Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
The world's going to hell, I tell ya. Kids these days don't appreciate what they have. Back when I was a boy, we did family road trips in 14-ton Detroit wagons. They were built like tanks, but got worse gas mileage. Once the driving was done, our parents fed us gruel for dinner. And we liked it.
Now look at what today's kids have. Gruel is microwaveable and comes in five different flavors. They get to listen to that studly stud Ricky Martin. And wagons are actually fast, luxurious and quite possibly cool.
The luxury wagon market is getting big. Since 1995, sales have grown 80 percent. The dominant player is clearly Volvo, as its wagons comprise over 50 percent of the field. But Volvo's quirky Scandinavian neighbor, Saab, is looking to steal some sales. It is hoping to do this with its recently introduced 9-5 Wagon and new-for-2000 9-5 Aero Wagon.
We've driven a variety of 9-5 vehicles before, including the 9-5 Sedan, the 9-5 Wagon and the 9-5 Aero Sedan. Like the 2000 Aero Sedan, the Aero Wagon is Saab's high-performance version of its family hauler. It features the same modifications that the Aero Sedan does.
The heart of the Aero Wagon is Saab's 2.3-liter high-output engine. Don't confuse this one with the base 9-5 Wagon's 2.3-liter turbo engine. The Aero's turbocharged four cylinder (this engine is also found in the Saab 9-3 Viggen) generates considerably more power. Its output is listed at 230 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. When equipped with the four-speed automatic transmission, the engine's torque output drops slightly to 243 foot-pounds.
Not impressed? You should be. With the five-speed manual, maximum engine torque is maintained from 1,900 to 3,800 rpm. With the automatic, maximum torque is held from 1,900 rpm to 4,600 rpm. Although only 15-16 psi of boost pressure is required to achieve maximum power and torque at or near sea level, the Aero's engine management system allows the turbo to produce up to 20 psi at higher altitudes to compensate for less dense air. Saab says maximum horsepower can be maintained up to an elevation of 10,000 feet.
Additionally, Aero Wagons with manual transmissions feature the same "overboost" feature that the Aero Sedan has. For short durations of time (around 10 seconds), the engine management system will allow 20 psi of boost even at sea level. This temporary burst of boost adds another 5-6 horsepower and raises torque to 274 foot-pounds.
Even at normal boost levels, there is little else available that can touch the Aero Wagon at this price point. The only serious competitor is the Volvo V70 R, with all-wheel drive and a turbocharged five-cylinder engine making 261 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque.
Complementing the wagon's newfound muscle are upgraded suspension pieces. Compared to the 9-5 SE Wagon, the Aero has a 10mm lower ride height, stiffer springs, firmer dampers, larger-diameter antiroll bars, and 35-percent firmer suspension bushings. The front brakes are bigger, too, with 20mm larger front rotors and correspondingly larger front calipers and brake pads.
Like the Aero Sedan, the Aero Wagon features color-matched bumper and side extensions to differentiate it from the rest of the 9-5 rabble. Standard wheels on the Aero Wagon are 17x7-inch three-spoke alloys with 225/45R17 tires. Saab also offers an optional $1,650 wheel-and-tire package with the same size tires but 17x8-inch 10-spoke wheels. Manufactured for Saab by renowned wheel-maker BBS, these two-piece wheels feature the Saab Griffin logo on the center caps and a Diamond Satin paint finish.
Inside, it's standard 9-5 Wagon attire. The interior design is clearly influenced by Saab's aircraft heritage. The instrument panel looks like the automotive equivalent of a passenger jet's cockpit, and there's also the swiveling map light and DC-10-style "fasten seatbelt" warning light. Like the 9-5 Aero Sedan, the wagon can be ordered with heated front and rear seats, as well as ventilated front seats. Content upgrades over the base model include a leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather upholstery, driver's-side memory seating positions, a Harman/Kardon audio system and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. For 2000, GM's OnStar system (Saab is now completely owned by GM) is an $895 option. Yes, you too can call OnStar when you're trapped in the middle of the desert just like "CHiPs'" Sergeant Getraer, who is too afraid to change the flat tire because there are snakes outside.
Besides OnStar, other safety features include front air bags and head-and-torso protecting dual-stage side air bags. The side air bags are mounted in the outside bolsters of the front seatbacks and are controlled by sensors in the front doors that measure air pressure. Other safety features include seatbelt pre-tensioners and Saab's Active Head Restraint system (SAHR) that is designed to limit whiplash injury for the front passengers. No NHSTA crash testing has been performed at the time of this writing, but the 9-5 has excelled in European NCAP crash testing.
For mundane tasks, the 9-5 Aero Wagon will hold 37 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seat up. By pulling the rear seat cushion forward, the split-fold rear seat back can be folded flat. The seat cushion can also be removed to provide additional cargo space. With the rear seat fully flat, the wagon provides 73 cubic feet of cargo space.
Loading cargo is made easier thanks to the sliding floor that can pulled rearward 20 inches. The floor can support up to 440 pounds and locks in place when rolled back into the car. The cargo area also features a strong folding parcel shelf and Saab's aircraft-derived CargoTracks. The CargoTracks are a pair of special aluminum rails embedded into the floor of the cargo area. They utilize adjustable one-grip locks and load-securing belts to prevent any cargo from shifting during emergency braking or during an accident.
The 9-5 Aero Wagon driving experience is very similar to that of the sedan. For much of Saab's press introduction, we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were actually driving a wagon.
As with the Aero Sedan, the wagon's turbocharged engine is quite impressive. The low-end torque is perfect for quick passes of slow-moving cars or trucks. The torque also minimizes the need for frequent shifts. Like the Aero Sedan, the manual transmission's shifter is rather numb and sometimes balky, but we appreciate the fact that Saab has gone to the trouble of offering it. Many other automakers seem to think the manual transmission is dead.
The four-speed automatic works well enough and offers both a sport and winter mode. Engaging the sport mode makes the transmission hold gears longer before shifting, while the winter mode starts the vehicle out in third gear. Given what else is available on the market, though, Saab could benefit from offering a five-speed automatic with a sequential-shift option.
In our road test of the Aero Sedan, we felt that the suspension allowed too much body roll given the car's sporting intensions. Since the Aero Wagon has the same suspension, its handling characteristics are similar. However, the wagon's purpose is more utilitarian than the sedan's, so Saab's suspension stiffening seems to be a good balance between road comfort and ultimate grip. We did notice that the larger (and presumably more sport-oriented tread pattern) tires generated more road noise than expected.
Tires aside, the Aero Wagon excels at cruising. With the comfortable front seats (especially when equipped with the heating and venting options), turbo-induced torque, minimal wind noise, and solid body structure, this is a great vehicle for long commutes. It will also do well for -- dare we say it -- family road trips. You can even take your doggy with you, as Saab offers an array of pet safety accessories.
The 2000 Saab 9-5 Aero Wagon's base price is set at $40,175. Its sliding cargo floor and unique cargo tie-down system are very useable features, and the turbocharged engine excels, especially at high altitudes. Like the Aero Sedan, the Aero Wagon is certainly worth the asking price. We can't say it's a clear winner, however. The 2001 model year will bring strong competition from the redesigned Volvo V70 and the Audi S4 Avant. The Aero has its advantages, but they might not be enough to satisfy the majority of luxury wagon buyers.
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