Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Say what you will about Saab's strangely attractive designs and abstract ergonomics just don't call 'em quirky. The company has had just about enough of that, and considering that its latest 9-5 sedans and wagons have all the makings of world class luxury cars, it might be time to call Saab something else, indeed like a competitor.
Flush with the additional cash and engineering power of parent General Motors, Saab is looking to expand beyond its niche status and become a mainstream player in the premium sedan and sport wagon segment. The new and improved 9-5 is but one step in Saab's plan for a complete product makeover that will occur over the next five years.
At first glance, the 9-5 is barely discernable from its predecessor. Minor enhancements were made to freshen the car's appearance without changing the overall design theme. The front bumpers have been extended forward an inch and restyled for a smoother look. A new chrome-edged grille and bi-xenon headlamps add to the 9-5's clean but distinctive outward appearance. Restyled alloy wheels and revised taillights round out the host of minor exterior changes.
Rather than bombarding customers with confusing letter combinations to delineate the 9-5's three distinct model variations, each version is now referred to by its own architectural form. Linear, Arc and Aero are the three available designs, each with its own personality and corresponding standard equipment.
The Linear, or base model, if you will, features a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 185 horsepower. It comes with a five-speed manual, but a new five-speed automatic is available as an option. Inside, the theme is simplicity, with walnut dash trim and standard leather seating adding a feeling of luxury.
Arc models add additional wood trim to the interior along with heated and ventilated driver and front passenger seats. Power comes from a 3.0-liter V6, also turbocharged, rated at 200 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque. The new five-speed automatic is standard, with the five-speed manual available as an option.
The top-of-the-line Aero model represents the highest level of 9-5 performance. Its 2.3-liter turbo powerplant has been upgraded for 2002 to generate an impressive 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Larger 17-inch alloy wheels, a lowered chassis and aerodynamic side skirts give this model a more aggressive exterior look to match its enhanced performance. The interior features heavily bolstered sport seats and metallic dash trim that reflects its performance-oriented nature.
Most of our short introductory drive was spent behind the wheel of two Aero wagons, one a five-speed manual, the other an automatic. The combination of a manual transmission and 250 horsepower makes for quite an entertaining ride. The turbo still isn't quick enough to deliver instantaneous acceleration, but once it's up and spinning, the 9-5 sprints forward with surprisingly refined urgency. The five-speed gearbox doesn't have the silky smooth feel of a BMW, but the action is light and the shifter well placed.
The automatic-equipped model proved to be equally as entertaining. With three different shift programs (normal, sport and winter), there's plenty of flexibility for various driving styles and conditions. We left it in sport mode most of the time and found the new transmission to be a capable performer. With shorter overall gearing than the stick shift, the automatic delivers quick response with less turbo lag. Unless you're an enthusiast who has to have the control of a stick, go with the automatic you won't be disappointed.
All 9-5 models received similar suspension upgrades. Springs were stiffened, shocks were retuned, and roll bars were made thicker in an attempt to improve overall driving dynamics and reinforce the 9-5's label as a sport-touring car. With little roll in the corners, the overall feel definitely leans toward the sport side of the equation. On the highway, the Aero was confidently smooth, but a few worn-out residential streets revealed a suspension that can be harsh at times. The revamped steering delivered plenty of road feel while remaining light to the touch.
For the first time ever, 2002 9-5s will offer an Electronic Stability Program for improved safety and driver confidence. Integrated with the car's traction control and antilock braking system, ESP can intervene and restore control in adverse situations. We were able to test the system during runs through a controlled slalom course and found it extremely helpful but not intrusive. When we intentionally tried to throw the car out of control, the ESP system quickly applied individual brakes that rebalanced the car and kept us headed in the right direction.
Other safety enhancements include adaptive airbags that inflate according to the severity of the crash, new interior materials that cause less injury when contacted in a collision, and ISOFIX child seat mountings for easier and more reliable securing of child safety seats. The OnStar communications system is also available in all Saab 9-5s.
With its host of improvements both inside and out, the new 9-5 looks poised to finally break free from its "quirky" reputation. The additional power available in the Aero model qualifies it as a true sport sedan, or wagon if you prefer, and the enhanced designs of the Linear and Arc models add a level of individuality that's often lacking in the realm of luxury sedans. Add to that the 9-5's recent honor as the best mid-luxury car in the J.D. Power and Associates initial quality study, and it's no wonder that Saab is expecting sales to increase rapidly in the next few years.
Pricing wasn't announced at the time of our test drive, but Saab officials said that despite all the improvements, the bottom line will remain very close to last year's model's. With a price of just over $40,000, the new 9-5 Aero should prove to be a serious competitor for the likes of BMW's 530i and Audi's A6. Only time will tell if Saab's more mainstream lineup will be able to lose its eccentric reputation, but the new 9-5 is certainly a step in the right direction.
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