TTAC on the Saab 9-5

Where would you place the 9-5 in terms of competition?

I tend to think that it’s most natural competition is actually the Saab 9-3, which is pretty similar in size, is a sedan but with a wagon variant and comes with a V6 option.

Back when the 9-5 first arrived it was most likely aimed at the BMW 5 series and E class Mercedes, and it would have been a good value proposition against that class. But as we all know, the tightening of GM’s purse strings in the last 5 years left the 9-5 without the development it needed. Its bracket has now slipped from the 5-series to the 3-series in realistic terms. From the E Class to the C Class.

I have a feeling, though, that if I were to point this out to Robert Farago from The Truth About Cars, he’d just state quite plainly in his manner of fact voice that it’s called the 9-5 and that means if you’re going to compare it to anything, it has to be the 5 series as it has a 5 in its nomenclature. Right?

And so goes a review of the 9-5 that’s just popped up on TTAC. It’s not written by Farago himself, but as he edits just about everything that goes on there you can bet your house that it crossed his desk.

The review is actually written by a guy named P.J. McCombs – a shame really as my wife’s nickname here at home is PJ and one of my favourite writers, despite my differing politics, is PJ O’Rourke. I can assure you that I’m reserving none of the affection nor the respect that I have for the latter two on the former.

McCombs sees fit to ignore the reality of the 9-5’s current state whilst actually describing it pretty well. He covers the acceleration, the supremely comfortable seating and the better-than-he-expected handling but makes those outdated BMW-Merc comparisons as if it’s a show of his education rather than an exhibition of his lack of research and current vehicle knowledge.

The BMW 5-series starts at $43,000 in the United States.

The Saab 9-5 starts at around $36,000. Both figures are MSRP. Does that sound like it’s in the same class?

Now, the Bimmer will most likely get the nod due to its interior and handling. Which is fair enough. Saab’s interior issues are well documented here and elsewhere and the Bimmers are noted for their handling. I’m quite confident that Saab will address this in the next generation 9-5.

But even with these concessions, let’s evaluate McCombs’ comparison. I’m going to leave the Merc out of this for the moment due to time and manageability (It’s 11.30pm here).

Here’s some comparitives from BMW’s own website between the Saab 9-5 and the base model (i.e. closest in price) BMW 5-series. The features where there’s a tick are the ones where BMW figure they’ve got an advantage.

Firstly, Value and Warranty:


As you can see, there’s a couple of ticks there, but I’d say that one’s in the 9-5s favour on a purely statistical basis.

Next, we have Power and Performance…


What’s that?

Only 4 ticks out of around 15-20 criteria? But the Bimmer costs $7K more?

Maybe they’ll fare better with Safety and Security. Well, maybe not. Safety’s Saab’s strongsuit, remember….



Let’s look at Comfort and Convenience then…part 1


What, no steering wheel controls?? Whaddaya call these, Mr Munchen?


But hey, the lack of Residual Heat Recirculation is a biggie.

Now for the rest of Comfort and Convenience…


As you can see, there’s more ticks in these sections than in previous ones. But in a car that’s had the benefit of a lot more development dollars, and being one that costs a full US$7,000 more – you’d expect it.

There’s some dealbreaker items in there, too. Some people in this day and age won’t consider a car without proper Bluetooth integration as standard. Things like that make a difference.


Overall, though, the Saab stacks up pretty well. BMW use ticks to highlight areas where they consider themselves to have an advantage, but if they also used red crosses to mark a disadvantage then we’d be looking at a sea of red here.

Now, I’m not coming out and saying that a Saab 9-5 is a better car to drive than a BMW 5-series. Even the base model. I haven’t driven one, so how could I say so?

I am willing to say, though, that on paper the Saab makes a compelling value argument against a competitor that in dollar terms is a class above it.

PJ McCombs compares the Saab 9-5 to the 5 series and does so as if they’re still the natural competitors they were when the 9-5 was first released. I’d say me comparing the two on paper only is about as valid/silly as him comparing the two without making any reference to their base prices, or even better, what you’d have to pay for a 5-series that matches the Saab point for point on all features.


The Saab 9-5 definitely needs its next generation model to come sooner rather than later. No-one disputes this.

PJ McCombs manages to find good points about the 9-5 but like so many other motoring writers he seems to miss the point by making his pointless comparison. He evaluates the 9-5 with a bar set much higher than where reality sets it in 2007.

In terms of bang-for-your buck the 9-5 will outpoint a 5-series dollar for dollar – no problem, and that’s before you even breathe in the presence of BMW’s extensive options listings.

Will it outcorner a 5 series on a closed track like the one McCombs drove it on? Not likely.

But it will give you a genuinely exciting and effortless drive in total comfort and with irrefutable safety and respectable equipment levels

And with at east $7K to spare.

Maybe that explains the grin Jeremy Clarkson always refers to when describing Saab owners….

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  1. I’ve only read the first sentence of this post, so forgive me if I’m jumping the gun.

    But to answer the question: I think the 9-5 has no real competition. It’s sort of in a class of its own between the 3-series and A4 and the 5-series and A6.

    The way I think it lines up is that the 9-3 would compete against the low-level 3-series (328i and below) and A4 whereas the 9-5 would compete against the upper 3-series (330i) and A4 S-Type.

    The 9-5 is too expensive to compete against one class and not luxury or performance-based enough to compete against the other.

    I’ll read the rest of the post now…

  2. Hey, I just wanted to say that I really really dislike controls on the steering wheel. Maybe it’s convenient, and maybe it enhances safety?, but I like my steering wheel to be simply a really nice wheel. Paddle shifters are okay, but they are usually not mounted right on the wheel itself, and are irrelevant since they have no business on any saab in my opinion. I even feel they are kind of out of place on BMW M cars and such, but that is around where I would draw the line and it’s a blurry one.

  3. After actually reading the post I’m surprised at how favorably the “old” 9-5 compares to the 5-series on paper. I would have thought it wasn’t even a contest. As you mention there is some catching-up SAAB has to do and will hopefully do when the next 9-5 comes out (whenever that is).

    Automotive journalists are always quick to call the 9-5 “old” or “outdated” and when you realize that it designed roughly around 1997 I’d have to agree. So the next-gen 9-5 should be years ahead of the 5-series I would think.

    That writer apparently didn’t test the 9-5 and 5-series against each other in a “real-world” environment with real weather conditions. I’ll bet if he were driving those two cars TODAY on the East Coast of the U.S. in the snow the 9-5 would have a significant advantage…

  4. First, you are invited to post a reply to the review in our comments section.

    Second, the 9-5 review never even mentions BMW. Not once. For you to suggest that PJ based his review on a comparison to a BMW is entirely specious.

    Third, you have not addressed any of his major complaints here. I would be interested to hear you do so without resorting to comparison to other vehicles.

    In any case, I’m a big fan of the site. Keep up the good work.

  5. “Second, the 9-5 review never even mentions BMW. Not once”

    Huh? What about this:
    “In a car that purports to rival 528is and E350s, what we have here is a failure to communicate.”

  6. … and this:
    “as competition for the current 5-Series and Infiniti M, the Aero is worse than marginal;”

    But I liked this:
    “Hustled around a closed course, the Aero exhibits surprisingly gluey grip and a wispy, tossable nature that eludes most German iron.”

  7. At Mr. Farago’s suggestion I’ve read the comments at his site. I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t even read his article and my comments above relate to the post at this site rather than at his.

    That being said, I thought *I* was a pessimist before I read those comments. JEEZ! Now I think I’m a glass is half-full kind of guy.

    Everyone seems to be declaring SAAB dead just because of a 10-year-old design being a little long-in-the-tooth. The only thing that would stop me from running out and buying a 9-5 Sport Wagon right now is the price. If I were to get a steep discount (really, it should be less than a new 9-3, IMHO) I’d trade-in my wife’s ’01 9-3 today.

    You don’t realize how great this car is until you drive it. I didn’t use to like the 9-5 until I drove it. But I insist on the ventilated seats…

  8. Ted Y: or this (alludingly):

    “The chairs are wide, soft and all-day supportive: a welcome departure from the Teutonic class norm.”

  9. Oops. Sorry about that.

    I withdraw the statement (obviously).

    But the basic point remains: PJ’s review is not a shoot-out between BMW and the 9-5. To interpret it as such is to miss more important points about the 9-5.

  10. Just one thing…. The latest 5-series is not that great. It´s a car, it´s a beamer…. But not that good of a car. The new BM´s does not communicate with the driver. It´s become an MB… Saab keeps its positions like the Alfa Romeo as a drivers car…. Not a transportation divice.


  11. If you’ve driven both, I don’t think you can really disagree with his comments.

    I think the author, like many people, is not that interested in the Saab attributes that I appreciate, such as driving position, interior layout, seats, versatility, practicality, economy, uniqueness.

  12. I hate to say this but its like comparing chalk and cheese. IMO, the BMW 5 looks stunning, the 9-5….well you know my feelings on the latest 9-5. Having said that, I have seen a lot of post-facelift 9-5s driving around here in Vancouver so someone likes them. I think they represent good value but are not in the same league
    as a 5 series.

    I was shocked when I heard the 9-5 was the size of a Honda Accord.

    I am sure hoping Saab pulls something pretty special out of its hat for 2009 (or whenever it happens!).


  13. ‘Did anyone read the comments on TTAC. Not a lot of love there. Is SAAB that hated by some people?’

    Jon, you’re not kidding. The comments on TTAC are brutal. They’ve all but signed Saab’s death certificate…
    Their comments make it look like the promotion for Steve Shannon wasn’t really a promotion, but rather GM’s move to ‘send him to Siberia’…

  14. To Robert Farago:
    ‘PJ’s review is not a shoot-out between BMW and the 9-5.To interpret it as such is to miss more important points about the 9-5.’

    …the ‘more important points about the 9-5’ being that it is basically old and outdated – with a few almost-redeeming attributes?
    That’s pretty much the point of the review, I think…
    Boy..GM better not wait long for a new 9-5…2010?!?!?!?!?!?

  15. First, aren’t the new Saabs al coming with 5 year, 100k miles warranty? Is this only for the USA? is this review for the USA?

    2nd, I think it’s kind of funky to be bragging about the engine size and displacement being larger, when saabs old trusty 2.3T makes MUCH more power, and still gets same mileage… on paper… 9-5s engine performance should be compared to 530 or 535 or watever the hell they keep changing them too. And as usual, the numbers are probably underrated from the factory (saab) and 9-5 is even faster than numbers may have you believe…

    3rd, there will be an even BIGGEr price difference considering Saabs are almost always slashed in price, and BMWs dont budge much. This alone must be losing Saab lotsa money? I don’t know much about this category…

  16. Saaboy: yes, the new SAABs come with a 5 year, 100K mile POWERTRAIN warranty, and that’s noted in the comparison above. The basic warranty (bumper to bumper) is 48 months (the same as BMW) and the free scheduled maintenance is for 36 months (one year short of Bimmer’s).

    As to your second point, add-in the fact that with the Bimmer to get less horsepower and torque than the SAAB you have to use premium gasoline. The SAAB generates more horsepower and has the same fuel economy. But you’ll pay probably USD0.20 less per gallon of gas buying regular instead of premium. Over a year that really adds up and to your pocketbook it looks like better fuel economy.

    Your third point is valid as well and I think Swade touched on it by pointing out that the 9-5 is so much less expensive (even MSRP) than the Bimmer it’s almost in a class of its own. Add-in the options to the Bimmer to make it compete head to head with the SAAB and it’s no longer even a contest.

    Another thing: note that there’s no ability to tow with the 5-series. The 9-5 can tow up to 3,500 lbs (more than most small 2WD SUVs can handle). I know you’re not going to do a heck of a lot of hauling with the SAAB, but it’s nice to know you could if you had to.

  17. 1985 Gripen, thanks for pointing that out. I’m sure T7 would take care of you if you did 87 or 89 fuel. But for the love of saab, DONT DO IT PEOPLE. Plus, you woundl’t get those performance numbers.

    What exactly determinds whether a car can ‘haul’ or not? A simple attachment? How much crap the gearbox can handle b4 it dies?

  18. I must say, the TTAC article and comments were both brutal, and sadly correct. I couldn’t really fault anything they said. The truth is, there are very few of us who love Saab for more narrowly appreciated attributes, and for us few, no matter what they do, we’ll hang on to the death.. which could be imminent. I know its negative, but I love Saab and I hope that GM gets it act together with providing Saab with the resources they need to stay alive. The new 9-5 really needs to blow everything else away.

  19. As someone who has owned 5-series as his last three large sedans (’92, ’98 and current ’05 545i), I recently did a road test in a 2007 9-5 Sportcombi with the Aero package (we now want a wagon). As someone who has actually driven both cars, I can say the Saab’s advantages are several: some of the best seats in any automobile at any price; suprising interior leg room; perhaps the best FWD handling of any car I have driven; and the winter traction that comes with FWD. The car is somewhat dated, AC system is a bit noisy, car lacks some of the electronic toys of newer vehicles (not necesasarily a disadvantage given electronic failures in some vehicles), but the 4-cylinder high pressure turbo is a really great combination given power and lower weight compared to 6-cylinder engines of similar hp. And the price is highly competitive.

  20. Fierce brand loyalty is an emotional, rather than a rational, choice. As such, I’m a bit confused by this post, Swade. On this site, you take a number of automotive writers to task for not “getting” the emotional appeal of Saab’s products. Which is fair. Yet here, you’ve attempted to “prove” that your emotional preference is absolutely, objectively, the correct one-—period!

    Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.

    Your post asserts that I was incorrect to list the 528i and E350 as rivals in my TTAC review (obviously, I disagree. The 9-5 is a European premium midsize sedan whose exterior dimensions are within fractions of an inch of the BMW’s and Merc’s). And you’re right, of course, that the 9-5’s $35,115 U.S. price is significantly lower than the 528i’s ($44,195) and E350’s ($51,325).

    All right then, let’s talk alternatives. If the intent of my review was to provide a price/feature comparison with every premium midsize sedan on the market (it was not), I would have mentioned the Acura TL ($34,295), Cadillac CTS ($30,405), Infiniti G35 ($32,150), and Subaru Legacy GT ($28,920). All will “give you a genuinely exciting and effortless ride in total comfort,” as you put it, and all list for less than the 9-5. As an added bonus, they weren’t designed in the previous century.

    Let’s be honest: if the 9-5 isn’t priced against the 5-Series and E-Class as directly as it has been in the past, it’s not because Saab wants things that way. It’s because consumers clearly don’t find the 9-5 to be as desirable as those vehicles, and wouldn’t buy them without bargain-bin pricing. Even at $35,000, the 9-5 sells only around 400 units a month in the States—-a mere trickle.

    As for your spreadsheet comparison of the 525i and 9-5, you are correct that the 9-5 has many of the same standard features as the 525i, despite its lower price.

    But please. As a car enthusiast, you’re really going to say with a straight face that a standard-features spreadsheet adequately exposes the relative merits of two vehicles? We both know that the joys of motoring are found in its subjective sensations: the feel of the interior materials, the smoothness of the engine, the sound of the exhaust, the feel and feedback of the steering, the snick of the gearbox, the solidity of the structure. Any “value” judgment that fails to take these qualities into account is frankly worthless.

    And do the tactile qualities of the 9-5 and its driving experience measure up to the 5-Series’? I don’t think so-—and according to your post, you just don’t know, having never driven one. Is that also true of the TL, CTS, G35, and Legacy GT?

    In the U.S., struggling automakers frequently make use of spreadsheet comparisons like these, precisely because they fail to capture a vehicle’s real-world worth. With them, Ford can show you that a Taurus is a better car than a Honda Accord. They are the domain of the desperate.

    And if you think that the 9-5’s most natural competitor is its step-down sibling, the 9-3, then Saab is indeed in dire straits. From Jay Spenchian, Saab’s U.S. General Manager: “the 9-5 continues to be the flagship of our Saab car portfolio.” A flagship should represent more than marginal value over that brand’s volume seller, no? As for the 3-Series and C-Class you mention, both are leagues better to drive and a couple grand cheaper than the 9-5, and have larger front- and rear-legroom dimensions.

    Swade, before you write another rant against a writer that drove the 9-5 back-to-back with its rivals (in my case, the 528i, E350, TL, and CTS) and preferred the latter, go and test-drive them for yourself, in person. This will not only allow you to make your case based on direct experience with the subjective qualities that actually sell cars; you may also find that the 9-5’s age really does make it deficient in some meaningful ways as a brand-new purchase.

    I also suggest that you take your beef with said writers to the “comments” section of their articles, or to them directly via e-mail, before making attacks of a personal nature because they do not share your preference in automobiles.

  21. P.J – I thank you for your consideration, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on about 90% of what you’ve written here.

    Point by point:

    Emotion is an undoubted element in any vehicular choice, but I think you’ll find Saab owners to be amongst the most rational people out there. My Saabs give me the best value in terms of performance, comfort, safety and utility that there is. Period! It’s great that you get to test all of these different cars free of charge and make your comments as a person that doesn’t necessarily have to spend the money on one of them. You’re free to write purely about the emotional aspect of the various experiences. Call me a Vulcan if you must, but I write here from the value perspective to a group of people very interested in the Saab brand – ones who have not only that emotional connection to it, but also people who undestand that rational value equation.

    Yes. I do assert that evaluating a Saab 9-5 by measuring it to a current 5-series and E-class is incorrect. Do you think there are many $51K E-Class buyers that are cross-shopping the $35K 9-5? I think they’d be pleasantly surprised if they did, but I don’t think that’s happening right now.

    More than that, though, what you did was set a tone where you make a conscious decision. “This car that I’m driving is going to be evaluated against other cars, rather than evaluated on it’s own merits.” (an example – not a quote). I’d dare say that a lot of readers who see the letters ‘BMW’ in a review of another brand just roll their eyes and say “here we go again”.

    “As an added bonus, they weren’t designed in the last century”.

    Ha freaking ha. This Roman calendar of ours has provided you with some great fodder there. Do you make the same jokes about Porsche or Mercedes engines that were designed years and years ago and tweaked along the way. Age isn’t necessarily a disadvantage and blanket assessments that it is are just shallow.

    As to the price difference, that’s just on sticker prices. The extended purpose of the comparisons I posted was point out how much more that base 5-series will cost a real person if they’re to option it up to include all the stuff you get on the 9-5. That wasn’t my spreadsheet comparison, by the way, that was a series of screendumps from BMW’s own website. Like I said in the post – if they put red crosses on areas of “disadvantage” like they put blue ticks on areas of “advantage” then we’d be looking at a whole lot of red on the equipment list. It’s amusing that BMW actually have this comparison chart available considering that you regard such things as the domain of the desparate. It’s even more amusing that theirs would show their shortcomings in this area if they were to represent it objectively.

    They do indeed only sell 400 uits a month. I’ve covered this plenty of times here. It’s a damn shame too, as it’s a fine car. I took this up with Saab USA and whilst they do pay lip service to the 9-5’s flagship status they can’t back it up with their limited marketing dollars. They use those on the 9-3 because that’s where they see they’ll get the best return. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that anyone here’s happy or content with any of this.

    I’ll write this with a striaght face, so read carefully….

    Let me make a statement here that isn’t “worthless”, which is how you seemed to rate my previous post here. Were I in the position to spend the money on a new car, I would happily hand that money over for a 9-5 in Aero specification than a base model 5-series BMW or base model E-Class Mercedes. All those things you mention about the driving experience, well in my experience with the 9-5 they suit me and my driving style right down to the ground. I love the way the car feels in general and especially under power. I’d have no hesitation and with the money I saved…well perhaps I’d ad a few more tricks to the 9-5s bag and close that handling gap a little.

    On to your relative merits paragraph:

    I drove a new 9-5 back in January of this year and I found the interior materials to be great. I don’t like the new layout so much, but the materials were fine and I could live with them and have few complaints (if any).

    I have the same engine that’s in the 9-5 in my Viggen. Again, not even the faint fart of a complaint. I love that engine and I think you’ll find there’s plenty of others out there too. I drove a (slightly older) BMW straight 6 late last year and came away noting that it was totally lifeless unless provoked and completely devoid of torque. As mentioned, this was an older unit (mid-90s) but I find it hard to believe that a 5-series base engine with 185 lb ft of torque is going to arouse my trousers. As a matter of fact, the owner of that BMW I drove came away from driving my Viggen asking how he could get more ‘torks’ in his 328.

    The exhaust? It’s emotive but hardly a singular reason to choose one car over another. A smallish part of a much larger pie, and easily overcome aftermarket anyway.

    The feel and feedback of the steering. Sorry pal, but there’s no deficiency in the 9-5’s steering feel or feedback at all. Maybe the BMWs is better, but that doesn’t mean that the 9-5s is bad in any way. It’s a great driver’s car and I’ve logged enough time on various Targa roads here in Tasmania to say that with the utmost confidence.

    The snick of the gearbox. We’re really getting down to tin tacs here, aren’t we? Again, I’ve got a similar (same?) gearbox in my Viggen and I’ve got no complaints at all. And this points out the limited value of the comparison road test. Why even bother if all you’re going to end up doing is pointing out that another car is better? Why not just say “i drove a 9-5 a week ago but didn’t find it as good as the E-class, so here’s my review of that…again”

    The fact that the 9-5 hasn’t been differentiated more from the 9-3 is indeed a big burden for Saab to bear right now. It’s not been renewed as early as it should have been and Saab are suffering as a result. Again, you’ll find plenty of coverage about those issue here. And I think you’ll find them covered in amanner that would actually suit TTAC’s position.

    But that’s not to say that the 9-5s a poor car. It says that Saab could design a new one a lot better given the right resources – and they will in the next few years.

    There’s one sentence I will apologise for: “….makes those outdated BMW-Merc comparisons as if it’s a show of his education rather than an exhibition of his lack of research and current vehicle knowledge.”

    On reflection, that could have been worded better. In my defence, it was late at night and I was somewhat pissed off. But regardless, it was too close to personal and I apologise for any offence caused.

    You don’t get to rank above my wife or PJ O’Rourke in the respect stakes, however. Fair is fair.

    As for posting it here as opposed to there on TTAC. The groupthink that often ensues in comments there is way too time consuming. I have a blog of my own to run (and a job, and a family, and, and). Added to that, Farago and Spinelli (Jalopnik) once responded to some issues I had by calling me the “the guy who drank the Kool-Aid” on a podcast rather than dealing with them here (or there), so I’ll cite that as a precedent call myself content with responding publicly on a domain that’s my own.

    I write primarily for Saab enthusiasts. I don’t do it blindly and I’m not scared to be critical. I’ll write for TTAC when Farago agrees to write here and we can go from there on a post-for-post basis.

    Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts. I will get around to driving more of the competition as and when I can. I live a pretty busy life (don’t we all) in a small city on an island. There’s no press cars here. Access isn’t always easy and combined with demands on time it tends to slip down the priority list.

    But give Saab a fair go. They’re better than how a lot of journos portray them and in terms of practical everyday living and driving they’re an excellent proposition.

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