Thumbs Up: A comfortable and entertaining sedan that stands out from the crowd.
Thumbs Down: Limited dealer network, a lot of parts-bin GM components, fake wood trim.
Buy This Car If: You want an alternative to luxury sedans from Buick, Acura and others.
Sometimes, the whole of a product is better than the sum of its parts. There are many examples of this in the automotive world, and chief among them is the 2011 Saab 9-5. On paper, it’s easy to break it down to it’s component elements: the platform is GM’s Epsilon II, shared with the Opel Insignia, Buick Regal and Chevy Malibu. It’s engine is a E85-ready variant of the GM Ecotec 2.0-liter, inline-four turbo, shared with the Buick Regal CXL Turbo and dubbed “BioPower” for it’s ability to digest fuel that’s 85 percent ethanol. The switchgear is straight from the GM parts bin, which seems just a bit out of place in a luxury sedan that crosses the $50k barrier.
Yet somehow these elements work together to produce a luxury sedan that feels nothing like its GM cousins, and that flat-out works well for digesting miles in relaxed and dependable comfort. Above all else, the 9-5 feels like a Saab, and I’m not sure I can even begin to describe what that means (or its importance to brand loyalists). If you’ve ever driven a Saab, you’ll understand exactly what I’m getting at; if you’ve never driven a Saab, beg, borrow or rent one for a weekend, and you’ll begin to understand what I’m talking about. Like aquavit and caribou sausage, Saabs are an acquired taste.
The current 9-5 was introduced in late 2009 as a 2010 model, and the product range was significantly expanded for the 2011 model year. You can get a 9-5 with a four-cylinder, turbocharged engine or a six-cylinder turbocharged engine, and the base model turbo four can still be paired with a six-speed manual gearbox (all others, though, come only with a six-speed automatic). If you want all-wheel-drive, it’s standard on both V-6 models. As you’d likely guess with so many variations, the difference in price between models is significant, too: a base 9-5 Turbo4 with no options comes in at $39,350, but load up the range-topping Aero and you’re looking at a sticker price of $59,300.
Whether that’s a bit steep or not depends on your perspective. Saabs have a well-earned reputation for technology, safety, durability and style, and I suspect this current 9-5 will live up to the brand expectations set by its predecessors. It certainly looks like a Saab, and the front end carries over an updated version of styling that was pioneered on the Saab 900 of the late 1970s. The sloping rear window will be familiar to Saab purists, as will the angular kink of the rear window trim. While earlier Saab’s sported diminutive A-pillars and minimized B-pillars, the new 9-5 blacks out both to reduce their appearance (and, undoubtedly, comply with the latest in NHTSA and IIHS roof-strength tests). If anything, the new 9-5 looks more like a traditional Saab automobile than the car it replaced, and I’d call that a good thing.
Inside, the 9-5 (like all Saabs) reflects the company’s aircraft heritage. Everything, from instruments through vents and control layout, has an airplane feel about it. There’s a multifunction display in the center of the speedometer, and this can be set to provide a vertically scrolling speed display, reminiscent of the altitude display in most aircraft. It can also display navigation information (your next upcoming turn), the current speed limit, fuel range, fuel consumption or current speed. Like an aircraft control panel, everything is laid out in a logical manner, with bright, white-on-black markings.
The switchgear may be parts-bin GM, but it’s positioned well and clearly marked. The dash and center console combine shapes, colors and textures to provide a visually interesting, high-quality feel. If I had a critique, it would be with the extensive use of matte brown plastic on the center console: Saab may be going for a clean and functional style, but it comes across as heavily influenced by accountants, not designers. Also, the obviously fake wood trim has to go: there’s no place for this in a car that sells north of $50,000.
You won’t complain about the comfort of the Saab’s front seats. The leather is thick, with a quality feel to it, although it isn’t ventilated. The driver gets a power adjustable seat, with an inflatable lumbar pillow that can be raised or lowered for maximum comfort. Both driver and passenger seat are heated, although neither one is cooled.
Rear seats will comfortably accommodate two adults on even the longest trips. The Saab 9-5 doesn’t feel like a big car, but there’s a decent amount of legroom for rear-seat passengers, and the sloping roof isn’t overly intrusive on passenger comfort, either. Your tallest friends may fight over who rides shotgun up front, but those six-feet and under will find plenty of headroom in the back of the 9-5. Three passengers will fit in the back for short trips, but the 9-5 wouldn’t be my first choice for hauling four passengers from coast-to-coast (although it would probably make the top 10 for 3 passengers).
Speaking of cross-country trips, the trunk in the Saab is cavernous, swallowing up over 18 cubic feet of your precious cargo. If that’s not big enough, there’s a pass-though for long items (like skis), and the rear seats fold in a 60/40 split to haul home event the largest runs to your local discount-warehouse store.
My 9-5 Turbo4 Premium tester came with Saab’s BioPower engine, which is a variant of GM’s Ecotec designed to run on either 91 octane gasoline or E85, if you can find it in your part of the country. The 2.0-liter turbo four is good for 220-horsepower and 258 ft-lb of torque, which is enough to provide reasonable acceleration once the 9-5 gets moving. Zero to sixty comes up in a little over 8 seconds, so if it’s quicker acceleration you’re after, you’d best be looking at one of the available six-cylinder variants. The 9-5 Turbo4 does return decent fuel economy, though: on a run up to Charleston, South Carolina, I saw 29.9 mpg on the highway, and the 9-5 delivered 21.1 mpg around town. That’s better than the EPA estimate of 18 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, but not as good as good as you can expect with a manual transmission. Only available with base 9-5 models, the six-speed manual transmission returns 20 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway.
On the road, the 9-5’s ride quality is best described as “refined”. There’s very little torque steer, even under heavy acceleration in lower gears. The steering is properly weighted for a luxury sedan, but not as communicative as the steering in the Acura TL. In corners, the 9-5 had very little body roll, yet never delivered a harsh ride, even over railroad tracks or rough pavement. If you’re looking for Buick Lacrosse levels of isolation, or BMW 5-Series levels of driver involvement, the Saab 9-5 is likely to disappoint. On the other hand, if you drive the 9-5 and Buick Regal back to back, don’t be surprised it you take the 9-5 out for a second test drive.
My 2011 Saab 9-5 Turbo4 Premium had a base sticker price of $44,260, including a destination charge of $825. Options on my tester included the $2,490 Technology Package (heads up display, lane departure warning, advanced parking assist, HID headlights), the $2,395 Navigation Package (voice guided navigation system with an 8” color touchscreen display, CD/DVD player, XM Satellite Radio) and the $995 Harman Kardon Surround Sound Radio Package, for a total sticker Price of $50,140. For comparison, a similarly equipped Acura TL with the Advance Package would sticker at $42,420, which makes the sticker on the Saab seem a bit optimistic. Step up the competition to include the BMW 528i, and the Saab begins to come into its element: the BMW, when optioned comparably to the Saab, stickers at $55,525.