He looks across at us and says, "Crazy isn't it? To get the first 9-5, I had to go and buy the company."
Victor Muller is the Dutch entrepreneur who has rescued Saab from the dustbin of history by purchasing the remnants of the Swedish car company out of General Motors' forced bankruptcy. He's an adamant, outspoken kind of car guy, which is how he managed to start Spyker cars in 2000 at the age of just 41. And it's this temperament that leads him to hand over the keys to a preproduction 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD and invite us to drive him into town from the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam where we met him.
We did the right thing and accepted.
One Very Long Road
It was back in 2002 when we visited the Saab/GM Advanced Design Studio just outside of Gothenborg, Sweden, and there on the wall was a full-size drawing of the 2011 Saab 9-5. It was clear that the car was ready to go into production if only GM could find the money. Beneath the skin would be the same Epsilon II platform that you now see under the 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS and 2009 Opel Insignia.
But GM could never find the money, so instead the Saab 9-5 went on to a 13-year lifespan while other cars in the premium executive segment thundered ahead with new technology. The last 2010 Saab 9-5 rolled off the line last July, while production of the 2011 Saab 9-5 just started about 10 days ago.
Saab sales in North America dropped 35 percent in 2008, when just barely over 20,000 cars went through the turnstiles at dealerships. And when GM announced in 2009 that Saab would either be shut down or sold off, North American sales plunged a further 59 percent to just 8,680 vehicles last year.
But we've already figured out that this 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD is far from the sort of car you'd expect from a company just emerging from bankruptcy. This is the full Aero trim, for one thing. Plus the Holden-engineered 2.8-liter V6 is enhanced by a Borg-Warner twin-scroll turbocharger, and the result is 296 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 295 pound-feet of torque at 2,300-5,200 rpm. (We can't help but occasionally rev the engine just to watch the needle on the boost gauge swing around the dial and hear the slight whistle of the turbine.)
Plus this car has the latest, trickest Haldex all-wheel-drive system that combines a quick-acting center differential with an electronic limited-slip rear differential to combine the best of AWD traction and rear-wheel-drive dynamics, just like the 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X that introduced the technology.
"It was so frustrating for Saab fanatics like me for so many years," Muller says. "Not only did we have to wait 13 years for this next 9-5, but then we waited a ridiculous amount of time for four-wheel drive while GM Europe took whatever profits Saab was making and threw them into an Opel/Vauxhall black hole.
"Now we're independent, and our next four models are paid for," Muller goes on, "and I am committed to returning Saab to its roots while at the same time finally bringing the brand up to the level of quality and respect that the Germans rightfully receive these days."
Inside the Ice Hotel
The interior of the 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero is an honest, solid execution and it captures the quality that we've seen in the Buick LaCrosse and Opel Insignia. Aside from the soothing grays of the leather upholstery on this overcast Dutch day, the dominant color is a vibrant green. All the instrument needles, some buttons on the navigation system's touchscreen and several ambient lighting sources around the cabin shine with this traditional Saab hue. We feel embraced in Nordic-ness, the kind of alternative spirit that makes the cars of Trollhattan (Saab's traditional home) so appealing.
Of course, no longer is the ignition key located on the center console next to your thigh. Instead it has been suitably updated to a start/stop button on the center console that is surrounded by tiny slots that glow green. The handbrake lever is gone as well, as every 9-5 now gets an electrically operated handbrake operated by a discrete button, making room for a center console with storage compartments. As you look through this Aero's three-spoke steering wheel (inspired by the 2006 Aero X concept car), you see a dial that displays digital data. Among other things, this little disc can show your speedometer readout in the same graphic style as an airplane altimeter, a cool little manifestation of Saab's born-from-jets heritage.
For all this, the Saab 9-5's interior is still a little too reserved, kind of like the automotive equivalent of Sweden's famous Ice Hotel.
"Yes," agrees Muller. "We are going to be working massively on perfecting the Saab interior experience and a big part of that is constantly improving the materials choices." In fact, Muller tells us that not long after the introduction of the 2011 Saab 9-5 in the U.S. this summer, Saab will launch a personalization program much like the German carmakers offer and you'll be able to choose richer leather upholstery. Personally we'd also prefer more sporting seats with more supportive side bolsters.
Styling for the Aviator
The 2011 Saab 9-5 rediscovers the company's aircraft heritage with a sleek, angular form that reminds us of an aircraft fuselage.
In the Swedish style, the shape of the car is very clean and looks good in this light silvery gray. All of the lighting elements deliberately take on a chilly feeling, particularly up front where the lights have a blue tint. Simon Padian, Saab's design chief, says the lights are meant to look like blocks of ice. In back, the bar of light that runs the width of the trunk is something we like, and it'll be part of the look of all future Saabs. In Aero trim, the 2011 9-5 gets larger, meaner intakes in the front fascia, adaptive-cornering headlights, foglights, rectangular exhaust tips and turbine-style 19-inch wheels wrapped in Goodyear Eagle F1 tires.
This 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD will be the first model of the new 9-5 to reach America, and we'll get the regular 9-5 2.0T with its turbocharged, 217-hp Ecotec inline-4 later in 2010, for which the XWD all-wheel drive and eLSD limited-slip will be optional. In a really evolved move, both models of the 2010 Saab 9-5 will be available only with a six-speed automatic transmission.
Keep Pushing It
We know that you think we're loony, but we've always found the sort of driver involvement offered by the sportiest Saabs to be uniquely pleasing. We find ourselves employing some body English here and there, as if we were channeling the spirits of Saab rally drivers Erik Carlsson and Stig Blomqvist, both notorious wild men at the wheel.
The turbocharged V6 has variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams, and when you factor in 10.9 psi of boost, then you get a wide spread of torque between 2,000 rpm and 6,000 rpm. As a result Saab says this new, larger 9-5 will get to 60 mph in a decent 6.7 seconds.
Turbo lag is minimal, and it will shrink to almost nothing when a twin-turbo version of this V6 is introduced for the high-performance Saab 9-5 Viggen. (The Viggen — "Thunderbolt" — was a jet fighter built by Saab between 1970 and 1990.) "The Viggen name should play a significant role in the future," Muller confirms.
Sized for Swedes
This second-generation 2011 Saab 9-5 is noticeably more spacious, measuring 197.2 inches overall or 6.8 inches longer than before, and the wheelbase has been stretched 5.3 inches to match. This makes the Saab longer than both the 2010 Audi A6 and 2010 BMW 5 Series. Muller stands just over 6-foot-4, and when we placed him in the driver seat there was still room for our 6-foot frame in the rear seat, with a tremendous amount of space for knees and head.
DriveSense is the same kind of electronic chassis-control concept that we've seen elsewhere, only now applied to a Saab for the first time and with a bit more sophistication. There's a rheostat to the left of the transmission shift lever and you can set it to Comfort, Intelligent or Sport, depending on the combination of suspension damping, steering assist, throttle response, transmission shift schedule and stability-control intervention that you want.
We didn't initially feel much difference between Comfort and Intelligent. But once Muller nudged us to put our foot into it (OK, pal, it's your car company), the scope of the Intelligent setup became apparent. In this mode the parameters simply adapt to one of 11 different settings that depend on your driving style at the moment. Go slowly and it thinks comfort; go quickly and it thinks performance.
There's a lot about the 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD that will remind you of the Opel insignia OPC and the 2010 Vauxhall Insignia VXR. Overall, Saab's chassis engineers also have improved damper action at low speed and over bumps so there's less shudder from the steering column. Even so, we still wish it were possible to set up the suspension independently from the rest of the DriveSense systems. And while the shift paddles on the steering wheel that are part of the Aero TurboV6 operate nicely, Saab should upgrade their appearance and the feel the action has for your fingertips.
Further Signs of Life
Under GM's direction from 1990-2010, Saab fell into the trap of believing it could charge the same price for its cars as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Victor Muller knows that new thinking is required, and while he says the Audi A6 is the target for the 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD, he knows that the car can't go head-on with the Audi A6 3.0 TFSI Quattro, even though the list of features and specifications suggest that it will do so easily. Pricing will be everything from the reborn Saab car company, yet we think it would be very difficult to get the price of the 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD down to $49,000.
For all that, the 2011 Saab 9-5 makes us think Victor Muller's new car company can succeed. Get some sales going, make it possible to order the car in a slightly more luxurious specification, and then you can charge the prices that Audi does for its lavishly equipped U.S. models. Add the 9-5 2.0T model, Spyker Saab personalization packages, the SportCombi wagon in 2011, plus the high-performance Viggen, and then you've got a real car company.
Based on a day of thrashing around Amsterdam with Victor Muller (while his public relations staff held its collective breath and wondered what he would say next), we think Saab's CEO is deeply motivated to make Saab build real Saabs again.
Muller wrapped up our meeting by showing us something on his iPhone. Do you recall that Saab concept below the 9-3 that was meant to compete with the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series, and which Muller has publicly said must be the next step for his car company? (Oh, he's also going back to Saab's original numbering system without the dash, starting with the 2013 Saab 93.) We took a look at it and it's stunning.
Those other guys have a new car company to worry about.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.