Saab takes its best shot at high performance with Aero.
by Sam Moses
Base Price (MSRP) $33,995
As Tested (MSRP) $41,145
Saab is on a roll. Sales have been booming in recent years, as a popular chord with all the models seems to have been struck. The turbocharged 9-5 Aero, introduced last fall, is an expression of Saab's confidence. It's the fastest and hottest Saab ever built, and it's good. With the Aero, Saab is making a credible statement that it can play with the big boys-and it is also selling cars.
Prices for the 2001 Saab 9-5 models: 2.3t ($33,995); SE V6t ($38,650); Aero ($40,175); Wagon 2.3t ($34,695); Wagon SE V6t ($39,350); Aero Wagon ($40,875).
The Aero boasts the high-output turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 230 horsepower, a five-speed gearbox, 17-inch wheels and suspension enhancements.
The SE features the light-pressure turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 making 200 horsepower, and uses 16-inch wheels.
The base 9-5 2.3t offers a 185-horsepower light-pressure turbocharged four-cylinder engine displacing the same 2.3 liters as the Aero. (Power is up from 170 horsepower last year.)
The SE and 2.3t offer an optional Premium Package ($1995) that includes leather interior, a driver's power seat, and a 240-watt, nine-speaker Harman/Kardon audio system; those features are standard on the Aero. Safety is a Saab hallmark and dual front and side airbags come standard on all models.
The Saab shape and features are not unattractive, merely familiar. It has a solid and wedged look, low in front with a louvered air dam under the front bumper, raking back to high but not wide hips.
The 17-inch alloy wheels with three spokes are distinctive in an original way-make that quirky (an oft-used adjective to describe Saab features). You can see the brake calipers through the big gaps in the wheels, and that makes you notice the low-profile 225/45 VR-17 Michelin Pilot tires, a tip-off that this is a high-performance car.
But that's the only tip-off. The flared rocker panels and rear valance don't have a significant presence. There's not even a just-for-looks spoiler. That may be a disappointment for those who want the car to look sportier, a hot rod, not just another mundane sedan. But rear spoilers provide little or no function for front-wheel-drive cars that need more downforce up front, not in back. Our model was Midnight Mica Blue, but we think the Aero looks good in basic black.
The instrument panel may be the best aspect of the roomy interior. Sheathed in burled walnut, the panel fits perfectly through the steering wheel, curved at the top to the same shape as the steering wheel. So you look through that portion of the wheel that fills the pie above 10 and 2 o'clock, and clearly see the tach, fuel, temperature and turbo boost gauges. And it may be the boost gauge you end up watching the most, as the power responds more to boost than revs.
Big buttons for the sound and climate systems are located in a large rectangle in the center console, and are easy to understand. The radio buttons are very intelligent, in that they hold your finger! Ironically, almost disappointingly because they are so neat, you don't need to use them that much, as there are also controls in the hub of the steering wheel.
The Aero has a nice leather-wrapped four-spoke wheel with the rim the correct diameter. It's pocked for better grip, between 2 and 4 o'clock on the right side and 8 and 10 on the left. The gearshift knob, leather-stitched and kind of pear-shaped, has a matching good feel.
There's a really cool cupholder in the dash next to the radio, which flips out from a vertical slot the size of a CD. And there's another fixed one in the console.
The far end of the passenger sideview mirror is convex, which allows you to see two lanes over. It's not a bad idea, but it can be difficult to determine the location of the approaching car at quick glance.
There are excellent interior lights, including one map light in a rotating directional ball like an airplane light. Little things like the gauge placement, cupholder, radio switches and map light make you aware that some real thought went into the interior.
The glovebox is small, however, and the cruise control switch, located on the end of the turn signal stalk and hidden by the steering wheel, is inconvenient. The tick-tock wooden metronome sound of the turn signals is a nice touch, even if it was copied from Jaguar.
Our leather interior was brown and beige, with the seats all beige. They weren't bad, but more bolstering definitely would have been nice, given the road-hugging capability of this car.
It was very quiet on the freeway. We noticed only the slightest hiss of wind noise, which went away when we closed the blind over the sunroof.
The light on the dash indicating when it's time to upshift is mostly just annoying, in principle if not actively. The computer that controls this light has something on its mind that you most likely don't have on yours. It wants you drive in the manner that's fuel efficient, but you know something it doesn't: you know what's coming in the next hundred yards.
Everything has a springy feeling. Well, not everything, but the shift lever and clutch pedal do. The clutch is hydraulically actuated, and the shift lever travels along the horizontal with no pressure. The gearbox is smooth, especially when playing in third and fourth gears, and the springiness makes heel-and-toe downshifting enjoyable.
The turbocharger, which provides variable boost in concert with the electronic engine management, manages to squeeze 230 horsepower and 243 foot-pounds of torque out of the small 2.3-liter double-overhead-cam engine, which is an impressive 100 horsepower per liter. This sophisticated turbo has eliminated turbo lag, but that's not to say the power doesn't still come on with a rush, because it does; it can go from lugging to zooming in a heartbeat. And it's not strictly rpm-dependent; throttle position has a lot to do with it when the power comes on. For this reason, you can often predict the immediate future by the turbo boost gauge, rather than the tach. Sometimes it kicks in near 3000 rpm and other times it's closer to 4000. It's usually best to give it gas gradually, and don't hammer it.
You can be pulling onto a crowded freeway, looking for holes, and lingering comfortably at 65 mph in third gear (ignoring that upshift light), and when you make your move you're gone. If you're in fifth gear, which is way too tall for acceleration at 55 mph, you won't have the squirt you need. If you drive in a very relaxed manner, it will be easy to get caught in too high of a gear. In that way, it's not unlike a Japanese four-cylinder motorcycle, with a powerband that's way up there.
Acceleration comes in a wonderful and exhilarating surge. If the pavement is irregular you can feel the front end get light, and the front-wheel-drive torque steer twisting the steering wheel as it does. It's a good thing traction control is standard.
You have to be careful, because you can find yourself going faster than you expected in a very short order. The overall acceleration isn't mind-bending, as the quarter-mile time with the five-speed gearbox is in the low 15-second range, but that turbo tends to shoot you off.
The Aero is really at home in smooth twisties. It's so much fun to accelerate at the apex of a turn and feel the car pull you around the rest of the way, as the chassis and suspension hug the road. In a smooth turn that's not too tight, it feels like it's on rails, although sharp turns with a lot of power might push things.
The Aero chassis is lower by 0.4 inches than that of other 9-5 models. The antiroll bars are beefier, the springs and shocks stiffer, and there are firmer bushings in the suspension arms and links, all to minimize body roll and improve steering precision. The changes are a clear success, as the Aero's handling is vastly improved over the other 9-5 sedans.
Same goes for the four-wheel disc brakes, which offer stopping from 60-mph in a mere 120 feet. The front discs grow to 12.1 inches from 11.3 on the other 9-5s, and a different friction material is used for the pads.
Not unexpectedly given the nature of the Aero, the ride is pretty firm over quick light bumps. Generally, the chassis jounces up down a noticeable amount. It's not sharp and not really uncomfortable, but if you peek out the corners of your eyes to the edges of the windshield, you can see the bouncing. The steering remains very steady through this, although less so when the power is on.
The engine has a revvy sound, unfortunately so subtle that you can't hear it with the windows down and sunroof open.
The Aero is the Saab for the enthusiast. A good turbocharger is hard to find, and if you like the feel of a turbocharged engine, this one is a winner. It's just too bad that the styling isn't as sporty as the rest of the car.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.