Saab 9-5 vs BMW 5-series

Sometimes the motoring journos don’t ‘get’ Saab. So it’s up to we Saab owners to sing the virtues of these little Swedish cars.

A three year old Saab 9-5 against a new 5-series? Any motoring journo worth his seat on the gravy train would scoff. Surely, given a choice, anyone would prefer the 5, yes?

Introducing Chris, an Aussie and for the last 12 months, the owner of a 2004 Saab 9-5 Aero.

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Saab 9-5 Aero A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go for a drive in a friend’s 2006 BMW 525i. We had all been out for lunch and he didn’t feel like driving home so I was given the keys. My usual ride is a 2004 9-5 Aero with automatic transmission and I was keen to compare it to the “ultimate driving machine.”

Technically this is not a true comparison as the 5 series BMW is not a direct competitor of the 9-5. It is also a very new design and a newer car than mine. Although I didn’t ask I believe the BMW I drove featured professional navigation, electric seats, full blue tooth kit and probably a few more gadgets that I couldn’t see (or find a use for). My 9-5 Aero is stock standard and the only option I would want (but unfortunately don’t have) is the ventilated seats.

The exterior

This comes down to personal preference. I prefer the previous 5 series exterior design and am not attracted to the current one. Of all the new BMWs i think the 3 series Coupe is the only good looking one.

Saab 9-5 AeroVerdict- On this count you know I will always prefer the 9-5 because that is the car that I chose for myself. I think the 2004 model year was a great combination of body kit and alloys. The new 9-5 is growing on me but I still prefer the older version.

The Driver’s Seat

The BMW’s seats, with full electric adjustment and memory, lacked lateral and thigh support and felt too short. A previous ride in the front passenger seat had indicated that the seats were uncomfortable and this drive confimed it. Whilst I didn’t slide around, the seats just didn’t seem right. The 9-5 Aero’s sport seats on the other hand provide lots of support, are very comfortable on long drives and look brilliant in their two tone grey/black leather.

Although I didn’t test it I understand the memory setting for the seats includes the mirrors and, possibly the steering wheel which also has electronic adjustment. This is better than mine which only has memory for the seat itself and manual steering wheel adjustment. I think the BMW also offers more adjustement for the seats than SAAB. Of course all the adjustement in the world is not going to make those seats comfortable but at least they tried to make it up for it with extra electronics.

Verdict – 9-5 Aero’s sports seats hands down winner.

Technology

The electronic gadgets in any BMW will always be about 5 years ahead of SAAB. The question is, are these gadgets necessary? The head up display which included your speed and navigation directions was very useful. I adapted to it after about 10 minutes and think this is a really good feature. You keep your eyes on the road and don’t need to look separately at navigation and speedo. This is good technology. The parking sensors are much better and use a TV Display to show the distance between your car and obstacles with colour coding and graphics. This is much clearer than the SAAB system, which features beeps only, and also has front sensors.

Apart from that I didn’t touch anything else but I did note standard AUX input for i-pod and seamless blue tooth integration. (not that bluetooth is a very important option anyway) Like new SAABs the air conditioning is controlled by dials and it seemed to work quite well. However, I think the digital display on mine and other pre 2006 SAABs is easier to read than dials.

Verdict – BMW wins for high tech gadgets, some of which are useful.

Interior

The BMW features good leather and excellent quality materials on all surfaces. The design is not to my taste but there is no doubting the quality and the care that went in to putting it together. Overall the cabin, which was in a sand coloured leather, felt very light and spacious making my 9-5 feel small in comparison. Although in terms of actual measurements I am sure they are very similar.

The front seats are carved out at the back making them much smaller and thereby increasing rear leg room. Does the BMW have anything like SAAB’s active head restraints that protect the driver and passenger in the event of a rear collision? Probably not, but let’s not get too technical.

The BMW also has much more storage space with useful storage on the centre console and in the door bins on all doors. The 9-5 has very limited interior storage with tiny door bins and only a small storage space under the centre front armrest. It does have map pockets on each front seat but other SAABs that I have been in, such as 9000s and 900s, had much more storage space.

The boot (or trunk for non-Australians) in the BMW had some handy storage boxes in there together with first aid kit. Mine on the other hand can’t fit the SAAB storage box because I have a CD stacker. This is a shame as I would really like a storage box in there given the lack of storage in the cabin.

Verdict – Personally I prefer the 9-5’s interior design but that is more of a subjective judgement. I have to admit the BMW is a few grades above my 9-5 in terms of quality of materials and construction.

The Drive

I had the opportunity to drive on some highways and back roads that were fairly light on for traffic and had good quality tarmac. After checking that I was covered by his insurance I started the car up. This was an elaborate process – I had to insert the key into the ignition turn it as if I was starting the car and then press the start button on the dash. I had two goes at this and both times found it confusing. This has all the hallmarks of technology for the sake of it.

I have heard this straight 6, good for 160kw, is one of BMW’s best engines and apparently a great improvement over the previous straight 6 used in the entry level 5 series. This engine delivers smooth and linear acceleration and drives very quietly. I couldn’t make it accelerate quickly enough and it took a lot of prodding to get a spirited reaction. Apparently the transmission needs to learn your driving style and towards the end it started to “learn” how to accelerate. I would say it still needed a few more years of education though. The BMW, at any speed, feels taut and it is never going to get out of control but it will never be exciting.

My 9-5 Aero, on the other hand, responds much better to pressure on the accelerator. There may be a slight pause as the turbo fires up or the transmission finds the right gear but after that it is lightening fast. Of course it doesn’t accelerate with the same precision as the BMW, and there is sometimes a hint of torque steer, but I enjoy the rush all the same.

The transmission, a 6 speed auto, did its job competently and unobtrusively. It was always in the right gear and the changes were seamless and in some fairly slow hill climbing it was very supportive. My 9-5’s auto on the other hand is vastly inferior. At slower speeds and on hills it can shift between gears awkardly and at inconvenient times. I can now understand why some people prefer manuals.

The BMW’s steering was very light and precise. I felt in complete control when driving the car and really noticed how well it took corners. It has a smaller steering wheel with a thick leather rim. The 9-5’s steering is certainly not of this standard and doesn’t feel as precise as the BMWs. You do get more feedback in the 9-5’s steering but I would still say the BMW’s is better.

Verdict – objectively the BMW drives better in that it is more controlled but I prefer the 9-5 for the excitement and driver involvement.

Overall

The 5 series is clearly a ‘better’ car for its build quality, technology and refinement. It is also a very expensive vehicle and I would say that it would have been a good $AUD 20 000 more than my 9-5 brand new once all the options were added in. I don’t think the BMW is the ultimate car and even though my 9-5 has some shortcomings I would still choose it as an overall package. The BMW is clinically precise and built to the highest standard. I just prefer the 9-5 for its character, comfort and clever innovations like night panel and the special speedometer with enlarged 0-140km zone. As a driver I think a comfortable and supportive seat is essential and the BMW, as a $100K+ car, is very disappointing in this regard.

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17 Comments

  1. From a Saab owner that was a very reasonably article. I appreciated the author’s fairness when differentiating his preference and real quality issues. SAAB automobiles may never be of the same quality as BMW, but they will still be enjoyed by those who own them.

  2. I will have to agree with you on most points of your comparison. I have not had the pleasure to have a full drive in a 9-5 Aero, but I see your points and that you are honest enough to note the shortcomings of an older car. I have driven a few 5’s myself and was very impressed with the drive, quality, and styling. I’d still take a Saab any day. The ultimate driving machine also has an ultimate price tag (in comparison).

  3. I have a few friends with new BMW’s… At fist, they love the car… and then, a few complaints pop up… Transmission not shifing properly, (car felt slow…) had to go back for a computer up-grade, also advised the trani was never re-programmed from the factory. I-drive at first was fun, after a few months, a pain. BMW does not go out of it’s was in the service department. As they have a good service plan, it’s when they say so, Don’t show up without an appointment, “they can’t see you”. My friend blew out two front tires, he called roadside assistance and waited 3 hours for the flat bed. BMW DEALER WAS 5 BLOCKS AWAY. When it got to the dealer service department, they replaced the tires . Unother 2.5 hours. Upon leaving the dealership, it was observed that the blue tooth was not working, back into the service bay, another 1.5 hours, the owner was advised a computer up-grade was NEEDED. GO THE DEALER WHO SOLD YOU THE CAR.
    In all my years with Saab, they treated me like gold (and still do) My friend want’s out of this car sooo bad. HE CAN’T, LEASED IT FOR 3 YEARS.

  4. New BMW 5 – drool!! IMHO the sexiest four-door car on the planet. Pre-06 9-5s are great too but they just dont stir up the same kind of visual excitement. Please dont get me to comment about the current 9-5!

  5. this gentlemans 9-5 is the most visually exciting saabs from the last 2-3 years for sure… I dont know how you can compare the underpowered 525 to the power of the aero… not fair to the bmw πŸ™‚ itll get destroyed in most types of races… no torque!

  6. This is a good comparison article, IMHO. This focuses on all the things important to a “daily driver” car, not just how it handles on the Nurburgring. If I had to break down my driving situations it would probably consist of 85% stop-and-go traffic, 15% 75 mph highway driving, and 0% Nurburgring/Autobahn.

    If I had to pick a car to drive in a track race, it might be the Bimmer. But day-to-day I’ll take the Saab anytime.

  7. I have a Saab 9-5 Aero 2005. I love it and that may give my comment more than a little bias. Nevertheless is the Saab more youthfully slim on the exterior which suits me fine. Moreover it is fully equipped regarding both power and safety. The BMW on the other hand has really inferior protection against whiplash damage. Whiplash damage is involved in 63 % of the car accidents where there is any damage to the driver or passengers! Excuse my Swenglish.

  8. if i had to pick a car i would go for the 9-5 their are too many bmw on the road they are starting to look like Volkswagens. a luxury car should not be seen that often

  9. I’ll confess to having a foot in both camps here and to be honest, I’ve given up deciding which one is better. I own a 3 year old BMW and a 10 year old Saab. They both do different things and I cherish them for it. All I need is to get a Porsche in the garage now. And upgrade the Saab to Turbo X.

    Good to see someone not just bash BMW mindlessly. If you appreciate driving, engineering, safety, history, racing and commitmment to automobiles all-round its hard not to like BMW.

    I wish Saab was run by a board with the committment and skill of BMWs.

  10. You must be kidding. My recent drive in a 2007 9-5 tells me that it feels ancient. That’s coming from someone who has a 2003 9-3SS Vector and had a 1994 9000CS with Aero suspension.

    When I tried chasing a 1980 BMW 320i on the backroads with my 9-3SS, I just thought it’s about as fun as someone ploughing snow. Now with a proper, well-tuned RWD setup like a 5-series, you get to carve the snow precisely by using the throttle. There maybe things you like better about the Saab, but handling is definitely not one of them. And I’ve also gotta hand it to BMW for making the 5-series just a bigger and more luxurious 3-series. Everyone else in this class seems to think that people want a more sedate ride.

    I look forward to the 9-3SS SportCombi with XWD and hopefully an ever more groundbreaking future 9-5. But personally, I think Saab should go further and carve its own independent road and quit trying to compete with the mainstream luxury or performance makers. If I want performance and sportiness, BMW is still king of the road as far as 4-door vehicles are concerned (until Porsche joins the fray). But independent-mindedness is what I value Saab for.

  11. “not that bluetooth is a very important option anyway”? I can’t tell if that’s a joke or the guy is smoking something.

    People love bluetooth. My friend raves about how well bluetooth works in his Acura (and he isn’t super technology oriented.) Auto writers compare bluetooth functionality from car to car.

    Once I saw Lexus’ implementation I saw how it would make life a lot easier.

  12. Bluetooth is only important for some people. I sure as hell don’t care about it, but for some people, it can be the dealbreaker when choosing between two cars.

    Personally, I don’t need my car stereo to do anything that my home stereo can’t.

  13. James:

    My comment in the review about bluetooth was ironic. In the market segment SAAB is in bluetooth is a reasonable expectation.

    Saaboy: i am yet to take the aero onto the track. I hope to give it a work out one day and feel all 350Nm of that torque.

    Chris

  14. cdp88,

    I agree with you. Bluetooth is an EXPECTATION in this market segment. SAAB really should catch up, offer Bluetooth and OnStar as options, and let buyers decide.

    This and the lack of appropriate iPod integration are in the CON column when I look at the new MY 2008 9-3; however, there still are more PROs.

  15. James

    No worries. I am still considering whether to install a bluetooth system with wiring, harness etc. I shouldn’t have to do this but I prefer driving SAAB to BMW πŸ™‚

  16. Swade

    I must take issue with a couple of points made.

    In my opinion the 9-5 is a direct competitor with the 5 series, or at least should be.

    The other thing you didnt mention, and this is probably due to the fact that you were just using the car for a friend is the fuel consumption.

    Nowadays a 5 series diesel with offer the same performance as a 9-5 Aero, cost a lot less in tax and do nearly 50Mpg.

    Howrver I still would not buy a 5 series as I hate those stupid runflat tyres!!!!!

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