2003 Saab 9-5 Aero: My Drive

It’s difficult to write a review of a car when (a) people are expecting it, and (b) there’s people out there that are going to be reading it that really, and I mean really love that car.  Talk about putting yourself in the gunsights!  Well, here goes nothing….

I guess I’d better start from the beginning.  This whole thing got started after my 2006 9-3 Aero review, when it was mentioned that I hadn’t had a really decent test of a 9-5 before.  I’d driven one on the track, but not much in regular conditions and not for a prolonged period of time.  Thankfully a 9-5 Aero was made available, which is why you’re reading this and why I’m still smiling so much this late into the evening.

In the prequel to this review I spelt out some of the things that I expected from this car over the course of the long weekend.  I’ll reproduce them here:


  1. I’m expecting a superior level of cabin comfort.  Superb seating and driving position and pretty low levels of road and tyre noise.
  2. I’m expecting the car to be pretty quick off the line and to have plenty of go when it’s needed, but I’m also expecting the car to be creamy smooth around the ‘burbs.
  3. I’m expecting it to have a little less road feel then the Viggen, much like the new 9-3 that I drove last week.
  4. I’m expecting it to be capable in the twisties, though a little less so than the new 9-3.
  5. I’m expecting that the 9-5 will absolutely excel as a distance cruiser.  I can’t take it long-distance as I’ve got to keep the km’s down, but a trip to Richmond village should provide enough opportunity to get a feel.

So how did we go?  Well the car well and truly exceeded my expectations in nearly all areas and missed out on one or two.  We’ll get to the details shortly, but suffice to say that the Saab 9-5 Aero is one heck of a versatile automobile.  A true wolf in sheep’s clothing and I’ll maintain my belief that this is without doubt the most underappreciated car in the Saab range over the last 3 or so years.


The Car 

The car I drove, as mentioned, was a 2003 Saab 9-5 Aero.  It’s got the high output turbocharged 2.3 litre engine. It was fitted with a 5 speed automatic gearbox with a manual mode operated by ‘paddles’ incorporated into the steering wheel.  There’s also 2 modes for driving, switchable via a button on the gearshift – regular and sport – and they are vastly different. 

Around town

I picked up the car on Saturday morning from our local Saab dealer, Motors Saab.  The next few days were spent doing all the regular family driving stuff.  I used this time to get acquainted with the car.  Sitting in the driver’s seat there were many similarities with the cockpit of my 9-3 Viggen.  The instrumentation and layout of the dashboard is quite similar and in my mind at least, about as good as it gets.

On your regular suburban drive, the 9-5 Aero is exactly what you’d expect it to be.  Extremely comfortable and very reassuring.  The feedback from the road is better than the 9-3 I drove last week, but not so prominent as to be a distraction.  This car is set up really, really well.  The driving position, the throttle response and the feedback from the car all give you a feeling of being in total control.  Master of your domain.

Thankfully, the 5-speed spent no time at all looking for the appropriate gear.  Every drive was silky smooth.  If there was one complaint to be had about the gearbox, it was the occasional clunk when shifting between drive and reverse or vice versa.  I was surprised to feel that.  Otherwise, it was all peaches and cream. 

On The Inside 

I mentioned the interior briefly before.  I’d expected a superior level of cabin comfort and I wasn’t let down.  The seats, as always (05 convertible aside), were first class and the ventilation feature blew everyone away – well, not literally, but you know what I mean. 

The thing that really impressed me was the quality of the finish.  The layout was very similar to my Viggen, but the materials were just a little different and much more comfortable to the touch.  The plastics have a much softer and more luxurious feel to them.  I’d seen the brushed aluminium finish briefly before and not liked it, but I came to appreciate it more and more as the weekend progressed. As I own a car with a similar interior it took no time at all to get familiar with it.  After driving this car it seems very much a shame that the interior has been dumbed down a little for the 2006 refreshed model.

Saturday night we took some interstate guests out for dinner.  Accomodation inside the 9-5 was generous and all were impressed by the car.  Mark’s first comment when he sat down in the passenger seat was "Geez, it looks like the cockpit of a plane!"  And he knows nothing about Saabs.  

If there’s an area where the car didn’t quite meet my expectations it was in the level of car, road and engine noise.  Maybe I’d set the bar too high in my head, but the car was noisier than I’d expected it to be.  Mainly tyre noise, I think.  Not enough to be a bother, but enough to be noticed.

Life’s Pretty Straight Without Twisties*

Enough of the ‘burbs’.  Monday saw me finally getting a chance to test a little of this Viking’s fighting credentials.  I’d been told by some that these babies could move and I have high expectations in that area.  So did it move?

Damn right it did!

I chose the short but very sweet Targa Tasmania stage known as Grass Tree Hill to take the 9-5 Aero for a dance.  It’s not too long a stretch, around 8km or so.  The first five or six kilometers are one twisting turn after another and the last few km’s feature a couple of straight sections punctuated by some sweeping curves. 

I switched the car out of Grandpa mode into ‘Sport’ (although I like to think the S stands for "Swade" mode) and let the dog off the leash.  Talk about inspiration!  I’d been warned about the reassuring nature of this car.  Like the 9-3 Aero (although somewhat less so) it didn’t feel as fast as the Viggen, but that’s part of the car’s ruse.  The chassis is sooooo good on this car that it maintains some of it’s cruiser characteristics whilst still managing to get your adrenalin pumping as you look down in the 80 meters between curves and realise that your speedo is reading 100 – 120 km/h.

S’ Mode – are you ready? 

It’s a sobering realisation, but this highly elegant and comfortable car, once you click that little "S" button, could be death incarnate to the unwitting soul if it had any other manufacturer’s attention to safety built in.  Thankfully Saab have engineered everything in this car to work in such harmony, with so much response, that you still feel totally in control.

The only detraction from the car is the manual mode of operation for the gearbox.  This has been rectified in the new 9-3 Aero and I’d imagine the new 9-5 as well.  The buttons on the steering wheel are slow to respond, and very awkward to reach under certain conditions (such as in a turn at around 90 km/h).  Thankfully the auto in Swade mode is programmed to be quite aggressive and very responsive.  If I owned this car the manual paddle buttons would probably fall off from neglect.

I stopped in at Richmond and picked up another Saab nut named Bill H, whose collection will be featured later this week.  Bill and I took the car for another few runs over Grass Tree Hill and were even more impressed as we both got more familiar with the 9-5.  The pure acceleration is astounding.  Need to overtake?  The 9-5 Aero will go from 100 to 150 in the blink of an eye and whilst our prudent Australian nature necessitated a dab on the brakes, it was clearly evident that 5th gear was disappointed with the lack of attention we were showing.

We pondered the poor recent sales of the car and can only put it down to one main thing – conservatism.  In standard dress the 9-5 looks a little too much like "a gentleman’s car" (is there a way to put that more delicately????).  This is, especially in its Aero guise, a great touring vehicle that’s capable of some extraordinary things when poked the right way.

Hopefully the powers that be will promote the car in such a way in the coming years.  The new European ad campaign certainly looks good.  Hopefully Saab will extend its use to other markets as well.  This really is one of those cars that will sell itself if the price is right and the customer’s bum is on the seat.  It’s that good. 

The conclusion

The 9-5 Aero, in its 2003 guise, is one heck of an automobile.  It’s the closest thing to being all-things-to-all-men that I’ve driven.  It’s every bit as sporting but more subtle than the Viggen.  It outpoints it’s 2006 9-3 cousin in almost all areas (and if you read my review on that you’ll understand just good this car must be – the new 9-3 Aero is sensational, and on reflection does outhandle it’s big brother primarily due to it’s Re-Axs suspension).  It will get you to where you’re going in comfort, style and half the time.

My expectations?

Count them as fulfilled beyond what I’d thought.  An excellent cruiser indeed and as good a handle on the road as Jason Kidd on a basketball court.  The best interior setup and finish I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in.  More than enough speed when you need it and much more than any other sucker on the road would expect.  It’s like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but they’re both your best friends.

Ah, home where it belongs (I wish)

The downsides?  Not many.  The manual mode is a dud in this setup.  It also drank a bit more juice than I’d expected, averaging 13.4l/100km over the weekend.  My Viggen does about 10.5 on average, maybe a tad more if I do 4 runs over Grass Tree Hill.  Whilst 13.4 is more than 10.5, it ain’t that bad.

In the end, this is one very classy car.  Here’s hoping Saab sell a bunch of ’em.  This light has been hidden under a bushel for long enough. 


My thanks again to automotive legend, Tony B at Motors Saab, who for some strange reason still lets me borrow cars from time to time.  I hope your horse came in, mate.


* Twisties are a potato/corn/something based snack down here in Oz.  That heading’s one of their ad slogans. 

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  1. Thanks Swade for the drive, and thanks Tony for being crazy enough to loan him the car, so that I in turn could take a turn at the wheel. I do however have a very real concern with the 9-5 Aero which I’ll get to later.

    This was my first drive of a 9-5 and was followed by some door-clutching and profanity-issuing while in the passenger seat as Mr Wade accelerated into some sharpish corners. Sharpish? Hairpins? I know this local twisty bit of road well, well enough to be apprehensive. But the car just stuck and stuck and stuck with no fuss (ie no sidewall scrubbing). At the same time the fan in the seat was doing its thing too, blowing the exhausted air out the back to be inhaled by other hapless drivers.

    When I took over the drivers position I was immmediately struck by familiarity. I have a couple of old 9000’s including a ’90 Carlsson, and the 9-5’s cockpit made me feel immediately at home. The layout, interior size and feel (even the same electric seat switches as 1990) are right on the money for me, reminding me of the old 9000’s. I also prefer the brushed finish dash in this car to some earlier wood-grain versions, but that is a minor point. Seats are great, good lateral support and did I mention the fan?

    In a straight line this car just simply goes like stink. I didn’t try any other mode than ‘S’ auto. From admittedly limited experience, mainly from having one of Mr Henry’s cars as an everyday driver, I don’t use the sports mode except in exceptional circumstances.

    No need anyway in the Aero. The gear changes while in ‘S’ are responsive and smooth, yet urgent. At one point, while overtaking at what I’ll describe as ‘a fair clip’ I backed off the throttle only to find that the car accelerated. My right-foot-easing resulted in a change up to 4th, but there was not enough road to let it have its way! Only on a track could that happen.

    The 9-5 is a fairly big car, hauling a lot of luxo gear about. But, its nimbleness frankly surprised me. If Id been asked a while back what I thought of 9-5’s I would not have been enthusiastic. Perhaps this goes to the issue of low sales volumes. You need to drive one to appreciate one.

    Anyway, my problem with the car is how happily it integrated with my fleet of old bangers.

    Cheers, Bill.

  2. SWade and Bill … you must be two damn GOOD drivers, because you did the best — no, the most perfect — reviews of the 9-5 / 9-5 Aero after one drive that I’ve ever seen. Just imagine what the experience becomes when you’ve driven one daily for nearly a year, as I have. This will explain for you why — with all due respect for the new 9-3 — I plan in several years to buy a 2006 or newer model 9-5 Aero 5-speed to replace my 2002 model: in order to extend my years with this incredible car for as long as I can. I’m dumbfounded how one of the readers of this site, with all due respect, chose an Audi A6 as a better drive. Also, what do you make of auto journalists not telling readers everywhere what a dream machine the 9-5 Aero is? My mechanic thinks it’s because “they don’t know how to drive it.” What do you think?
    Great work, and sounds like Bill might have made up his mind about what modern SAAB will eventually be joining his old bangers. Your next assignment, if you dare take it: Drive a 9-5 Aero 5 speed.
    P.S. Yes, SWade, the 9-5 Aero chassis set-up is sooooo good that even a former technical consultant to SAAB couldn’t explain for me exactly how the enginners attained that perfect blend of European touring car ride and European high dollar sports car handling. During my first full day of driving the car I began saying “wow” aloud in some challenging mountain twisties. A few months later, as I marveled over the dual personality of the suspension, I found myself saying aloud a few times, “this is a strange car.” Lovingly strange, of course.

  3. Dear, Swade. I am just sitting here with a big grin on my face ;/). Thanks alot for a great review! When I bought my latest 9-5 Sport Wagon (2005) I did off course some research and tests on other cars in the same segment (Audi A6, BMW 5 series, Volvo V70 etc). All of them are great cars, no doubt about it, but having a 2001 9-5 Estate at that time I had the preferences intact and quite honest I did not find the competitors to be better cars than the 9-5, they’re just more expensive. To shorten a long story, I bought a brand new 9-5 again and I’m still in love. It is exactly how you describe it in your review; extremely comfortable on long hauls and that combined with a great audio system, sport suspension, 17″ and 225/45, sport seats and turbopower plus a couple of tons more with bells and whistles make this car a blast. It drives both like a limo and a real sportscar when you get used to it. And, it is one of the safest and most practical cars out there. I also find it to be a very good looking car, both the sedan and the estate. The 9-5 must be the most underestimated car out there. Even my wife is very enthusiastic about the 9-5 ;/)
    Thanks again, Swade, for your great work here at Trollhattan!

  4. Thanks for the review, you lucky ‘you-know-what’! I have always wanted to get my hands on a pre-06 9-5 Aero and reckon it could be my first Saab. Some guy here in Vancouver drives around in a gorgeous cosmic blue 9-5 Aero and I always pull up along side to take a look at the car – WOW! I dont care what colour it is as long as it is a 5speed manual – gimme,gimme,gimme!


    Green With Envy
    Vancouver Canada

  5. Bill Bartman made a great point about his mechanic saying “they dont know how to drive it” when it comes to a Saab. You are totally right, driving a Saab takes skill coz when you get it wrong, it can be totally embarrassing!

    The secret to driving a Saab Turbo is always be in the right gear at the right time to take advantage of that HUGE surge of torque that made me laugh out loud the first time and makes me smile just thinking about it.

  6. Nice reading!
    I asked a female colluege of mine today what make she enjoyd best. I asked her because I knew that their family have had several new cars and have changed the brand every single time. She also likes cars.
    BMW and the SAAB was the answer (in that order). Since 50% of the staff rides in orlovs they asked her why she didn’t like volvos.
    Her answer to that came out of her mouth like gun shot for those ovlov lovers….

    “It wasn’t any fun! We just went along in a Volvo. They can put all kind of letter on that trunk…It doesn’t matter, it’s still a car for going along”

    I think this woman knows exactly what Swade is talking about here. And so am I. I’m on my second 9-5 and like it alot.

  7. Great review, Swade! Not that us 9-5 Aero drivers need the validation.

    A couple of points: (1) yes, there is a touch more road noise in the 9-5 than there in some of its competitors. It’s not significant or obtrusive, though. (2) you didn’t mention the brakes ! IMHO the brakes are among the best features of the 9-5 Aero.

    I’ve never driven a car that wanted to be driven as fast as a 9-5 Aero.

  8. Hi Bill B,

    I can’t claim any special driving skill. Anyway,enthusiasm will better skill every time. Swade pointed out that a little bit of local vegetation was stuck to the passenger-side wheels after my drive, suggesting a somewhat less than perfect effort. No-one tell Tony please.

    My comments were very much first impressions, and biased ones at that. My Saabs range from 1973 to 1993 MY’s, ie the last ‘classic’ 900. But the world did not end in 1990, and the sun kept popping up over the horizon after the last C900 rolled off the line in 1993. And more importantly a bunch of people in Sweden kept designing and building cars. If they had kept on building Classis 900’s though they would all have been unemployed long ago. I think I’ve strayed from the point….

    Ah yes, as much as I love old Saabs I cannot keep driving a 1993 car for ever, at least not every day. So what is tomorrow’s classic? My 9-5 driving experience is certainly infuenced by my perception that there is a heritage link back through those earlier cars.

    The 9-5 aero even looked right sitting in my driveway next to my recently purchased ’73 99L, one of the first with the Saab ‘B’ motor.

    Cheers, Bill

  9. Nice work. Interesting how you chaps found the cabin/dash works really well and also liked the chassis set up. No surprise & I agree but the two-line comments that Wheels magazine put next to the 95 in their monthly market overview are critical of the dash ( “slabby”..wtf?! ) and the chassis (” Saab still unable to tune a chassis for export” …whatever that means). Have they even driven the car? Do they have an inkling of comprehension of the aeronautical and biomechanical work that goes into Saab control panels/dashes? I doubt it.

    After that they get back to humping BMWS and Bentleys.

  10. This was a review in which I was doubly interested. First I am a 9-5 aero (estate) owner and second I was having a test drive of my dealers 9-3 aero V6 saloon this very week. The 9-3 aero is as you describe and is probably a finer handling car than my wagon. It also has better performance and a better “soundtrack”. Afterward I expected to be a bit disappointed in my own car, but I am not. The 9-5 aero is a more complete vehicle than the 9-3. I could add the extra performance courtesy of Mr Hirsch, but I’m not sure it actually needs it. The handling is better, but not SO much better on day to day driving on a variety of roads. The 9-5 however is more comfortable, has better accommodation, and feels better put together with better quality parts.
    I have had my car from new since late 2002 and I cannot find anything that I would replace it for at similar money as an all round package. There are faster cars, and there are better handling cars, but none that combine these factors with the same comfort, security, safety and economy!

    Great work by the way Swade, keep it up!

  11. PT’s relay of “Wheels” stupid comments on the 9-5 are just what I was saying, these so-called auto writers “don’t know how to drive the car.” BMWs and Bentleys aren’t even on my concern list when driving a 9-5 Aero. My 2002 5-speed runs with the Porches and Lamborghinis, speed and road holding. These “motor heads” love 0 to 60 mph (0 to 96.5 kph) times, which was never SAAB’s thing; overtaking is the SAAB emphasis. So here’s a little fact the motor heads won’t be telling you: Their celebrated new C6 Corvette with it’s blistering off-the-line power will far outdistance the Aero from 0 to 80, but the Aero CATCHES it between 80 and 110 (128.7 kph and 177 kph), where after the two cars run at the same clip up to 135 (217 kph), at which time the Aero just pulls away all the way to 160 (257.5 kph). Well, okay, the C6 has a limiter and the Aero hasn’t. But you SAAB friends get my point, I’m sure.

  12. One further comment, please, in hopes of clarifying Ian and SWade’s thoughts that 9-3 Aero handling is somewhat better than 9-5 Aero. For those who haven’t driven both models, keep in mind 9-3 is a comparitively “small car.” Hence, more “fun.” The re-axis is notable mostly in slower speed maneuvering. But if you put the two against each other, road or track, you’ll find yourself moving faster (you don’t realize it) in every situation with the 9-5 and its dynamic, highly sophisticated chassis that makes driving near the limits so stunningly effortless. (To paraphrase Bill, you simply have to drive it to believe it.) Two rather different cars; each individual needs to choose his or her preference between fun or dynamic. I went “dynamic,” but can appreciate those who want to stick with old style SAAB “fun.” (And yes, Ian, the 9-5 does feel better put together, perhaps due in part to GM influences on the 9-3 that fortunately did not prevent a 5-star crash rating.)

  13. Darn, forgot to say, the 9-5 Aero wagon doesn’t handle quite as well as the sedan, due largely to weight and bulk factor. Just keep that in mind, shoppers. Now I shut up. Thanks!

  14. Bill B & Ian M reference to the Wheels magazine proves again my continuous point on the bad press and vitriolic reviews that Saab receives. Please see my comments on the Tuesday snippets to this effect.

    Aside from this, Swade’s review has brought the best comments and observations from all over the world confirming what a brilliant car the 9-5 Aero is. It was clearly satisfying that most concur with the unparallel road handling and stability of the great chassis of the 9-5 Aero. Saab continues to offer the best value for money when compared to other European brands. This fact needs to be reported in the press, not just this meaningless jargon.

  15. I have owned a 2001 9-5 Aero (5 speed Manual) for 5 months now, having traded in a ’99 Subaru Impreza. I find that the Saab out handles and out accelerates the Subaru hands down. This is one fantastic car that demands to be driven home by the longest route every day. The luggage capacity is phenomenal: having made a run to Ikea the other day, I had the car full to the brim with flat pack. Everything fitted in, no problem at all. This has got to be the most underrated car of all time. I have driven a few exotics in my time (Lambo Diablo SV, Maseratti 3200GT, Dodge Viper to name but a few) but for the practicalities of a daily driver, and one of the safest cars on the road, the Saab is very hard to beat. The acceleration through the gears is breathtaking, the handling is very good with lots of grip from the wide tyres, ride is very comfortable over bumpy ground (even with the low profiles) and everybody who has the privilege of being a passenger comments on how smooth and classy the car feels. Drive one if you can…own one if possible.

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