2006 Saab 9-5 Road Test
My first really meaningful experience with the cars made by Swedish manufacturer Saab came during the early 1980s at the Roebling Road racetrack in northern South Carolina.
Officially, as I recall, members of the automotive press had been invited to Hilton Head Island to learn about an anti-knock sensor, dubbed Automatic Performance Control, which the company had developed for its turbocharged, four-cylinder engines. The innovation meant that the cars could run as trouble-free on regular gasoline as they could on premium.
But, Saab also was eager to demonstrate the Saab 900s performance capabilities, so we were given the opportunity to take a few spirited laps around the two-mile raceway. Then, we took turns in the passenger seat as Erik Carlsson, world-renowned Saab rally driver, showed us how it should be done.
I sat wide-eyed as he dove into a 180-degree turn without ever lifting his foot off the accelerator, all the time steering with one hand and waving to photographers who were taking pictures of our car. It was an impressive performance, particularly in a front-wheel-drive automobile.
Carlssons next passenger had an even more exciting ride. Rain had softened the ground around the racetrack. The Saabs right front wheel slipped off the asphalt, dug into the mud, and the car rolled over. Neither man was hurt, but one journalist went home with a story to tell.
In all, three cars rolled over that day, two at the hands of one journalist who also was unhurt. The amazing thing was how the cars fared. The sheet metal was crinkled, but the body and frame were basically unscathed. All four doors on all three cars opened and shut with the same precision as they did before their off-road gymnastics.
The track demonstrations, intended and otherwise, left a favorable impression on me. In 1998, after the Saab 900 underwent rehab and was renamed 9-3, I bought one. I drove it without problems for six years and sold it to a couple who still enjoy the hatchback sedan.
These memories came flooding back a few weeks ago as I tooled around in the companys flagship, an updated 2006 Saab 9-5. Offered as a sedan or station wagon (Sport Combi, according to Saab), it is perhaps the last Saab that can trace its heritage directly to Trollhattan, Sweden, and not to its partnership with General Motors, which became full owner of the company in the late 1990s.
An update was definitely in order since the 9-5 has been soldiering along without major change since its introduction in 1998 as the replacement for the Saab 9000. The company claims a total of 1,367 changes, although even a hard-core Saab fan would be hard-pressed to spot most of them.
To the driver, the most important involve the engine and chassis.
Saab has reduced the powerplant choices from three to one, a turbocharged 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that generates 260 horsepower, 10 more than last years top-of-the-line Aero powerplant. Torque is rated at 258 pound-feet.
To improve the handling and ride, Saab engineers have widened the rear track by about a quarter inch and retuned the shock absorbers, springs and anti-roll bars. In addition, the steering has been revised and 17-inch wheels are now standard.
Beyond that, the car I drove, the 9-5 Sport, has a slightly lowered chassis, supportive seats and came with a five-speed manual transmission.
The result of all these changes is a Saab with quicker acceleration, more precise handling and a smoother ride. The new 9-5 isnt dramatically different, just noticeably improved.
In more than 600 miles of driving under varied conditions, I came away most impressed by the cars highway demeanor.
This 3,500-pound sedan does its best work on the open road. The four-cylinder engine is smooth and quiet, the turbocharger kicks in with minimal lag for passing, the passengers are well insulated from the world outside and the suspension absorbs tar strips and most road imperfections.
An advantage of turbocharged, four-cylinder power over the V-6 engines in competitive models becomes obvious, too. In one 200-mile jaunt, I averaged almost 30 miles per gallon of gas. That was a tad better than the EPA highway estimate of 29 mpg.
Around town is where that same engine shows its, uh, unique qualities. It is noticeably coarser than a V-6 at idle. Accelerate hard from a stop and acceleration is sluggish until the turbocharger kicks in. Then, there is a rush of power that tugs on the front driving wheels. But, I still managed 21 mpg.
To the uninitiated, some of these quirks may be a turn-off. But Saabs eccentricities are part of the appeal to its legions of loyal owners. A Saab lover soon learns how to drive smoothly and quickly within the cars limits and his joy is in having a car that does not act like all the others. I can relate. For six years, until urban congestion turned my daily drive into more stop than go, I was one of them.
Like the mechanical upgrades, the exterior changes are more subdued than dramatic. The new grille adapted from the 9X concept car, the color-matched side moldings and door handles, and the revised hood, fenders, trunk lid, headlights, taillights, and front and rear fascias give the Saab a more modern, integrated appearance.
Saab says the updates hint at Saabs future design direction, but to the casual observer the 9-5 looks pretty much as it always has.
Inside, the Saab sports an updated dashboard and new interior trim.
With its floor-mounted ignition switch, instrument panel black-out switch for night driving, and center-console-mounted power window switches, the 2006 9-5 also retains many of the love em or hate em features that help to make up the Saab experience.
Saabs proven concern for passenger safety is apparent in the standard driver and front-passenger front and side airbags, active front head restraints, safety cage construction, antilock disc brakes, traction control and stability control.
Standard comfort and convenience accessories include a power sunroof, automatic climate control, leather upholstery, heated front and rear seats, 60/40 folding rear seatback and a premium sound system with 6 cd changer and XM satellite radio hookup.
Base price of the Saab 9-5 Sport is $35,195. A Visibility Package Xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers, auto dimming exterior rear view mirrors and rear park assist adds $1,295. Fusion blue metallic paint costs $550 and the delivery charge is $720. It all adds up to $37,760.
The updated 9-5 will be on the market for a couple of years until an all-new model arrives. The big question remaining, as General Motors continues to integrate parts throughout its many models, is this: Will the 9-5 still be a Saab lovers Saab?