The Truth About The Saab 9-5

With apologies to Robert Farago for borrowing his mojo….

I like to write. I don’t really do it that well, but I enjoy it just the same. One of the best books I’ve read about the craft of writing is Stephen King’s On Writing. I don’t remember all of that book, but one phrase that’s stuck in my mind since day 1 is the very King-esque “kill your babies”.

Of course he doesn’t mean it literally. What he means is that as a writer it’s not unusual to get so immersed in a story, a theme, a scene or a character, that you lose sight of what it really means. You create these things and because you create them, you love them. It’s hard to let go of them and admit that they’re non-essential, that they’re ‘parsley’ – trimmings on the edge of the real deal.

No-one at GM will admit to this publicly as they have a commercial interest in selling them, and I can scarcely believe I’m saying it myself, but the 2006 Saab 9-5 has crossed this threshold. It’s parsley in its class.

The Saab 9-5 is currently being propped up by the energy policy adopted by the Swedish government. Prior to the Biopower model being introduced to take advantage of E85’s availability and favourable tax treatment in Sweden, the 9-5 was selling at a lousy rate in it’s homeland. In Saab’s biggest market, the US, the 9-5 is now outsold two-to-one by the 9-7x SUV – a vehicle (wrongly) roasted by many of Saab’s faithful.

When the 9-5 was first released it was a real progression for Saab. A true 4-door sedan that was luxurious, sporting and of course, exceedingly safe. It was a true Saab to look at and to drive. In the Saab tradition the basics were kept the same as the car evolved over a number of years into it’s most stunning guise, the 2005 model.

I’m a Saab purist, having owned two 99 Turbos and a 900 Turbo amongst my six Saabs. I now own a 9-3 Viggen, a car I believe to be one of the purest forms of Saab expression. The 9-5 Aero from 2003 to 2005 (Sedan or Wagon) remains as the only car I’d ever give my Viggen up for.

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When the facelift for 2006 arrived I looked at it with an open mind. It’s nowhere near as beautiful as the 2005 model but I accepted the change for what it was, an essential facelift to squeeze the last few years of life from the car. I still don’t think it’s an unattractive car. I just think it’s beyond its prime. It’s time for me to kill one of my babies.

GM may not be able to say it out loud, but the public can – time has passed the 9-5 by, and as a flagship for Saab, it just doesn’t cut it anymore.

The 9-5 never quite reached its potential. It developed into a mega-HOT 4-banger but if the Australian market’s anything to go by, people just aren’t going to pay premium bucks for a 4-cylinder car. Not in the quantities Saab needs them to.

This argument is also one of the main reasons why Hirsch’s products are only available in markets close to Sweden. Take a 4 cylinder 9-5 Aero at around A$85,000 – now add another $10,000 or so for all the Hirsch trimmings. How many people are going to pay close to six figures for a 4 cylinder car?

The Hirsch 9-5 – Is this Saab at it’s modern pinnacle?
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I’ve driven a Saab 9-5 with the full Hirsch treatment and it was absolutely magnificent. I was totally dumbstruck by the looks and the sheer power of the car. The problem? The pricetag never let it get out of the gate and Saab Australia hasn’t looked seriously at Hirsch since that time.

Back to the present: Saab now have a 9-5 that carries limited styling appeal, an outdated chassis and an interior that denies its roots as a Saab. It’s getting voted off the island with every monthly sales report and the biggest question remaining is “when?”, closely followed by “what?”

When will the replacement come and what will the replacement be?

Saab has three, possibly four, new cars coming in the next three to four years. The 9-4x SUV, the 9-5 and 9-3 replacements and maybe (if we’re lucky), a smallish hot hatch. The car that says the most about the brand will be the 9-5. It has to be. If it’s going to remain as Saab’s flagship vehicle into the future then it has to embody everything that the brand represents.

Can we say that the 2006 9-5 fulfils this lofty ambition at the moment? Not a chance. It’s not a bad vehicle by any stretch but we’re playing for survival here, folks, and if the 9-5 is the best we’ve got then we have to admit that we ain’t got much. Of course, that’s a big ‘if’ and it’s also a non-event. The 9-3 SS is the best we’ve got, it’s a superb machine and it’s worldwide sales reflect that fact.

“I’ve seen the future and it works” – Prince
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The images of the proposed 9-5 that we’ve seen so far look underdone but are very promising. The one definite thing I’ve heard, from the inside, is that Saab’s designers are working on some cool stuff…..”cooler than the Aero-X” were the exact words. I can’t help but believe that it has to be the 9-5 that that guy was talking about.

Given the recent progress of the Germans, I hope that’s right. BMW are now taking on turbocharging and the results are scary-good. All the Germans – yeah, all of them – are signing on for Mercedes Benz’s Blu-tec diesel to push the technology to the US market asap and as inexpensively as possible.

Saab don’t need to outsell the Germans, but they do need to offer a viable alternative – and soon. The next 9-5 will be a big statement of intent with regard to achieving that goal.

The sooner it comes and the better it is, the more assurance we can all get that there’ll be a Saab to drive in 10 years time.

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27 Comments

  1. “The only flaw in that writing was this part ‘I don’t really do it that well'”
    Yeah, it’s the writing that keeps me coming back to this site.

  2. Swade > The Saab 9-5 has indeed reached and passed its own sell-by date. The recent re-fit is but a tantalizing hint of styling changes to come.

    But the 9-7X needs to go first. And thank goodness the 9-2 already has. Both unfortunate models have disgraced the marque.

    The 9-5 is a design of the 90s, and it was great when it was fresh.

    At a recent car show I attended, there was a 9-3 convertible, the 9-3 stationwagon-thing, and the 9-5 sedan. The 9-5 sedan was the car I warmed most to, because it had Saab-like character of the three. The other two speak GM-Europe to me (though I do think the convertible is sharp).

    Let’s pray that the next 9-5 will be something brashly bold and share no obvious elements with anything else General Motors.

  3. Gents, you’re very kind, though I must say a this point, ctm, there’s more discussion about my writing than about the 9-5 😉

    Gunnar, we hold opposite points of view about the 9-7x and I think we always will. Which is fine because if we all agreed on everything…..

    Now, the 9-5…..

  4. ok for my 0.002cts

    Swade you’re no journalist and quite frankly; thank GOD!

    I probably click on your site maybe 2 or 3 times a day. Your blog is that fast paced.

    I don’t know of any other blog or forum that offers up to date info with regard to Saab and Saab related GM affairs.

    You do talk sometimes about wanting a job as an official Saab blogger for GM, but the reality is, the censorship would destroy your soul within a week.
    Swade you’re fine just the way you are.

    On the 9-5 subject I think I have to disagree to some parts. The only reason why this car seems out-dated is because the competition has just changed onto new platforms. A 10 year old chassis design is not OLD! Marketing just tells us it is and then we start to believe the hype that a chassis has to be replaced after 5 or 7 years.
    If a chassis means everything then how did Michele Lupini win at the weekend with an outdated 9-3.

    Engineering a new chassis is no cheap exercise and it’s one of the reasons why car prices have rocketed in the past years. With platforms having such a limited life-span, companies like VW, Toyota, GM have to produce lots of different models from it to make it economically viable. The hard truth of it is that the market can’t actually keep up with it. Manufacturers are pricing themselves out of their own market place. You can’t look at a VW Passat today and say it is in the same market segment it was 30Years ago. VW have now exceeded the quality of where Audi was only 5 years ago. Audi are now stepping into luxury territory. So what this leaves is a big gap where VW used to be. So time for Skoda and Seat to step up to the line and fill the void. So this is what we see the VAG group doing to deal with the engineering problem. Yes that’s VW who is perceived by the world a s a company that’s doing things right, a company that sold 5 million vehicles last year and made NOTHING!

    Another company seen as doing things right is Toyota. In the 90’s when the two big US companies were battling for supremacy and buying every car company that wasn’t ‘nailed down’ and looking a bit shaky. Toyota was concentrating on making their cars the most reliable in the world, and while the Western World slept they slowly drew their plan. Mercedes got caught up in a speed war and for some reason decided they were going to produce the fastest luxury cars. Well the fastest to 250kph that is, but none the less the fastest cars to get there first. But they forgot one little flaw in their big idea. You see it doesn’t matter how fast your car goes on paper, it’s just a piece of useless junk if it does even start in the morning. So before they knew it Lexus was upon them and they’re still trying to recover from it today.

    So what has this got to do with the 9-5? Well Toyota has got the same engineering problems. They started the 7 year architecture game and so they are feeling the pinch first. But instead of producing other new niche models from the same chassis and spend millions on convincing us that we really need that car. Toyota is now pulling in the ‘reins’. When other manufacturers are thinking of shortening platform cycles to only 5 Years. Toyota is actually extending life-cycles and spending longer on engineering. It’s all about resources and as costs producing aluminium platforms with direct-injected engines with compression charge ignition, something has to give.
    Maybe the 9-5 is a bit long in the tooth, or could it be that we’ve all been brain washed.
    Maybe the 9-5 should be looked at for what it is. A very well priced; entry level premium brand tourer.

  5. Very nicely put WooDz.
    Swade – be careful what you wish for and also take a look around – you already ARE running GMs saab blog. You’re also doing it with complete editorial freedom.

    WRT the 95 – I think your summary is right WooDZ and perhaps your conclusion a little harsh Swade. With respect to Stephen King ( who is a very clever guy) and the notion of editorial fearlessness – writing is a bit different to running a car business. You cannot just screw up the page, bin it and start again without somebody footing a multi – million dollar bill. Pragmatism rules and car companies have to work with what they’ve got. What seems to separate the successful ones from the dogs is the degree of ingenuity with which they do this. I don’t like Toyotas cars much but you’ve got to admire their business and engineering vision. These days I’m also a pretty big fan of BMW for the same reasons.

    The 95 is certainly not a new car but, its not a fossil either. What it really lacks is some stablemates so it doesn’t have to carry the marque as the flagship. Where is the Saab 97? The flagship coupe/saloon? Put that in place and suddenly the 95 looks much more competent and recognizable for what it is. A good car. Fast, useful, econnomical, safe and comfortable.

    FWIW – Saabs range if I were running the joint for the last 20 years ( as GM have effectively been) would look a lot like BMWs.

    97 Sedan & Coupe/vert
    96 coupe/vert
    95 Sedan, wagon & 95X
    93 coupe/vert, hatch, sedan, wagon, 93X
    92 Roadster
    91 coupe/hatch

    See? Don’t you think the 95 is a much more reasonable proposition now? Well its works for me anyway.

    A big irony for the whole extended model life that Saab ( not unlike Volvo and the Germans) use is that Saabs resale is so poor. If the cars and finance were positioned and supported a bit better in the used market, owner would appreciate the fact that the body shape changes so infrequently. But unlike, the Germans, volvo and Lexus, GM does not seem to grasp the concept of Customer Lifetime Value. Too busy just selling individual cars to see the point in selling 10 cars to someone over the next 50 years. Ask someone in sales at lexus or Audi how many of their customers are repeat business.

  6. I see that we are touching on a number of issues related to the status of the 9-5 but in my view, most of these apply to the whole of Saab. Many of the points raised here clearly point back to the lack of marketing and clear message to the consumer that has been lost in our market Down Under. We’ve touched on this many times before but if you look at the 9-5 volume sales in other markets being reasonable, the customer appreciation is still high, resale value is acceptable etc etc we will see that despite all its limitations the 9-5 still performs very reasonable. If the overall image and profile of Saab is raised and in par with say Audi, BMW, Volvo (even Lexus who are new comers) we wouldn’t be typing all these words. As a matter of fact some of the choices at hand from Audi are very poor and outdated but they still sell them. In any case a new 9-5 is desperately needed nevertheless. I hope Praveen stays long enough in his position and does indeed establish a solid marketing and promotions culture as he is doing now. This needs to continue and follow. The challenge will be to get the successor. PT are you still interested in moving to Melbourne ???

  7. This all comes back to whether GM investment in Saab is justified.

    GM obviously doesn’t believe that it gets its money back with Saab. That’s why the midlife updates in the 9-5 and 9-3 have been so minor. And yes, I think I’d put the 9-3 in the same category as the discussion of the 9-5. From the underinvestment we get all this parts sharing and shoddy reliability.

    GM has got to decide whether they can share efficiently and effectively, well enough to beat cars like the outstanding TL. If not, they must sell or close down Saab.

    The problem is, the less distinctive Saabs are the less worth buying they are, however the more distinctive (and expensive to develop) the more worth buying they are. And at this point, the Saab brand may be irreparably broken.

  8. Also wanted to say that I drove the 9-2 Aero over the weekend and GM and Subie management totally missed the boat by not keeping those two together. Saab would be the perfect Acura to Subie’s Honda. The design priorities, turbo among them, are very similar. It’s got to be better than sharing with Opel/Vauxhall/Saturn/ whoever.

  9. I guess this is when we all have to accept reality as what it is and swallow the fact that GM has simply done very little with the acquisition of this great brand. No one can deny that some other competitors to GM namely Ford have done a much better job in this department than GM. Just look at Volvo, Jaguar and even Aston Martin. Anyone with common business sense wouldn’t have touched Aston Martin when Ford bought it as it was loosing money hand over fist. Look at all of them now, even Ford is considering selling some of these alternate brands as they are profitable and will help with their own balance sheet. But a very basic principle in business in general has been missing: To make money you have to spend money. So, unless GM moves on with this principle and allow Saab to do what Volvo has done under Ford, we will continue to send Bible like blogs to each other on the same old subjects. Has anyone at GM worked around this business facts yet ??? Obviously not.

  10. I totally agree, the 9-5 needs a replacement now. Not because it’s a bad car, but because it’s close to 10 years old! All the reviews I’ve read of the 9-5 mentions the car’s age and I bet Saab lose lots of buyers for that reason. It’s too bad because the car is still very competitive. A few weeks ago I test drove the 9-5 2.0t Biopower, the 9-5 Aero and the 9-3SC 1.9TID with Hirsch 175hp tuning. To my big surprise, the 9-5 Biopower was the winner! So it’s a great car, but the time has come to say goodbye.

  11. Its a shame that the 95 was the testbed for the 93SS five years ago now and virtually none of the advances seem to have made it into the 95. How does Saab/GM Euro expect to grow the 5 series against Audi, BMW, MB, and Volvo…with a headlight treatment? Its not that hard to beat whats out there.

  12. I recently leased a 2006 Saab 9-5. I looked at other more “modern” competition and there were no doubt some appealing aspects to them that the Saab didn’t offer. But when I considered the 30% to 40% higher payments for these cars I was much less impressed. The Saab 9-5 is perhaps the best value out there. It’s performance capability is much more then I can access on the street (where I drive) and it has lots of passenger room, something the other competition such as the Audi A4Q, Volvo S60T5, BMW 325xi, Infiniti G35 and Acura TL could not match. Being FWD verses RWD is by no means a liability in the snowy area I live. I have to pay for and live with my car, not just test drive it and run the tires off it. In the real world the 9-5 is still a heck of a nice car for the money that is too easily overlooked due to the bad press.

  13. TCR that’s a great point. The reviewers are caught in their world but we drive in ours. I’m buying an 07 9-5 Aero for value reasons. I can’t buy this kind of performance, and something that carries 4 adults, for $35,000 in an Audi or Bimmer.

  14. Folks quite frankly we are all arriving at the same conclusions we had back about 1 year or so ago: Saab as a whole (the 9-5 in particular) are heavily undersold, unprompted and unappreciated vehicles of all the top brands. I agree with TCRs observations and Denver Saabs too. Even here in our markets at our prices, neither Audi, Merc nor BMW can come close to offer what Saab can. The argument that in our market people are not prepared to pay in the high $10Ks for a 4 cylinder prestige & performance vehicle is invalid. There are thousands that do pay for these equivalents from Audi and even BMWs underperforming 6 cyl. So, we continue to suffer from an image problem, lack of awareness and bad press on top of these. Not until this matters change even with a new 9-5 we will still struggle. This is really the main contributor to our woes !!!

  15. Contributor to our woes?? When/if Saab replaces the 9-5 with an AWD turbo V6 powered model that is priced up there with the A6 and 5 series, then that will contribute to my $$$ woes since I will have shop elsewhere. I like the current “secret” , Even if I am being selfish. To bad that which makes me “rich” makes SAAB/GM poor.

  16. Either you misread what I’ve stated or I didn’t explain my thoughts all that well. The contributor to our woes is all the heavy underselling, low promotion and under appreciation of Saab as a general and the 9-5 in particular. These to me are the outmost contributors to our woes and the reason for poor sales volume. I believe that even if a new 9-5 is released as you state, we will be still an underperforming supplier unless the profile and overall marketing of Saab as a whole is revamped to be comparable to that of Audi and Volvo as a minimum. If this does not happen our current problems will continue.

  17. I think I understand you; you are looking at it from Saabs business perspective. What I am saying is that Saab’s problem of low sales volume/low profitability is, at least for now, not a problem for me as a current buyer, In fact I think I am a net benefactor. Being a bargain hunter I find the best deals when I want something that no one else does (think ebay here). Of course, Saab must find success/profitability in order to survive so the current situation is not sustainable and in the end we could all suffer for it if they fail. I fear that if Saab does “succeed” we will have a more generic “ me too” Saab product, at a higher cost to the existing Saab buyer. It’s a case of “damned if we do, damned if we don’t”. That, I fear, is the real truth.

  18. Well, you are dam right that this will happen when Saab finally delivers a comparable product to its main competitors. I feel though that whenever that happens then the main competitors will have another true supplier that they will fear and price wars will inevitably happen. We the consumers will of course benefit from that. In any case Saab needs to continue with a strong marketing and aggressive price plan on the current models and up coming new ones. This is working very well with us Down Under.

  19. After owning 3 9-5 wagons (the last 2 Aero’s) I have reluctantly moved away from SAAB, the residual values in the current 9-5’s here in the UK make them very unattractive for a private buyer.
    I was hoping that the new model would be here already, like many of the above I wait with baited breath for the next model. Let’s hope it put’s the marque back where it belongs.

  20. We have three Saab’s. The 2002 9-5 Linear wagon is probably the most troublesome car we have ever owned. I can’t believe that Saab still has it in production. It’s time for the scrap heap. The new 9-3’s are so superior, that I can’t imagine why anyone would buy the 9-5, especially when you consider its outdated engineering.

  21. Right on Swade! I’ve always liked the 9-5 despite the unfortunate facelift. It’s always been the bigger car I’d like to buy if I needed one. For some reason it also seems more “Saablike” than the 9-3SS which is a car I now respect, but have never been able to like.

    The new 9-5 can’t come soon enough. I hope it comes with a bigger 3.2 litre turbo V6 added to the line up. In the meantime, let’s send off the old car with some style and dignity, but please don’t make it a lingering death. I don’t think the old 9-5 needs to hang around when the new car arrives, the way the 9000 did.

  22. Swade, I agree fully.

    The current Saab 9-5 cannot compete in the market it is being pitched at. Just look at BMW, Audi, Merc and Jaguar. All have a good range of engines and models for the “executive”. Even Peugeot/Citroen have a decent V6 Turbo Diesel.

    Due to the cost of motoring in the UK, the sort of people that will buy a 9-5 want something that is fast, stylish, comfortable, economical and tax efficient. The current car ticks some of these boxes but the interior dash is not a pleasant thing to behold, the car is narrow, the 4 cylinder diesel is an insult to a car like this and the exterior styling is pleasantly Saab but with addons that dont fit the image.

    I was a great fan of the old 9000 especially the Aero and still believe that this was the last great large Saab. Those seats are still the best in any car I have ever owned and that includes 4 Range Rovers…

    The new 9-5 needs to tick a lot of boxes and Saab need to decide where they want to position it. The group already have a reasonably good V6 diesel engine which can be tweaked to give it Saab performance, they now have XWD, they have a loyal following and they are pioneering Bio fuel technology.

    So lets hope they use what they have at their disposal to launch a flagship that Saab and their followers can be proud of for the next decade.

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