Review and road test of the Saab 9-5 (1997 - 2010)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Saab likes to play up its aerospace associations. Whilst the Saab 9-5 hasn't been a soaraway success in terms of UK sales, it's business class credentials make it worth a look on the used market. Often denied a take off slot by rivals from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, the 9-5 is a stylish partner for the long haul traveller. With the 9-5, Saab gained clearance to enter the big league, and the car has quietly proved itself capable of taking on the establishment. Saab customers are a loyal bunch. Land a used 9-5 and you may be tempted to upgrade to their frequent flyer club.
4 dr saloon & 5 dr estate [2.0t, 2.0t SE, 2.3t, 2.3t SE, 3.0 V6t, 3.0 V6t SE, 3.0V6t Griffin, Aero, Airflow]
The 9-5's immediate predecessor, the 9000 series, was a bold attempt by Saab to share underpinnings with Lancia, Fiat and Alfa Romeo. Often seen today, this concept was maybe a little before its time when the range was launched in 1989. Since being enveloped by General Motors, Saab has been able to express its Swedish-ness whilst dipping into a vast pool of expertise. The 9-5 model rides on an extended version of Vauxhall's Vectra floorpan, but anybody expecting repmobile ambience will be pleasantly surprised by it.
Introduced in June 1997, the 9-5 range initially consisted of the 2.0-litre and 2.3-litre cars, in either standard or SE specification. The 2.0-litre models were powered by an 'Ecopower' light pressure turbocharged four cylinder engine that developed 150bhp. The 2.3-litre cars used similar turbocharger technology in order to provide smooth power delivery, and these four cylinder engines produced 170bhp. All of the 2.0 and 2.3-litre cars were four-door cars, available with either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic option. The 3.0-litre cars were introduced in February 1998 and boasted a 200bhp engine. These were available only with the four-speed automatic box.
In July 1998 a mechanically identical luxury version of the V6 was launched, christened the Griffin. October 1998 saw the range supplemented by handsome five door estate versions. In 1999 a more sporting option was launched, the Aero. This was a 2.3-litre car fitted with an aggressive bodykit, and suspension modifications designed to handle all 230bhp the 'HOT' designated engine now developed. Saab had turned back the clock to old-school 'big bang' turbocharging with some panache. The mean look was well received and the Saab 9-5 'Airflow' range of cars was introduced in January 2000, giving the four cylinder cars a more sporting appearance. These cars lasted until that Autumn when Saab introduced a series of range upgrades and added a more powerful 185bhp 2.3-litre petrol engine to sit above the existing 150bhp 2.0-litre unit.
The range received a facelift in summer 2001, with a different grille, bigger bumpers and some interior tweaks. The Aero's engine was boosted to 250bhp and a 3.0-litre diesel model, the TiD, was announced alongside a 2.2-litre diesel unit purloined from the 9-3 range. The 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine was ditched in autumn 2003 to make way for a more powerful, more economical, less expensive and less dirty 2.3T powerplant boasting a hefty 220bhp wallop.
A further hefty facelift in the later stages of 2005 brought a sleeker look to the 9-5 front end. There were even bioethanol fuelled versions to consider.
What You Get
Sit in a 9-5 and it is still very much a Saab. Fears that the essentially quirky character of the Swedish manufacturer would be ironed out by General Motors have, thankfully, not materialised. You are still faced with a sheer wall of dashboard, the ignition key still slots home just ahead of the handbrake, and the bonnet is still of the original 'clam shell' style. The 'interesting' styling of Saab's not so distant past has mellowed, and the 9-5's is a far cry from the quirky 9000 shape.
Aiming to highlight the relative expense of rival offerings, Saabs have generous standard equipment. Ski flaps, heated mirrors and outside temperature gauges on all models perhaps betray the 9-5s Scandinavian origins, but that's part of the charm. The provision of wood veneer trimmed interiors and leather steering wheels reaches down to SE designated models at prices which make rival Audis and BMWs look away in embarrassment.
The Griffin models have had the whole options list thrown at them, and the results are impressive. These features include metallic paint, multi function computer, leather upholstery with ventilated front seats and a 200-watt, nine-speaker stereo system. The estate variants, whilst not rivalling the Volvo range for sheer capacity, are nonetheless worthy additions to the range. Interior space in all 9-5 models is significantly good, and there's a logic, albeit a Scandinavian logic, to the layout of the controls.
What to Look For
Few other manufacturers share Saab's reputation for longevity. A well maintained 9-5 should be good for at least a quarter of a million miles, so don't be afraid of higher mileage cars. Just be sure that they've been given regular doses of main dealer TLC. One area which is worth checking, especially on the Aero models, is front tyre wear. As with any powerful front wheel drive car, expecting the front tyres to cope with the demands of steering such a weighty beast and transmitting all that horsepower to the ground is a serious task. A heavy right foot can see front tyres waving the white flag within 5,000 miles, dependent upon make.
(approx based on a 9-5 2.0t) It's obvious where raids from the bargain GM parts bin have taken place. Certain items are reasonably cheap. A clutch assembly is in the region of £175, and brake pads are £50 a set. A radiator is an eminently reasonable £144, and a headlamp unit is cheaper than most major rivals at £150. As Saab specific items begin to appear, prices go up. A starter motor won't see change from £200, whilst an alternator represents the thick end of £400. Eye speed humps with suspicion, as an exhaust system, excluding catalytic converter, will be around £450.
On the Road
Once potential customers drive a 9-5 they tend to buy them. A stretched Vectra with bags of power driving the front wheels isn't a purist's idea of a promising start, but the 9-5 pulls it off with aplomb. Even the 2.0-litre base models will reach 60mph in less than 10 seconds, and the Aero models have a terrific lunging punch. Show a 9-5 a tight corner and it isn't as happy as a BMW would be, but is far from the dynamic duffer some have suggested. The 9-5 is most at home when racking up motorway miles, and all the models have a loping gait which, combined with the great seats, make them a comfortable place to be.
Safety is a prime concern for Saab and as well as front and side airbags, the 9-5 is equipped with anti whiplash head restraints and the 'Safeseat' system, designed to stop passengers sliding beneath their seatbelts.
Novel touches abound in the cabin and the depth of engineering is truly impressive. Even the cup holders have a sparse beauty to their design, and the load areas in both saloon and estate are well thought out and easily accessible.
Straying from the beaten path usually means making sacrifices. With the 9-5, Saab have aimed to offer all of the benefits of the established opposition with a degree of individuality thrown in for good measure. And it has worked.
The 9-5 is a slightly unusual but nonetheless dependable choice. It will appeal to those who don't want to have to remember their number plate when visiting the executive car park. If well maintained it will cross continents without breaking a sweat and leave you fresh for the return journey. Take your time, buy the best available and a used 9-5 will still be running long after Abba have met their Waterloo.
Saab 9-5 (1997 - 2010) review by ANDY ENRIGHT