Saab's Last Chance To Make a Good First Impression?
Nick Kurczewski , Contributor
The 2010 Saab 9-5 Aero is tasked with bringing the Swedish carmaker back from the brink of extinction, while simultaneously taking the fight to more mainstream competition in the fiercely competitive luxury sedan segment. Long a favorite of automotive nonconformists, Saabs are known for their combination of quirky styling, an emphasis on safety and comfort and a lineup of small-displacement turbocharged engines. For the first time in more than a decade, loyal Saab fans have been rewarded with a completely new and vastly improved 9-5 sedan.
Traditional Saab characteristics remain, such as an ignition switch (now push-button start) curiously located on the center console, the Saab "hockey stick" curve in the rear glass and plenty (maybe too many?) references to Saab's background in aviation. But a steep base price of $49,165 makes the new 9-5 significantly more expensive than the outgoing model.
It also pits the 2010 9-5 Aero against serious luxury sedan competition, such as the Acura RL, Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series. With Saab's product portfolio having been neglected for so many years, the company's first task is simply to get itself back onto the radar screen of today's luxury car buyer.
Early in 2010, the future of Saab -- much less the outlook for the new 9-5 -- was in serious jeopardy. The Trollhattan-based company faced liquidation while its former parent, General Motors, sought to slash costs by eliminating brands (Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn) and closing factories. Rescued at the final moment by Dutch sports carmaker Spyker Cars, the 2010 9-5 is the first vehicle offered by a newly independent Saab.
The 2010 Saab 9-5 Aero is powered by a 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 engine, running through Saab's all-wheel-drive system (XWD) and six-speed automatic transmission. This powertrain is exclusive to the range-topping Aero trim level. The engine produces 300 horsepower, along with a billiard-table-smooth delivery of 295 pound-feet of torque from 2,000-5,000 rpm. In an era when many family sedans boast optional V6 or V8 engines, the 9-5 is not a speed demon. But by most standards acceleration is brisk; Saab quotes a 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) time of 6.9 seconds.
What the 9-5 lacks in raw pace, it claws back by delivering power in a refreshingly refined and stress-free fashion. The controls are light, making this a very easy car to get comfortable in right away. The engine is smooth and the punch of the single turbocharger never overwhelms the (GM-sourced) chassis.
Passing slower traffic on narrow two-lane roads was a breeze, despite the six-speed automatic occasionally hunting for the correct gear. You can always shift for yourself, courtesy of paddles located behind the steering wheel. Saab thankfully resisted the temptation to dumb down manual-shift mode, allowing the driver to hold a gear and keep the revs high without the transmission overriding the proceedings.
The 9-5 Aero is no lightweight, as our fully loaded test car tipped the scales at more than 4,300 pounds. Yet the Aero's all-wheel drive (XWD), ventilated front and rear disc brakes, standard ABS, traction control and stability control are worth any weight penalty by keeping things nicely under control. A dial on the center console -- "DriveSense" in Saab-speak -- allows the driver to choose chassis settings that favor comfort, sport or a continuously adaptable intelligent mode.
If Saab wants to woo luxury car buyers, all it needs to do is get them into the incredibly cozy front seats of the 9-5. Cabin comfort, particularly the perfectly contoured sport seats of the Aero, is what the 9-5 does much better than most. The front seats hold you firmly in place when the road gets twisty and, surprise, the headrest offers an actual place to rest your head. Sounds trivial, right? But spend time in other sedans, tilt your head back and you'll realize what a rare treat proper head and neck support has become.
The cabin layout is straightforward, though Saab novices are certain to press the wrong button when trying to start the car. The culprit: the chrome-ringed "Night Panel" button -- located up high and in the center of the dash -- grabs your attention more than the starter button on the center console.
There is plenty of legroom in the back, though headroom is surprisingly tight and could pose a problem for tall rear passengers. And if safety features provide the comfort of peace of mind, rest assured knowing the 9-5 offers a full complement of front and side airbags, rollover sensors and anti-whiplash front head restraints.
The 9-5 Aero has many features you'll love, a couple you could probably live without and one option that proved incredibly irritating during our test-drive. Belonging in the first category is Saab's clever "U-Rail" rear cargo management system. It might sound like a Stockholm subway but, in reality, it's a sliding metal gatelike divider for the 18.2-cubic-foot trunk. U-Rail (a $250 option) proved handy at keeping luggage in place and separating delicate objects from bulkier items.
Stereo controls are located directly under the navigation screen, with all major functions controlled via three rotary knobs (volume, menu select, tune). They have a smooth feel and are easy to adjust. Temperature control settings are likewise handled using a rotary knob, but we disliked the Chiclet-size fan speed button located beneath them, which felt a little cheap, though similar buttons can be found in many other luxury cars.
The optional navigation system with 8-inch screen, CD/DVD player, 40GB hard drive and MP3 playback is similarly useful, albeit less of a bargain at $2,395. Paper maps are oh-so 20th century, though the nav's price seems steep considering that many economy cars are now available with some sort of satellite/nav and MP3 capability.
The most maddening option was Saab's much-touted head-up display unit. This projects a floating digital readout of speed and other vehicle functions, allowing the driver to keep his or her eyes on the road ahead. The system is fine in theory, but the plastic surrounding the dash-mounted projector cast an annoying and ever-present glare on the windshield.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2010 Saab 9-5 looks like nothing else on the road and, perhaps for the first time in Saab history, this is meant entirely as a compliment. The company has a long history of creating automotive shapes where form follows function, from the teardrop-shape 1949 Saab 92 to the sloping hatchback of the 1979 Saab 900. Clean and uncluttered, the 9-5 is distinctive without being polarizing -- just ignore Saab's insistence that the headlamps have an "ice-block" design, whatever that means.
Thankfully, unlike most Swedish-sourced furniture we've grown accustomed to living with (and assembling) the 9-5 interior doesn't feel as though it was pieced together using Allen keys and wooden pegs. The predominant theme is soft-touch black plastic, with a sprinkling of chrome and brushed aluminum. You won't mistake it for the Teutonic-solidity and sobriety of class-leading cabins from Audi and BMW, though it's easily on par with the likes of Acura, Lexus and Volvo.
Who should consider this vehicle
Saab finally has a long-overdue luxury car to offer buyers who don't necessarily have a closet full of tweed sport coats with suede patches on the sleeves. Some might bemoan the fact that the platform and engine of the 9-5 Aero come direct from GM, though the biggest fault we have with the 9-5 Aero is the high asking price. This could alienate traditional Saab fans and scare off new customers considering Saab for the very first time.
A cheaper front-wheel-drive 9-5, powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, is on the way with a price roughly $10,000 less than the Aero XWD. If you're in the market for a luxury car -- but dread carrying the emotional baggage of owning a flashy look-at-me executive sedan -- the 9-5 Aero remains a left-field option. Though for the first time in a long time, it happens to be a Saab worth considering on merit rather than mere brand allegiance.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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