Surprisingly alert handling; unique design; comfortable seats; huge trunk; decent value.
Lacks cabin quality of rivals; rear headroom can be tight; shares some interior bits with non-luxury GM cars.
What is a Saab? It's a question we wrestled with during our time with the all-new 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero, because the answer ultimately dictates how we think it fits into the luxury sedan segment. Is a Saab a luxury car that warrants a $55,000 price tag? Is a Saab sporty? Is a Saab something the stylish and trendy would like to be seen in?
We doubt we're alone in our befuddlement, for these questions have been asked by the company itself for years now. It has been 12 years since we last had a new 9-5 and seven since there was a new Saab that wasn't really a rebadged Subaru or GMC. That's an eternity in car terms, and enough time for a brand to forget the essence of what it was — and for the public to follow suit.
But when you're a forgotten, all-but-dead brand, there is opportunity, and now that Spyker — the Dutch supercar maker — has taken over the Saab franchise from General Motors, it is redefining the nature of the Swedish company.
The styling of the all-new 2011 Saab 9-5 is bold, paying just enough respect to the past while establishing a stylish new direction for the future. The driving character of the top-line Aero is invigorating, proving that a new Saab can be not only sporty but also a benchmark for its competition. And this 9-5 Aero's $55,230 price tag? Well, perhaps we should explain a little before drawing conclusions.
This 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero quickly identifies itself as a luxury car with abilities that reach far beyond simple A-to-B steerage. To begin with, the XWD all-wheel-drive system that so impressed in the short-lived 9-3 Turbo X has found a permanent home in the larger 9-5 Aero. It automatically apportions power front and rear, while an electronic limited-slip rear differential distributes power side to side. Saab has led the way with this Haldex-engineered all-wheel-drive system (Audi and others have followed in a similar all-wheel-drive strategy), and it creates a beautifully balanced car that shows only the mildest sign of understeer when pushed hard — remarkable for an all-wheel-drive car with 58 percent of its weight up front.
How good is the 9-5? The Aero's handling numbers at our test track bested the Audi A6 3.0 T, BMW 535i, Infiniti M37S and Mercedes-Benz E350 on the skid pad and beat all but the M37S in the slalom. Even then, the difference with the rough-riding Infiniti was a mere 0.4 mph.
Besides XWD (cross-wheel drive), credit the 9-5's steering, which is characterized by crisp turn-in and the sort of response and road feel that BMW has recently lost. Like a BMW, the Saab Aero gets adjustable drive settings (dubbed DriveSense), but they are ultimately better sorted due to the car's better steering and the ability to separately set each of several applicable vehicle attributes (suspension damping, steering assist, throttle response, stability control intervention and shift timing for the six-speed automatic transmission). Want the firm sport steering but don't need to be jarred by the firm sport suspension? The 9-5 Aero has you covered.
The Aero's turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 is less impressive, producing 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. That's good enough to bring this heavy, 4,251-pound Saab from zero to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, which should put it only midpack against its all-wheel-drive competition. Even so, we were never wanting for power, and the V6 with its twin-scroll turbocharger delivers an ample kick of immediate, low-end torque that gives the engine a spirited feel.
EPA-estimated fuel economy is 20 mpg combined, which is impressive for this class, but we could only manage 18.6 mpg in two weeks of mixed driving.
The 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero's ride is a bit firmer than that of its German competitors (more so if you engage the DriveSense sport mode), but its variable dampers work to mitigate the nastier bumps and prevent harshness. You don't get the heavy, sophisticated feel you would in a BMW or Benz, but the Saab's handling seems like a happy trade-off, more like a small sport sedan.
Saabs used to be known for heavenly seats that were overstuffed and wrapped around your body like a warm hug from Aunt Helga. The Aero's seats are on the firm side in comparison, yet they prove very comfortable, with excellent support that makes long-distance driving a pleasure. The large range of adjustment suits the tall Scandinavian frames for which the seats are intended, while the manually adjustable thigh extension is a nice touch. Legroom is abundant front and back, though headroom in back can be a little tight for those tall Scandinavians due to the slopping roof line.
The trunk is positively enormous at 18.2 cubic feet, capable of swallowing at least two golf bags and three roll-on suitcases.
The 2011 Saab 9-5 pays homage to Saab's heritage in the cabin. The multidirectional air vents still look like egg crates, you can shut off the eerie green dash lights with the Night Panel button and the ignition is still where it shouldn't be. Yet this is still a thoroughly modern interior. That console-mounted ignition is actually a push-button starter, while the climate, audio and optional navigation controls are thoroughly up to date.
Of course, those controls have been lifted from the parts bins of General Motors (as is the whole car itself, really), with button labels and screen graphics looking awfully familiar if you've been in newer GM products like the Buick LaCrosse. The layout is unique to Saab (and superior), but some may be bothered by their $55,000 luxury sedan sharing anything with a Chevy Equinox, even if there's nothing actually wrong with the way things work, look or feel.
A bigger concern could be that the 9-5 does not offer some of the features its competitors do, like a rearview camera, power-adjustable steering wheel, blind-spot warning, night-vision warning cameras and adaptive cruise control. Perhaps these are costly extravagances in an already expensive car, yet they put the 9-5 Aero at a disadvantage compared to its luxurious German competition.
The new 9-5 draws inspirations from Saab's past, but the overall effect is modern and forward-looking. The trademark grille has been enlarged and emboldened. The A-pillars are blacked out, as are the tops of the mirrors, removing visual bulk from the car, while the C-pillars taper aggressively back into the teardrop tail end dominated by full-width LED lighting. Much as the Jaguar XF made the V8-powered models in this segment seem dull by comparison, so, too, the 9-5 outshines its V6-powered comrades.
The interior is even more Saab-centric, with a dash that wraps around the driver, bringing all controls within easy reach. There's a high-tech ambience that's kind of cool, though compared to rival cabins, the 9-5 is a little stark and lacks the warmth of luxury. Audi, BMW, Infiniti and Mercedes also utilize much nicer materials, while the fit and finish of this particular early-production 9-5 could've been tighter.
A price tag of $55,000 seems steep for a Saab, but if we are to grant this brand the right to redefine itself, we must also admit that the 2011 Saab 9-5 is a genuine player in its segment. The Aero has benchmark handling, a competitive powertrain, plenty of space and the sort of style that will get you noticed (in a good way) in a parking lot full of Bimmers and Benzes.
If price is an issue, you might consider the $38,525, front-wheel-drive Saab 9-5 with its turbocharged 220-hp turbocharged inline-4. But we have to say that the 9-5 Aero is a relative bargain compared to its German competition. Load up the BMW and Mercedes with all this Aero's mix of standard and optional equipment and their price tags would be between $8,000 and $10,000 more.
We think the 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero's price advantage makes up for some of the deficit in fit and finish and the less compelling brand name. If the future of Saab will be as good-looking, as fun to drive and as competitive as this 9-5, consider the brand successfully redefined.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.