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:
- I’m expecting a superior level of cabin comfort. Superb seating and driving position and pretty low levels of road and tyre noise.
- 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.
- 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.
- I’m expecting it to be capable in the twisties, though a little less so than the new 9-3.
- 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 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.
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 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.
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.