2000 Saab 9-5 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
All those famous Saab attributes, with room for the dog.
It's nice to see station wagons making a comeback. This new Saab 9-5 wagon from Sweden has been introduced to do battle with the some great wagons from Audi, BMW, Volvo and the domestics. There are thinking people out there with larger families, pets and hobbies who wouldn't be caught dead in a minivan. They have no need for four-wheel drive and can't see much sense in the sport-utility craze. Sporty European wagons, such as this Saab 9-5, are aimed directly at them. It offers the quality and panache of a foreign make with the utility of a station wagon.
The Saab 9-5 (pronounced 'nine five') wagon comes in only the base and SE versions. The base model has a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The loaded SE comes with a 3.0-liter turbocharged V6; it also comes with a higher level of standard equipment, including traction control and leather upholstery, both of which are optional on the base model. Options include a dealer-installed slide-out cargo floor, heated front and rear seats, and special ventilated seats with electric fans built into them.
The 9-5 platform is a relatively new one within the General Motors parent company. As such, it carries a lot of up-to-date hardware including independent front and rear suspensions, precise rack-and-pinion steering, and a modern powertrain.
The 3.0-liter V6 engine in the 9-5 SE wagon is unusual in that it is turbocharged by only one bank of cylinders, where common practice is to use the exhaust gases from all cylinders to spin the turbocharger. This light-boost engine features four valves per cylinder, Trionic direct ignition and sequential fuel injection to develop 200 willing horsepower and lots of low-down torque.
The exterior design is, we think, one of the nicest body shells that Saab has ever produced, whether it be sedan, coupe, or wagon. It flows beautifully from front to rear without interruption, and the business end, the cargo section aft of the rear doors, has been beautifully integrated into the sedan front end. It offers an amazingly low coefficient of drag of only 0.31. The tires fill the wheel wells. The hood and doors operate like those on aircraft, with a solid locking system. These details add up to that same wonderful, safe feeling we always get when we drive Saabs.
One of the things that comes with every Saab 9-5 wagon is the slick, instrument panel that is unique to Saab. Its instrument panel is more like that of an airplane than any other in the automotive business. Perhaps that's because Saab is one of the few car companies that also makes airplanes, and they believe in the concept of a cockpit surrounding the operator as close in as possible. Some drivers find it claustrophobic, but we've been driving Saabs for more than 20 years, and we have grown to love it, even as more and more systems are added to the car. They always seem to find a logical place to put everything and an easy control system for whatever it happens to be.
Also up for high marks is the $895 OnStar communications system, the first one ever installed on a European car. We have used OnStar in Cadillac, Buick and GMC vehicles all over the country, and we recommend it to anyone who travels away from home regularly. It can be a godsend, a pushbutton servant who never, ever sleeps.
Saab's seats are terrific, and the new ones, with a built-in system for preventing whiplash, are even better. They are comfortable and supportive, with plenty of adjustment for all sizes of drivers.
Behind the two rows of seats, there is perhaps the most utilitarian, best-rigged cargo area of any wagon on the market. The 9-5 comes with 37 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. That increases to 74 cubic feet with both rear seats folded flat. The 9-5 also comes with two rows of aircraft-style Cargo Tracks cargo cleats in the floor that move fore and aft with simple finger pressure, so that loads of every shape and size can be secured directly to the floor. Saab has come up with a unique, dealer-installed slide-out load floor that pops up at the rear and slides rearward so heavy loads can be placed on it. Then the whole panel can slide forward into the wagon's cargo bay, a great way to save trips to the chiropractor. It also doubles as a small picnic table. The slide-out floor will hold up to 440 pounds of cargo. The cargo compartment cover is a hard, two-piece unit that can safely be used as a temporary storage shelf as well.
We salute Saab for thinking the wagon proposition all the way through and offering a workable dog retainer system to keep Fido vertical in a braking or cornering situation. Saab offers a separator cage, a cargo organizer, a roof rack, and several other wagon-only optional features that no one else offers, in addition to the bicycle racks and cargo boxes offered by the aftermarket.
Add to that the glove compartment that is kept chilled to 42 degrees F. to keep drinks cold, and you have one versatile wagon.
The 200-horsepower V6 engine provides plenty of power. It revs freely and makes good sounds. Driving a Saab smoothly can be a bit of a challenge at times. Part of the Saab character demands that the engine be allowed to rock back and forth freely on its transverse mounts, creating a strong moment in the drivetrain as it does so, and making on-throttle and off-throttle transitions less than smooth.
Saab's 3.0-liter V6 is tuned to offer a much broader torque range than the 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Therefore, it's much more pleasant to mash the throttle on this wagon at any rpm and let the automatic transmission deal out the power smoothly and quietly. It delivers solid performance, and you it's easy to get better fuel economy than the EPA rating of 25 mpg.
The steering is well weighted here, accurate and not too much overassisted at highway speeds, but more so at lower speeds and in parking maneuvers. Saab went to an independent rear suspension on this wagon to increase the load width in the cargo bay, and got a lot better handing in high-speed corners in the bargain. The anti-lock disc brakes are more than up to the job on this wagon.
There are larger station wagons, to be sure, and there are other compact station wagons with both front- and rear-wheel drive, and one with all-wheel-drive. This is a competitive market segment and one that Saab did not enter into lightly. They did all their safety homework, they made this 9-5 into a real, functional station wagon instead of a sedan with a square back end, and they put enough of the right Saab stuff into it to make it a success in the marketplace. We wish they'd change the engine mounts to a less-reactive system, but other than that one quibble, we like the new 9-5 wagon very much indeed.
Wagon ($32,575); SE Wagon ($37,750).
Options As Tested
OnStar ($895), front and rear heated seats ($520), 17-inch wheels and tires ($1950).
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