James Mackintosh 6 years ago 0

2011 Saab 9-5 Aero XWD Test Drive

Remind me later
The new 9-5 is a crucial vehicle for Saab.  If you're reading this site, you're probably aware of the financial troubles that the Swedish automaker, recently kicked to the curb by GM after 20 years of neglect, is going through.  It hasn't been pretty, and it still isn't going smoothly - no cars are rolling off the line at Tröllhattan at the time of this writing, because there still isn't money to pay employee wages.  It's dire times indeed.  What Saab desperately needs is a good car to sell. I can't call the current 9-3 a bad car, because it isn't - it's a good car, just like it was when it came out in 2003.  But 8 years is a very long time for a car to stick around basically unchanged, and it's fallen behind the curve despite a number of updates and refreshes.  The 9-4x seems like a competent vehicle, and crossover utility vehicles are still selling well, but it's just another fish in a very big pond.  So this 9-5 is very important. Is it good?  Well, it should be good.  It's been in development since George W Bush was on his first term.  An unwillingness of the GM brass to fund development for a brand that doesn't sell a lot of cars had it sitting on the sidelines for years, while they continued to update the old 9-5, a design that lasted a full decade - 1998-2008.  Which was based on an old Opel chassis (GM2900), which dates back to 1988 - almost as old as the 9-5's predecessor, the 9000, which debuted in 1986.  So one could say this was the first truly modern large Saab since the 80's - sort of. The new 9-5 is considerably larger than the old one, and it's not hard to see.  The wheelbase is 5" longer, the overall length is 7" longer, it's 3" wider with 2.5" more track width front and rear, but the height doesn't change at all.  What that means is if you park a new 9-5 next to an old one, the original 9-5 looks tall, narrow and a bit stodgy - and obviously old-fashioned.  Saab really sweated the details on the design of this car, and it shows.

even the headlights are pretty.

The exterior design itself will likely be a major selling point: it's just right.  It stands out a lot more than the GM 9-3 sedan, which somehow managed to blend into a sea of boring traffic until it's 2008 face lift.  The 9-5 is clearly a Saab, but it's fairly restrained next to most of it's competition.  Well, except for the giant two-tone black and silver funky wheels.  The drastically forward-swept C-pillar (Saab calls it the Hockey Stick, which is refreshingly honest) is very well executed in this design, blending into the almost flat roof - it's very striking in person.

The Aero XWD is the top of the line 9-5, carrying all the options and a fairly heavy price tag.  (We'll get to that.)  That means basically all the goodies and gizmos you expect from a modern middle-tier luxury car: forced induction, all wheel drive, fancy 6-speed automatic, variable dampers (and "drive modes"), satnav, etc.  Mechanically, the new 9-5 is based off of the GM Epsilon II chassis, sharing components with the new Buick LaCrosse and Opel Insignia (and thus the Buick Regal.)  Under the hood is an engine that should be familiar to Saab drivers: the GM high-feature 2.8L V6.  This all-aluminum V6 features chain-driven twin-cam heads, 4 valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and a single twin-scroll turbocharger and intercooler mounted just sort of "over there."  Seriously:

Despite having a smaller motor than most everything else it competes with, the Aero manages to push out an even 300bhp (at 5,500rpm) and 295 lb-ft at a pretty low 2,000rpm - one of the benefits of a small, low-inertia twin entry turbocharger.  As to why they decided to hide everything under a rather unconvincing engine cover (are those supposed to be cylinders?  Intake runners?  Decepticons?), I cannot offer an explanation.  All Aero's (at least in the US) are mated exclusively to a 6-speed automatic transmission, sending power to all four wheels through Haldex gen. IV AWD.  Sound familiar?  Sounds a bit like an A6 3.0T Quattro, actually.

That's a lot of power and torque and a good spread of gears, but there is an issue: with all this size and equipment and technology, the 9-5 Aero is a fairly heavy car.  While the previous Aero (which was front wheel drive, and powered by a highly boosted 2.3L I4 with 260bhp) weighed in just north of 3,500lbs, the new Aero is north of 4,200lbs.  So when the turbo spools up and you're in the right gear, the Aero XWD will really haul - but it's pretty soft off the line.  Good news?  Despite all that mass hooked to a fairly small engine, turbo lag is basically non-existant.  You really wouldn't guess this is a highly boosted small engine - it just feels like a V6 with about a liter more displacement than it actually has.

Of course, that old 9-5 Aero had something the new one doesn't: rampant torque steer.  Considering this is literally the most powerful car Saab's ever made (we're not counting the 9-7x Aero, which was a Trailblazer SS with a Saab grille, because - oh come on), and Saab's defining characteristic in the minds of most people is "torque steer," this is a revelation.  You plant your foot, and the Aero takes off - smoothly, no wheelspin, no steering fight, nothing.  It's so far from a Viggen it's funny.  And it's not slow, either: 0-60 comes up in 6.1 seconds, and the quarter mile passes in 14.7 seconds at 96mph. (MT test 10/7/2010.)

In fact, while one of the most endearing things about the old 9-5 Aero was how unruly it was - torque steer, turbo lag, a massive blast of power on boost that tapered off sharply towards redline, that notchy "only a Saab" shifter that felt like a bunch of ropes tugging the gears - the new one is basically the opposite.  Everything it does, it does smoothly and quietly.  There's almost no audible turbo noise at all - if you roll into the gas in second gear with the window rolled down and your head out, you can almost hear it.  It just goes where you point it, with deceptive speed.

bling, bling.

Not such great marks for the transmission, which like most modern automatics, isn't a bad transmission, but it suffers from bad programming.  I'm not sure why they include shift paddles on the steering wheel when it refuses to downshift in some situations - it's like a "mute" button on the TV remote that says "no, you have to listen to the commercials!" and turns up the volume.  Shifts in normal "Drive" mode are adequately fast, and the spread of ratios is enough to keep the small turbo V6 on the boil most of the time, but it's recalcitrant to downshift when you put your foot in it most of the time.  There's a "drive mode" switch (with Comfort, Intelligent, and Sport) - and there's no discernible difference between any of the three of them.

The Aero is supposed to have active dampers and a three-mode chassis, but I couldn't tell a difference without driving a standard one - either way, the ride is well-controlled, not too firm, but never floaty.  Throttle response is gradual, not jumpy, and the brakes have no trouble stopping the heave Swede.  The chassis is what impresses: this big luxury sedan actually likes corners, on-ramps, and turns.  The way it puts power down is flawless - select second on a curved highway on-ramp, plant your foot, and it just hauls, no drama at all.  It feels front-heavy (something the base model 9-5, with a 2.0L turbo 4, probably has an edge on), but not excessively so.  Handling and balance has never been a Saab strong suit, but here is a Saab with clearly more chassis talent and mechanical grip than actual power - very different.

And here's where we get to the interior.  Oh my god.  Excuse the sophomoric terminology, but it's absolutely, face-slappingly brilliant.  I didn't want to remove myself from the seat, but that's nothing new for Saabs.  (My SPG's seats, with 150k+ miles on them, were still absolutely comfortable, and had never been restuffed or recovered.)  But the futuristic, aviation-themed interior is spot on.  Like most Saabs, there are some oddities: the "Night Panel" switch (which shuts off everything but the speedometer, basically) is where you'd expect the engine start button to be, which is down on the bottom left corner of the shifter trim.  The mix of soft gray plastic, polished steel trim, and soft leather is just... relaxing.  Not gaudy like the inside of a Lexus, or somber and depressing like a BMW, or nice but slightly alien like a modern Hyundai - you immediately feel at home.  The Saab trademark vents, with their internal structure that directs air, still work great.  Then you get to the gauge cluster, and... yes.  Perfect.

Beyond the aesthetic Scandinavian beauty of the interior, which is to be expected, is how big the car is.  There's so much leg room in the back seat, even with the seat adjusted for my lanky 6'2" frame, that I'm pretty sure Shaq could fit.  That dropping roofline leaves a little less headroom than you'd expect, but it's hardly cramped - and of course the back seats are comfy too.

It has all the gizmos and gadgets you'd expect a car at this price range to have, of course.  The optional 8" touch screen in the center dash houses satnav, radio, CD/DVD, Aux/USB inputs, a 10GB hard-drive, and voice control.  My test car was also equipped with the optional Harmon-Kardon audio system, an 11-speaker setup capable of full 5.1 surround sound.  There were also ventilated seats (which, believe me, were wonderful on a 100º day in July in North Carolina!), steering wheel hand controls, Bluetooth connectivity, etc.  The wheel itself is nice, too - well-shaped, and those aluminum accents on the spokes are a nice touch.

Last year, this was basically the only way you could order a 9-5 - loaded, and starting out around $49,000.  This year, in the US you have more options.  The base model (Turbo4) offers 220bhp and the option of FWD or AWD, as well as a manual or automatic transmission.  There's also a non-Aero Turbo6 option (they refer to the engines as Turbo4 and Turbo6 now), with a less aggressive body and softer suspension, as well as a thousand-dollar lower price tag.  And next year (hopefully!), there will be the 9-5 SportCombi, which will probably be one of the biggest, most spacious wagons you can buy in the US.

So, here's the tough part.  Is the new 9-5 a good car?  Absolutely.  It's great to look at, even greater to sit in, it's a good drive (with a few caveats), it's refined and pack with the type of features people expect in this class, and it has that intangible Nordic personality that I love (clearly.)  So what's the problem?

Well, good lord is it expensive.  I realize a car this sophisticated is never going to be cheap, but my 9-5 test car rang up the register at $55,225 (including destination charge.)  And that's not even with every option: a fully loaded 9-5 Aero, according to Saab's website, rings up the register at $58,475.  And truth be told, I'm not sure they even have all the current options on the website - the wheels on my test car don't even show up in the build options on Saab's website.  Does it feel and drive like a $58,000 car?  Maybe.  But to put it into perspective, a Volvo S60 R-Design T6 AWD (perhaps the Saab's most direct competitor) starts at $42,500 (almost 7k cheaper), and is around the Aero's starting MSRP with every option package selected.  With every box ticked, it's north of $53k.  The Cadillac CTS 3.6 AWD Premium starts around 49k, and comes basically loaded, so every option (including $2,800 for Recaro seats) brings it up to around $54k.  And as nice as Saab's Turbo 2.8L V6 is, the Cadillac's 3.6L 24v direct-injected V6 and lavish interior (and Nurburgring-developed chassis) is nothing to sneeze at.

More "prestigious" cars have alarmingly similar prices.  A BMW 535i xDrive starts at $52,400, an Audi A6 3.0T Prestige Quattro is $56,780, and a Lexus GS350 AWD is $48,850.  Is this a problem for me?  No.  For one thing, unless I start up a kidnapping business, I can't afford any of them.  Also, with the exception of the S60 (which still has a pretty odd-looking front end), I wouldn't be caught dead in any of them.  I'm a Saab person, through and through.  I love Saabs, and I love the new 9-5.  It's fantastic, it's just as great as I hoped it would be (and as Saab surely hoped it would be.)  But people paying upwards of $50k for a new luxury sedan, are they going to think of Saab?  I have my doubts.  You can get a basic Turbo4 manual 9-5 for around 38k and change, and I hope you do.

Although, if the pricing is my only reservation about the new 9-5, I'd say Saab did pretty damn well with it.  I just hope they can sell all they can make, so that the lights stay on in Tröllhattan.  How boring would the world be without Saab?  I shudder to even think of it.

  2011 Saab 9-5 Aero XWD Base price: $49,565 Price as tested: $55,225 Options: Navigation with 8" Touch Screen ($2,395), Harmon-Kardon Audio ($995), Ventilated seats ($695), 19" Alloy Wheels ($750), Destination ($825) Body: Unit Construction 4-door Sedan Drivetrain: Transverse Front-Engine, Haldex AWD with eLSD, 6-speed automatic transmission Accomodations: 5 passengers Engine: V6, aluminum block and heads Displacement: 2792cc Aspiration: Single (twin-scroll) Turbocharger, intercooler Fuel delivery: Port fuel injection Valvetrain: Dual overhead camshafts, 4v/cylinder Compression ratio: 9.5:1 Horsepower: 300bhp@5,500rpm Torque: 295lb-ft@2,000rpm Rev limit: 6,500rpm Suspension (F): Struts, Coil Springs, variable gas-charged shocks, anti-roll bar Suspension (R): Linked H-arm axle, Coil Springs, variable gas-charged shocks, anti-roll bar Steering: Rack & Pinion, Hydraulic variable-rate assist Wheels/Tires: 19x8.5" Alloys, Goodyear Eagle F1 (2 Brakes (F/R): 4-wheel ventilated discs, ABS 0-60mph: 6.1 seconds (MT) Top speed: 155mph (governor limited) 1/4 Mile@ET: 14.7@96mph (MT) EPA fuel mileage estimate: 17 city/ 27 highway/ 20 combined Recommended fuel: 91 octane Fuel Tank Capacity: 18.5 gallons Theoretical Range: 500 miles Wheelbase: 111.7" Length: 197.2" Track (F/R): 62.4"/62.5" Width: 73.5" (w/o mirrors) Height: 57.8" Cargo Capacity: 18.2ft² Curb weight: 4288lbs Main Competitors: Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-Design, Cadillac CTS 3.6 AWD, Lexus GS350 AWD, BMW 535i xDrive, Audi A6 3.0T Quattro, Infiniti G37x Pros: Beautiful and classy inside and out, space for anyone, no torque steer or rampant wheelspin, surprisingly nimble chassis, tons of equipment and technology, rides great, not another BMW/Audi/Lexus Cons: Obnoxious automatic transmission programming, multi-mode drive selector doesn't seem to do anything, soft throttle response, no torque steer or rampant wheelspin (depends on how you like your Saabs), that pricetag makes my head hurt Conclusion: As good as I hoped it would be; hopefully good enough to sell at the prices they're asking.   Thanks to Hendrick Saab for the test drive.