The Saab 9.5 is the car that time has caught up with.
Once upon a time, Saabs had clear advantages over many other cars. They had front-wheel drive, with the stability in slippery conditions that driveline configuration gives. They had turbocharging that allowed an excellent mix of performance and economy. They had low-drag aerodynamics that came directly from the aeronautical pursuits of the parent company. They had sophisticated engine management that included knock sensing. They had an easy, long-legged gait that despatched good and bad roads with equal facility. They had packaging that gave interior room belying the exterior dimensions. They had both dynamic and passive safety in large measures. They had ergonomic, driver-centred controls and instruments where decoration always took second place to practicality. And they often had a touch of luxury...
Trouble is, now all those traits are shared by many much cheaper cars. Other manufacturers have caught up and moved ahead while Saab – especially with the 9.5 – has soldiered on with the same recipe. That doesn’t make the 9.5 a bad car, but it does mean you can get all that the Saab offers in many other cars – some of which offer better retained value, a lower purchase cost and cheaper long-term servicing.
Unless you’re hell-bent on buying a Saab – and many current 9.5 buyers previously owned Saabs – we simply can’t see how the purchase of a Saab 9.5 can be justified.
The engine in the Linear model on test here develops only 136kW from its venerable 2.3-litre four cylinder. In the way of Saab turbocharged engines, torque is developed early, with 280Nm from 1800 rpm. But even with a mass of 1559kg in as-tested 5-speed auto form, performance isn’t scintillating - 100 km/h comes up in 9.5 seconds. So, despite the turbo, performance is slower than any of the locals – Commodore, Falcon, Camry V6 or 380. Yes, they’re powered by six-cylinder engines but so what? It’s the end result that buyers are interested in.
So perhaps fuel consumption is the Saab’s forte? Saab’s factory figure for the urban cycle is terrible – 14.8 litres/100 – although some redemption does come in the extra urban, which is 7.2 litres/100. The combined figure is 10 litres/100km – nothing startlingly good. However, it must be said that in a gentle long distance cruise, the Saab can turn in excellent fuel consumption figures – better than those aforementioned locals. But after all, it has got a lot less performance...
The big banger four cylinder is certainly showing its age in NVH (noise vibration harshness). It’s not a patch on the newly-released Saab 2.8 litre V6 and feels like a long way off the class pace in terms of smoothness. At idle the engine is quite coarse – immediately after starting on a cold morning, incredibly coarse. It’s a bit like criticising the performance of an old, slow horse that was once a champion performer – the engine hasn’t (much) changed but the younger competition has simply charged off into the distance.
You can work you way through nearly all the
mechanical specs in the same way: brakes (288/286mm discs front and back) are
small; the 215/55 Pirelli P6000’s are narrow and certainly don’t provide much
grip; the suspension system (front MacPherson struts and a rear multi-link
suspension) is fine on paper but simply doesn’t deliver the promise (the Saab’s
handling reminded us irresistibly of a Magna of 5 years ago: plenty of
understeer but quick if you get a flow happening through sweeping corners); and
the steering lacks feel at speed and can kick-back when cornering hard. We also
found the ride unexpectedly harsh on poor secondary roads; on concrete freeways
it could develop a vertical oscillation a bit like having a flat tyre. The 9.5
is certainly not a car with a magic carpet ride that’s the trade-off for the
Dynamically, in both ride and handling, a current Mitsubishi 380 is simply a far better car... even without the stability control fitted to the Saab.
Inside, the 9.5 has always been a spacious design; again that hasn’t changed; but again plenty of others now offer similar carrying capacity at a lower price. The rear legroom is good, the boot is large (although with a smallish opening) and the rear seat split folds. The front seats offer no electrics; instead, height adjustment is by a lever that moves the back of the seat up and down, while the squab angle can be adjusted by another lever.
The instrumentation and controls are classically Saab-clear and easy to understand; even the moderately complex sound system is almost intuitively easy to use – and also sounds good.
Build quality is fine and you can see in subtleties like the twin catches used on the bonnet and the glove-box lid that plenty of thought went into the original design. But these things are subtleties; instead, try to find equipment in the cabin that can’t be bought for AUD$15,000 less. There’s no navigation, no reversing sensors, only four airbags, no seat electrics of any kind – not even a stacker CD. Incredibly in this AUD$60,400 car there’s not even a key-off delay on the electric windows, something you’ll find even on a 12 year old Falcon. You do get leather, dual climate control, a trip computer, auto-dimming rear vision mirror, rain-sensing wipers, active head restraints and, significantly, an excellent 5-start EuroNCAP crash test result. There are controls on the steering wheel for the trip computer and sound system.
Also on the steering wheel are up/down controls for the auto gearbox. However, the system is clumsy because before the steering wheel controls become operative, the gear lever needs to be pulled back one notch from ‘D’. That makes a quick down-change to engine brake up to a set of traffic lights (something we commonly use tiptronic-style auto gearboxes to do) an impossibility: instead of just sliding the gear lever across to one side and then pulling back a notch as would normally be done, the gear lever needs to be moved and then the hand returned to the steering wheel to push the ‘down’ button. The two-step process simply makes no sense and takes a surprisingly long time when just the one manual down-change is needed.
Styling updates of the latest 9.5 include a new nose which, frankly, we think looks awful. However, as always, styling is in the eye of the beholder and perhaps some people will love it.
Ten years ago the 9.5 would have been a stunner. Five years ago we would have been ranked it very highly – just as in fact we did at New Car Test - Saab 9-5 SE. These days, the paucity of fundamental progress means it’s impossible to find $60,000 of value in any aspect. The 9.5 Linear is certainly no bad car – it’s just that there’s now a helluva lot of cheaper cars around that are very good indeed. Ensure you drive them before making your purchase decision.