Feel'n the Pressure: Saab's Turbo'd 9-5 Aero Packs a Powerful Punch
Scott Mead, Contributor
"Watch out for the...," I said to our road test editor as he ran over a small trench, recently carved out of the asphalt at the Edmunds.com testing facilities. Not more than a nanosecond after my brain told my voice to say "trench," we felt a strong "thud" from the right front tire in the Saab 9-5 Aero, followed by an incessant "hiss" of air flowing from the sidewall of the 225/45-ZR17 Michelin Pilot MXM.
No problem. We had cut tires down before, so we swapped on the temporary spare and called our trusty tire store. Easy, right? Boy, were we wrong. Little did we know that we had blown a limited-production tire that was not available at any tire store in Southern California (and tire stores grow like weeds on steroids in this part of the country). Furthermore, the tire was available only at Saab stores and had to be ordered from a central warehouse. Two days later, (and those were two long, miserable days - forced to drive at a maximum speed of 55 mph with the "weenie-wheel" attached) the Aero was back on the road.
Until that fateful moment when the tire met the great rubber tree in the sky, we were in the midst of a love-hate relationship with this latest Swedish import: enamored by the almost-instant torque (courtesy of the variable boost turbocharger), aircraft-like cockpit and fantastic brakes. At the same time we were left scratching our heads in wonderment at the unbelievably rubbery-notchy shifter, soft suspension and loads of torque steer.
On the outside, the Saab (acronym for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget or Swedish Aircraft Company Limited) 9-5 Aero distinguishes itself from the rest of the 9-5 family with flared rocker panels, a front chin spoiler and a new rear valance. The combination gives the Aero a lower, more menacing appearance that complements the original sharp-edge design.
With the rest of auto industry designers reaching into the "bubble bag," we found the Saab to be a refreshing breath of originality. The sharp, angular lines were reminiscent of the days before the 1980s greenhouse look became popular, and cars lost their sense of individuality. Our only complaint with the design: the black rubber accent line on the doors and bumpers should be painted in body color to continue the clean lines the bodywork exudes, instead of breaking them up. We loved the parabolic, blind-spot-eliminating right exterior mirror (which made lane changes a breeze), yet cursed it at night -- the anti-glare coating made judging the distance between us and an upcoming vehicle nearly an impossible task.
Airline pilots will feel at home in the Aero's interior, which boasts a swiveling map light, DC-10-style "fasten seatbelt" lamp and controls that are angled toward the driver for easy reach during changes in flight paths. While all of the controls are only a finger away, we were disappointed by a number of idiosyncrasies, including the placement of the ignition switch on the center console (which allows the alarm remote to flop in the path of the emergency brake); the armrest on the center console that slides linearly (particularly annoying while resting your arm and trying to accelerate and brake); pushing the "set" button on the turn signal-mounted cruise control occasionally activates either the flash-to-pass or right turn signal; and a lack of cubby space for front passengers.
Up front, the leather seats were firm, yet comfortable and easily adjustable, thanks to the eight available adjustments. Lateral support was somewhat lacking under hard cornering, but lumbar support proved to be excellent for this editor's problematic lower back. With a near-center driving position, long stints behind the wheel were welcomed, and even with the standard tilt/slide moonroof, lack of headroom wasn't an issue.
Likewise, the backseat afforded occupants with firm seating surfaces, but the rear three-point seatbelts had a tendency to cut into the neckline of passengers. Rear occupants are afforded excellent headroom and plenty of legroom, as well as HVAC ducts crafted neatly into the rear of the console and magazine pockets built into the front seatbacks.
The Aero's interior sported a lot of cool features like dual climate control, night panel dash lighting (for drivers who prefer to cruise in stealth mode), joy stick-directed air vents that should be the model for the entire industry to follow, and a really trick cupholder that swings down out of the dash, while rotating the cup ring (yes, we played with it like a 5-year-old who's just gotten his hands on an Erector Set).
If you've always wanted to fly a Lear jet, but couldn't afford one, the Aero is as close to ground-level flying as you can get. With the standard 2.3-liter turbocharged four putting out 230 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 258 foot-pounds of torque at 1,900 rpm, the 9-5 Aero left us with an incessant giggle of giddy enthusiasm as our right foot was attracted to the Saab's accelerator like a bug to flypaper.
Paired up with a five-speed manual (with buttery-smooth hydraulic clutch operation), the transmission is geared to maximize the powerplant's torque curve, rather than horsepower. Even in fifth gear at 40 mph, a jab at the throttle brought forth a near-endless swell of turbo boost, propelling the Aero into the fun zone within a matter of seconds. If shifting gears isn't your thing, an electronic four speed with three driving modes (Normal, Sport and Winter) is available. In the Normal mode, the transmission shifts at predetermined points to allow maximum fuel economy. The Sport mode moves the shift points up the rpm band to take advantage of the powerplant's torque, and the Winter mode starts the vehicle in third gear and allows only the up shift to fourth.
Grinding the 3,480-pound Aero to a stop are massive 12-inch discs up front and 11-inch discs out back that feature four-channel ABS with EBD - Electronic Brake Force Distribution technology. The Saab's superb braking induced our road test editor to remark: "The Saab is very linear with progressive, powerful stopping power. It doesn't feel like we're braking hard, when in fact, stopping distances are very short." How short? Try 60 to zero in a mere 117 feet. Even initial dive was minimal and with repeated emergency stops, the Aero's brakes showed few signs of pedal fade, but a sharp increase in ABS pulse was felt through the brake pedal.
With the inherent power and braking capability, you would expect the handling to match. Not so with the Aero. While this Saab's chassis has been lowered by .4-inch to lower the vehicle's center of gravity, and despite the installation of larger sway bars installed along with stiffer springs and firmer struts, the 9-5 still suffers from a tremendous amount of body roll and a moderate amount of understeer.
Although the steering is more responsive than other 9-5 variants, the suspension is not tuned in proportion with the rest of the vehicle. While Saab has enhanced the suspension to a point, it still falls short of offering the handling characteristics expected from a vehicle with this much power and at the $40K price point.
So, is the Aero really worth the $7,775 premium over the base 9-5? Heck yes! If anything, it's worth the plant-your-fanny-deep-in-the-seat-torque-curve the 9-5 Aero so willingly provides and superb braking characteristics. But with competitors like the BMW 528i (at a mere $1,570 more) and the Mercedes-Benz C43 (at $12,650 over), the Aero still has some ground to make up before it can compete head-to-head with Germany's finest. Until Saab can make a decent-feeling manual shifter and develops a competent suspension, we'll take the Bimmer, thank you.
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