Saab, which makes jet fighter planes, produces some of the best European sedans and station wagons. But items such as a console-mounted ignition switch have given this innovative automaker an offbeat reputation that has prevented it from attaining the status of, say, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Also, this small automaker doesn't have lots of volume or U.S. dealers, although it says the Chicago market is one of its best. It's hard to beat the high-quality 9-5 for safety, utility and comfortable fast driving over all sorts of roads.
The 2002 model has smoother styling, a slick new five-speed automatic transmission and a new electronic stability system standard on the two upscale models and optional for the entry version. Also, the front-drive 9-5 has better steering feel and a revised suspension for sharper handling. The $33,995-$39,350 9-5 comes as a well-equipped sedan and wagon in Linear, Arc and high-performance Aero models. Only Saab would come up with such unusual names--but so what? These are solid models with turbocharged four-cylinder and V-6 engines that produce from 185 to 250 horsepower and lively acceleration, while delivering decent fuel economy.
I tested the $39,350 Arc wagon, which has a smooth 200-horsepower V-6. Rear windows don't roll down all the way, but this wagon easily swallows four tall adults and gobs of cargo. With the rear seat folded forward, the 9-5 wagon has more cargo volume (73 cubic feet) than most compact sport-utility vehicles and some mid-size sport-utes. No-nonsense Saab pays attention to details, and thus the hatch even has lights for cargo loading at night.
Although a bit light at high speeds, the Arc wagon's steering is precise. The ride is supple and the upgraded anti-lock brakes provide quick stops. All models have standard traction control. The 9-5 is an alternative to the high-line European Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Mercedes E-Class and Volvo S80. If neighbors ask why you bought a 9-5 instead of those more familiar brands, just take them for a brisk ride. They'll understand.
Beautifully engineered. Slicker styling. Spacious. New five-speed automatic transmission.
Lingering offbeat image. Rear windows don't lower all the way.