping you drier on humid days and, Saab claims, more alert while driving.

The Saab 9-5 comes with dual front and side-impact airbags. Built into the front seats, the side airbags offer head and thorax protection and are designed to be positioned well in the event of a collision.

Nice interior features include a clip on the lower left of the windshield to hold parking passes and other pieces of paper that might otherwise be left to fly across the top of the dashboard. The ignition switch is located on the top of the center console, a tradition on every Saab but the 9000. It keeps the key from banging on your knees as you drive.

Ride and Drive

Starting this year, all Saab vehicles will be turbocharged.

Two engines are available. Saab's new-generation 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine is lighter and more powerful than the engine it replaces. Equipped with a light-pressure turbo system, it develops 170 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque at just 1800 rpm. That low-rpm torque provides robust power around town and propels the car off the line quickly. This engine comes with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

For the 9-5 V-6 model, Saab developed an unusual low-pressure asymmetric turbo system that provides boost from only one bank of cylinders on the V-6. This setup improves acceleration with virtually none of the turbo-lag associated with traditional turbocharger systems. At peak, the 9-5 SE delivers 200 horsepower and 229 foot-pounds of torque. That's enough to give you a 0-to-60 time in the mid-seven-second range. That puts the 9-5 among the quickest cars in this class. All 9-5 V-6 models come standard with an automatic transmission.

The V-6 comes with an updated version of Saab's Trionic engine control system, which includes an electronic drive-by-wire throttle control and a high-speed communication link with the transmission. Traction control is also standard with the V-6, electronically controlled to prevent the front wheels from spinning on slippery roads.

The 9-5's four-channel anti-lock brake system incorporates Saab's electronic brake force distribution, which comes into effect under hard braking before ABS is activated. The system automatically provides the shortest possible stopping distance for the actual weight and balance of the vehicle and the road surface conditions at the time by using the maximum grip available to each wheel independently. This is particularly effective on road surfaces that are uneven or offer inconsistent grip or when braking and turning at the same time.

A stiffer chassis allowed engineers to tune the suspension for improved ride quality and handling because they did not have to factor in as much twisting and bending. The 9-5 suspension has been tuned to strike a balance between performance and ride comfort and we found it a comfortable compromise.

Final Word

While a few Saab aficionados may lament the absence of a hatchback in the new 9-5 line-up, we found the sedan to be roomy, attractive and loaded with a wide range of creature comforts. It offers good handling, braking and acceleration performance. For those who focus on safety, it's going to be an especially appealing automobile.

If the 9-5 is any indication of where the Swedish automaker is heading, it's likely to have a long and prosperous future. And 9-5 buyers are going to have a lot of fun behind the wheel.

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