Inside this dimly lit Stockholm pub the stress level is zero. No one's rushed in here. People spend hours nursing draft beer and warm plates of meat.
Two hours, two lagers and a dozen meatballs later, we realize the best part about the 2006 Saab 9-5, which we drove yesterday on the two-lane roads north of this historic city. It's still a Saab. Svante Kinell, brand manager for the 9-5, says there are 1,367 changes on the 2006 model, but these changes haven't squashed that intangible something that makes it a Saab. They've just made it a better Saab.
Over a Thousand Changes
Although numerous, the changes really come down to an exterior face-lift, a worked-over chassis, a new control layout, 10 extra horsepower and a price cut of about $2,000. Additionally, the wagon is now called the SportCombi just like the new 9-3 wagon, and the familiar Linear, Arc and Aero trim levels are gone in favor of a single model offered in sedan and wagon body styles.
This single model is a blend of last year's midlevel Arc and sporty Aero models, which means it's fully equipped with leather upholstery, eight-way power front seats with driver memory, seat heaters in all five positions, a 240-watt Harman Kardon audio system with an in-dash CD changer and satellite radio.
The high-output version of Saab's 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is also standard, and it's up to 260 hp, thanks to a revised intake. Torque holds steady at 258 pound-feet. Transmission choices still consist of a five-speed manual and a five-speed automatic. All 9-5s wear 17-inch wheels and 235/45R17 Pirelli all-season tires (slightly wider than last year's 225s), while the old Aero model's lowered sport suspension has moved to the options list, bundled with sport seats and faux aluminum interior trim.
Other extras include a navigation system and a visibility package with bi-xenon headlamps and rear park assist. Saab expects to hold the base price for both the sedan and wagon right around the $35,000 mark.
On the Surface
Known for its friendly face, the Saab 9-5 carries an almost sinister gaze into 2006. A larger grille gives the car the prominent nose that's currently in fashion, while projector-beam headlamps bore into your soul through smoked lenses. In back, shapely new taillights resemble those of the '06 Audi A4. Along the sides, the 9-5's characteristic black body moldings and door handles give way to more socially acceptable color-matched trim.
Inside, designers replaced the 9-5's clunky array of climate and audio buttons with a slick new set of metallic-trimmed dials and buttons from the GM parts bin. Normally, we'd be skeptical about a Saab sharing its center stack controls with the Chevrolet HHR, but the new pieces integrate nicely into the 9-5's cockpit and greatly improve its ergonomics.
The gauge faces are also new this year, and the steering wheel now has three spokes instead of four. We would have liked to see Saab upgrade a few of the 9-5's questionable interior plastics, which remain a step or two behind German and Japanese peers.
Its innocuous expression gone, the 9-5 needed more of a performance edge as well, so engineers went to work on the standard suspension to tighten up the car's traditionally soft handling. Fifteen-percent stiffer shocks are fitted at all four corners, and all 9-5s get the thicker stabilizer bars previously exclusive to the Aero trim level.
Engineers also stiffened the front subframe bushings by 90 percent and recalibrated the power steering valves. In back they widened the rear track slightly and reduced the toe-in angle for more stable handling. To assure the ride stays comfortable, 7-percent softer rear springs were installed.
There's no change in the rear spring rate of the optional sport suspension, but the front springs are 8-percent stiffer than on last year's Aero model, while the shocks are 10-percent firmer front and rear. As on the Aero, sport package-equipped cars ride 10mm closer to the ground than the standard 9-5. The brakes are unchanged.
Drives Like a Classic Saab
This may sound like a lot of changes, but driving the 2006 Saab 9-5 is a remarkably familiar experience. We sampled a sedan and a pair of SportCombi wagons, all equipped with the sport suspension, and they felt like traditional Saabs through and through, which is both good and bad.
Unlike most premium cars, the 9-5 hasn't put on the pounds over the years. As a result, it feels refreshingly lightweight and nimble when you're pushing through tight corners. Plus, the car's fully ventilated disc brakes feel strong with a reassuring pedal feel.
Unfortunately, this year's suspension upgrades provide only a modest reduction in body roll, which makes the 9-5 a tough sell over tighter-handling competitors in this price range like the Acura TL and Volkswagen Passat. Further, torque steer is still a problem under heavy throttle in this front-driver. It's a classic Saab trait, but if the company can keep it under control in the 9-3, someone should have figured out a way to suppress it in the more expensive 9-5.
The 9-5 does ride more smoothly than in the past, which makes it a more pleasant long-distance companion. However, during a turn in the backseat, the suspension rebounded harshly over a few rough patches and there was more wind noise than we would have expected in a premium sedan.
Quick but Lacks Smoothness
The 2.3-liter turbo four, at least, remains a capable source of motivation for the midsize 9-5. There's some lag off the line, but acceleration is quite strong through the midrange. Saab claims a 0-to-60-mph time in the high 6s for a manual-shift sedan and low 7s for the SportCombi, which is consistent with the 6.7-second run we got out of a 250-hp 2002 Aero sedan.
Even though these numbers are competitive for this class, Saab is still the only premium-brand manufacturer that offers only four cylinders in a midsize sedan with a mid-$30Ks asking price. Granted, it's turbocharged, but this engine simply can't match the linear power delivery and refinement of the six-cylinders in most competitors, which Saab says are the Audi A6 and BMW 530i.
Time Marches On
In America, Saab sold just 9,000 9-5s in 2004. Sweden's No. 2 automaker and parent company GM hopes this year's updates will make it more competitive with its German and Japanese peers.
This refresh has certainly improved the 9-5. It looks, rides and handles better than before. But the improvements don't go far enough to get the 9-5 up to speed with its competition.
If you're craving a classic Saab, you can still get your fix with the 2006 Saab 9-5, but its similarly priced peers like the TL, Passat 3.6 and Legacy GT just feel more modern. A fully redesigned 9-5 won't hit until 2009.