2002 Saab 9-5 Aero Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2002 Saab 9-5 Sedan

(2.3L 4-cyl. Turbo 5-speed Manual)

A C-Student in the Entry-Luxury Class

Ever wonder what happened to the honor roll students from high school and college? Are they enjoying the satisfying, upwardly mobile lives that teachers and professors always assured you they were entitled to, as they swept up all of the awards at tiresome end-of-the-school-year assemblies? Maybe, as long as you consider 80-hour weeks as a law firm associate or account executive their just desserts.

Of course, everyone else (who apparently understood that not every term paper was do-or-die) works right alongside these overachievers: turns out that after you leave the campus, no one in human resources really cares whether you turned in all your homework or juggled three extracurricular activities your junior year. But in a capitalist society like this one, choosing a car — in this case, an entry-luxury sedan — is often a more exacting process than choosing an expendable human employee. Would you rather drive (and pay for) an athletically gifted A-student with a graduate degree or a flighty C-student who aspires to attend art school and grow his own food in Northern California?

Historically, Saabs, whether 99, 900 or 9000 — or lately, 9-3 and 9-5 — have been more analogous to the latter sort of student. Since the late 1970s, the company has given a cult-size audience in Europe and the U.S. a series of sprightly front-drive hatchbacks, convertibles, sedans and wagons, most of them turbocharged, with aeronautically themed cockpits (Saab originally built bomber planes during World War II). As the years wore on, and luxury cars were expected to provide greater levels of refinement, the Saabs soldiered on with spotty build quality and reliability, often sticking their owners with high repair bills. Not surprisingly, Saab hasn't enjoyed a significant increase in sales over the last decade. Most other luxury brands have.

But we're told that life is changing at Saab. General Motors has owned 100 percent of the Swedish automaker since 1999, and efforts are apparently underway to make a niche player into a prominent European luxury brand. The redesigned 2002 9-5 midsize sedan and wagon represent one step in this monumental crusade toward 200,000-plus in annual worldwide sales (just 126,350 Saabs were sold in 2001 — 37,557 of these in the U.S.).

The 9-5 straddles two size classes among luxury-type cars — it's large enough to merit comparison with midsize sedans like the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Jaguar S-Type/Lincoln LS, Lexus GS 300/430 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, yet even in Aero trim, it's inexpensive enough to be shopped against the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G35, Jaguar X-Type, Lexus IS 300, Mercedes-Benz C-Class or Volvo S60. And then there are the others that promise more size and performance for less — the Acura TL, Cadillac CTS, Chrysler 300M, Infiniti I35/Nissan Maxima and Volkswagen Passat W8. Obviously, few consumers would actually test-drive all of these cars before making a decision, but even if you narrowed the list to a half-dozen candidates, the Saab would face a serious challenge. We invited a 9-5 Aero Sedan in for a week-long stay so that we could assess its readiness for battle.

If you read our First Drive, you know that the Aero remains the performance-oriented model in the 2002 9-5 lineup, with the more sedate wood-trimmed Linear and Arc models below it. (Actually, the Arc has the same base MSRP as the Aero, but the emphasis is on luxury rather than sport.) The Aero passes up the 185-horsepower turbo four in the Linear and the 200-hp turbo V6 in the Arc in favor of a high-pressure turbocharged 2.3-liter inline four that produces 250 hp at 5,300 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque from 1,900 to 4,000 rpm. This delightfully flat torque band yields superb passing power at highway speeds.

Paired with a five-speed manual transmission, the engine showed some turbo lag as we pulled away from stoplights, but throttle response was still quick, as turbos go. However, we noticed that the available five-speed automatic is even better in this regard, as its shorter gearing allows the engine to rev more quickly and access its torque supply that much sooner. Fuel economy is rated at 22 mpg city/30 highway with this powertrain (20/28 with the automatic); we averaged 21.5 mpg during a week of enthusiastic driving. Premium fuel is recommended for maximum performance.

During performance testing, the Aero reached 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and went through the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 93.4 mph. Among entry-luxury sedans, this puts the Saab in good company — the Infiniti G35, Acura TL Type-S and BMW 330i (with a manual gearbox) are the only competitors that could beat these numbers (a Volvo S60 T5 equipped with a manual would likely tie them).

As always, though, numbers are only part of the story: if you're a turbo fan, you'll probably like the Aero's engine — it feels and sounds great above 2,000 rpm, and even better above 4,000 rpm, and it revs more smoothly than most high-pressure turbos. But if you merely want a fast luxury car for $30,000 to $40,000, we think you'll prefer the more even power delivery of a six-cylinder engine. You can get a V6 in the 9-5 Arc (albeit with a light-pressure turbocharger attached to it), but the G35, TL Type-S and 330i (not to mention the Audi A4, I35/Maxima and Chrysler 300M) all provide substantially more naturally aspirated power than the Arc for less money — in some cases, far less.

Braking is provided by four-wheel vented disc brakes with ABS and Electronic Brake Distribution. The pedal had a progressive feel to it, and nose dive was minimal. In general, the brakes instilled feelings of confidence. However, one editor reported that when making his way down a particularly twisty canyon road with a consistent downhill grade, the brakes began squealing and showed signs of fade. During performance testing, the Aero did fine with a 117-foot stopping distance from 60 mph (in this class, only superstars like the A4 and G35 have stopped shorter).

Take the Aero out on public roads, and you'll enjoy perhaps the most refined suspension ever offered by Saab. In the larger context of entry-luxury sedans, however, it's nothing special. During low-key driving on the highway or around town, the fully independent front strut/rear multilink setup provided a very comfortable ride (even with 17-inch performance tires mounted at the corners), though rough patches of pavement tended to upset the chassis a little. If this is the way you drive most of time, the Aero will certainly suffice, but you could save yourself some money by going with the less sporting Linear model.

In spite of Saab's efforts to position the 9-5 Aero as an athletic entry-luxury car (since its introduction for the 2000 model year), we still wouldn't define it as such, even with the 2002 model's suspension upgrades — stiffer springs, retuned shock absorbers and thicker antiroll bars. When we pushed our test car into tight curves, we noted excessive body roll, as well as a strong predisposition toward understeer when exiting turns. On the positive side, this behavior is predictable once you get to know the car, and when the body finally settles down, there is a decent amount of grip and road feel — "like a big Ford Focus," said one editor. A nice set of 225/45R17 Michelin Pilot Primacys helps out in this regard.

For 2002, 9-5s are available with a stability control system called Electronic Stability Program, or ESP (standard on Aero and Arc, optional on Linear); the system intervenes early and firmly to decrease the chance of dangerous skids or spins. Most drivers found it necessary to deactivate the system in order to give the Aero a serious workout, but in case your enthusiasm impairs your judgment, Saab made it tricky to turn ESP off: According to the owner's manual, ESP cannot be shut off at speeds above 35 mph, and even when it is turned off, it is always operative during braking.

As we eagerly pressed the throttle to power out of turns or glide down empty two-lane straightaways, our steering inputs and our gusto were immediately checked by heavy amounts of torque steer (not unusual in high-power front-drivers but especially pronounced in Saabs), the drive wheels veering outside of our intended path. Although this is obviously something that Saab lovers get used to, it still forces an unwelcome rupture into the driving experience, as the driver must regroup and reassess his relationship with the steering wheel every time it happens. Aside from this issue, the steering seemed about average — it responded quickly enough, but it wasn't especially communicative for a performance-oriented touring car and provided too much power assist above 50 mph.

Overall, the Aero provides an adequate handling package, but for 40 grand, we expect more. As it happened, another powerful front-drive sedan, a Chrysler 300M Special, was also visiting the week that we evaluated the Saab, and two editors had the opportunity to drive these two back-to-back — it was very revealing. While the Aero was held back by its floppy body and susceptibility to torque steer, the full-size 300M Special felt amazingly balanced through the turns, its steering firm and unflinching, its 18-inch tires clawing at the pavement. And all of this fun was provided for $7,000 less.

In the event that safety, rather than driving enjoyment, draws your attention to the Swedish car lots, the 2002 9-5 has you covered. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't tested it, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the 9-5 its highest rating ("good") in offset crash testing and named it a "best pick." Standard 9-5 safety features include side airbags and whiplash-reducing active head restraints for front occupants and a full set of ISOFIX child seat anchors for the rear seat. One common feature that Saab has not picked up on is a head curtain airbag system for front and rear passengers.

Rather than the airy, almost sterilized luxury environment that its peers provide, the 9-5's cabin appeals to those who never got their fill of Airport movies. The center stack has an assortment of blocky buttons paired with large, orange digital displays. Overhead, the map light is disguised as a fan adjustment, and a "Fasten seatbelt" sign illuminates at startup. As in previous Saabs, the legible collection of orange-needled analog gauges includes a turbo meter, so that you know exactly when the boost is kicking in. And if you need to take a break from all this information while driving at night, just hit the "Black Panel" button, and everything except the speedometer disappears. In keeping with the Aero model's sportier mission, the wood trim from the Linear and Arc is swapped out for faux aluminum.

Overall, the cockpit has a cozy, almost cramped feel (as if you were sitting in coach class); in consequence, we found that there weren't enough places to stash small items like cell phones, garage door openers (is available as a dealer-installed accessory) and tins of mints. The cupholder situation isn't any better; you have your choice of a funky holder that deploys from the center stack or another that's only available when the center console lid is open.

A pair of heavily bolstered chairs with exceptional cushioning and a full range of power adjustments awaits the driver and front passenger — the only peer that Saab has in this area is Volvo (unless you prefer the firmer, flatter accommodations in German cars). Moreover, these seats can heat your backside as desired and have thick, rich-feeling leather. Still, we had a couple of small complaints: First, we wish the telescoping steering wheel provided a greater range of adjustment; and second, a sedan in this price class needs to provide height-adjustable seatbelts (which are already a staple among economy sedans).

Getting in and out of the 9-5 was a little tricky for some of us. The front doors seemed not to want to stay in their first hinged positions and swung back, bopping any heads and elbows that were in their way. Opening the doors wider solved the problem, but this wasn't always possible in tight parking lots. Also, the door sills are rather high in the front and rear, so extra attention is required to avoid tripping over them.

Editors were generally content with the visibility from the driver seat — helpful features include double sunvisors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, memory for both outside mirrors and a built-in convex mirror on the passenger-side mirror. The latter feature was initially bewildering to a couple of editors, as images in the blind spot region (cordoned off from the rest of the mirror) appear distorted. However, as a third editor explained, once the image of the vehicle in the lane next to yours moves across the line (from the blind spot area into the regular part of the mirror), you know that it's safe to move into that lane. Rearward visibility isn't great because of the 9-5's high rear decklid (a Park Assist feature was made available as part of the Touring Plus Package starting in March 2002), and we would have liked an auto-dimming feature for the outside mirrors.

The rear seat is well-cushioned and supportive; a single-setting seat heater can warm up the entire bench on cold days. Leg- and shoulder room is about average for a midsize luxury car, but toeroom is tight. Large headrests are provided for outboard passengers; these can fold down when not in use to improve visibility. It's possible to put three kids back here, but the center passenger doesn't get a headrest and a hump limits legroom. When you have only two passengers, they can take advantage of the fold-down center armrest, from which two flimsy cupholders deploy.

For those with small children, Saab made it really easy to access the lower child-seat anchors; simply pull up the cleverly disguised lids built into the seat cushions, and the anchor points are right there — no need to feel around for them. One caveat for owners using older child seats without tethers: the seatbelts don't switch from ALR to ELR mode by pulling the belt all the way out — you have to slide a small latch on the belt buckle to get the belt to lock.

The 9-5 provides more trunk space (15.9 cubic feet) than all of its possible competitors, except for the full-size 300M. The lid employs external strut-type hinges, and a small grocery net and four cargo tie-downs are provided to secure belongings. Should you require extra space, you can use either the ski pass-through or fold flat one or both sections of the 60/40-split rear seat. The only disappointment we found back here was the temporary-size spare tire under the floor.

A dual-zone automatic climate control system (with a charcoal filter) keeps the cabin comfortable, and the controls, though mounted low in the center stack, are relatively easy to use, thanks to color-coded temperature buttons that use increments of two degrees to make it quicker to get to the setting you want and a dedicated "off" button. The stereo controls are also user-friendly, save for the level adjustments; check out our full review of the nine-speaker Harman-Kardon system in the 9-5 Aero.

The secondary controls were less impressive, as only the driver and passenger windows were auto-down (with no auto-up feature whatsoever). In addition, the sunroof doesn't come with an auto-close feature. The control stalks (wipers on one, cruise and turn signals on the other) are cheap plastic. When we pressed the foglights button on the left side of the wheel, we noted four other unused buttons — odd considering that our test car had all available options.

Although we liked the handsome leather, thick-pile floor mats and soft-touch dash and door panels in the Aero, some of the materials were out of place in a $40,000 vehicle — vinyl sunvisors and scattered cheap plastics with mismatched grain patterns. Build quality was below average, as editors noted rough edges on the visors and various plastic panels, loose interior trim pieces, misaligned headlight and taillight assemblies and rear doors that didn't fit uniformly.

Aside from its turbocharged engine and unusual cabin styling, there is nothing to distinguish the 9-5 Aero from its competitors. Consider that you can get a real sport sedan like the 330i with a sport-tuned suspension and leather for roughly the same price, or put this stuff in an A4 or G35 for a few thousand less. If you must have the added space of a midsize sedan, get the TL Type-S — it's not Swedish kitsch, but it costs thousands less, can be equipped with a DVD-based navigation system and rides on Acura's reputation for reliability. Seeking a bit more individuality? Try the 300M Special or Passat W8.

Unless you're a devoted Saab fan, we think you'll find the 9-5 Aero average as luxury cars go. And when you're spending 30 or 40 grand, there's no reason to settle for average.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 9

Components: The Saab 9-5 Aero and Arc come with a "specially tuned" 240-watt audio system by the Harman-Kardon division of global powerhouse Harman International (Linear owners can get it with the Premium Package for more than $1,500 or stick with the stock 150-watt seven-speaker setup). The single-CD player (there's no changer available from the factory) and cassette deck in the dash feed an eight-channel amplifier powering nine speakers throughout the cabin. Two large subwoofers hide in the corners of the rear deck, midrange drivers are housed in the bottom of each door and three powerful speakers spread across the dash are aimed at the windshield. Unlike the rest of the 9-5, the sound system controls are conventional and include steering wheel-mounted buttons.

Performance: One word says it all about this stereo system: precision. Every sound from the peak of a cymbal crash to the ultra-low warble of a digital bassline is reproduced with little effort. With eight channels working, speakers get only the sounds they were designed to handle. Instruments and voices don't blend together like they do in many systems, and a speaker in the middle of the dash helps create a spacious and lively soundstage. Live recordings are especially fun to listen to. Strings sound warm, and details such as fingers being dragged across the fret board of a guitar are not lost, even when the bass is bumping. The subs in the hatshelf don't overwhelm backseat passengers, but provide large amounts of high-quality kick to satisfy fans of jazz, rock, classical, rap, ska, grunge or anything else you desire for pressurizing the cabin.

Best Feature: Center channel surprise.

Worst Feature: Nine speakers but room for only one CD?

Conclusion: All types of sound take flight inside this sedan with a high-flying theme. —Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
One of my first indoctrinations to the world of speed was a late '80s Saab 900 Turbo. I was in high school, and my newly licensed friend Ray and I went out for a joyride in his sister's mint 900. This was my first time in a car that felt so solid and secure at such improbable velocities. It was Ray's first time getting a whopper of a speeding ticket.

That event left a soft spot in my heart for Saab and its range of somewhat kooky automobiles. It has therefore been rather disappointing to see Saab lose its desirable aura of Swedish cool. (Perhaps company execs forgot to look underneath the couch.)

Of all the luxury makes selling products in America, Saab is the only one not to have gained strong sales numbers in the late '90s and early new millennium. The problem has been, quite simply, a lack of quality product. The 2002 Saab 9-5 Aero is a step in the right direction. It's solid, fast and distinctive. I enjoyed driving it. But I wouldn't buy it, and I can think of few reasons to give it any sort of recommendation.

According to Edmunds.com's TMV®, Saab dealers are certainly willing to come down on price. But for $35,000 to $40,000, there are better choices. Do you want a roomy 250-hp front-drive luxury sport sedan? You can get a well-equipped Nissan Maxima (with CD navigation, something not offered on the Saab) for less than $30,000. A Volvo S60 would be another fine choice. If you consider rear-drive cars, there's the Infiniti G35, Jaguar S-Type and BMW 530i.

Perhaps parent company General Motors will finally bring Saab up to speed. Until then, I prefer to live in the past.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Despite the fact that I feel that most buyers of luxury sedans are completely disinterested in high-strung turbocharged four-cylinder engines and prefer creamy V6s or V8s, that they couldn't care less about heritage and wish that Saab would just put the damn ignition in the dashboard, that they have absolutely no appreciation for the Swedish company's aerospace successes, I have a soft spot in my heart for Saabs.

I learned how to drive a manual transmission on a 1982 900 Turbo. Can you imagine learning this task on a more temperamental car? In contrast to my fuzzy memories of that oddly satisfying hatchback, this Saab 9-5 Aero is the pinnacle of refinement and sophistication. The turbo grunts out a giddy amount of horsepower, the seats are orthopedically supporting in the Saab idiom, the suspension soft and absorbent of road anomalies.

But when compared to the modern competition, which ranges on the low end from the Cadillac CTS to the redesigned 2003 Mercedes-Benz E320 on high, the Saab 9-5 Aero falls mid-pack. It's quirky yet nondescript at the same time. A fine performer in a straight line but a tad floppy in the twisties. The shifter is the antithesis of precise and fluid, and the steering wheel nearly wrenched from the driver's hand under hard acceleration due to torque steer. Its price of barely more than $40,000 initially seems like a steal, until you realize that for the same coin you can get a fully loaded A4 3.0 quattro or a BMW 330i Sport or an Infiniti G35. One of our staffers even went so far as to say the Maxima SE made more sense as a luxury sport sedan.

Saabs will never be mainstream. People seek them out for reasons other than those that please automotive critics. I hear the company is looking to boost sales in a big way, and I think that doing so at the expense of the faithful would be a mistake. But there's no denying a good car, and the Saab 9-5 is merely average. Let's hope the 9X concept car points the way to the company's future, and soon.

Consumer Commentary

"This car glides! Goes 60 to 100 in a blink and you feel like you're cruising at 40 on a newly paved road. Impressive acceleration and handling. I had an Acura TL-S which was a nice car and fast as hell, but the ride was subpar. Traded it in for the Saab and now know what it means to drive a true car. The downside? The car doesn't come with a CD changer. The Acura comes with an in dash 6 CD changer. So does the Lincoln LS. Also, if you do plan on playing CDs the storage space for the jewel cases are pathetic. Saab needs to address the CD changer, storage space, and add automatic-up window controls. Maybe I'm just picky. I know, shut and drive!
Favorite Features: The sport transmission makes the Aero a rocket!
Suggested Improvements: Add a CD changer in Dash. Add more storage space for CDs. Add another cup holder that you don't need to keep the armrest open with. Add one-touch up power window controls. Lose Onstar…its worthless." — By DaDrain (April 3, 2002)

"The suspension and chassis are decidedly performance biased. The steering is accurate and not overboosted. The overtaking quickness is exhilarating. The leather sport seats are well-bolstered. The stereo is excellent. The car has a solid, satisfying 'king of the road' personality. Bottom line: for less than I would have paid for a 330i or a 3.0 Quattro A4, I got an excellent sport/luxury sedan in the A6 2.7T/5 series class with all the specs and goodies." — By seacone (Feb. 6, 2002)

"I had this car for 3 months now and I am very, very happy. It is fast and people notice it because it is unique. The transmission is smooth and interior is very cool.
Favorite Features: Engine, Unique, Fast, Roomy and it has a nice look to it.
Suggested Improvements: Doors should lock automatically when driving." — By Morten (May 14, 2002)

"Love the car. I am a 31 year old single male and I drive a wagon! I traded my GMC Jimmy in for the SAAB because I wanted something more luxurious that was sporty, good on gas and could haul my stuff from Home Depot. I got it all and in a very sexy (at least I think so) package. The car had a few issues when I picked it up but they all were taken car of in a prompt manner by the service department. I would give the service department an excellent rating and the sales department a moderate rating. My sales man was not well informed about the cars features and suggested I try things out to see if they worked. I hope the car proves to be reliable.
Favorite Features: 250 HP turbo. Cosmic Blue paint. Nice wheels and body kit. Great rich leather seats.
Suggested Improvements: Need more storage space up front. Better quality sun visors." — By Anthony (May 8, 2002)

"Got an automatic Linear with the ESP, Harman-Kardon Audio, memory seats, etc. package. Smooth and sporty feel even with snows (these make the car as good as a 4WD in winter where originals are sketchy) Improved suspension from old 9-5 helps but it still understeers a bit. Great trunk room which is key since I went from a pickup to the 9-5.
Favorite Features: Press the sport button, crank up the Harman Kardon, open the sun roof - these are three of my favorite things. The brakes are very impressive when I overdose on the first three.
Suggested Improvements: Want perfection - add a cup holder for the passenger and put cruise controls on the steering wheel. Also more console storage for coins and CDs would be nice." — By Baron (March 17, 2002)

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