The fast, smooth, slick Saab 9-5 may be among the last genuine Saabs because owner General Motors is considering a new way of running Saab that would take this automaker from its Swedish roots.
Saabs may even be built outside Sweden. And U.S. Saab dealers may even be given vehicles developed by other GM divisions and affiliates, such as Subaru.
GM reportedly never has made money with Saab, which only sold 37,805 cars in America last year. Saab's best year here was 1986, when sales totaled 48,181 autos. GM bought half of Saab in 1990 and the rest in 2000.
Saab never has had many dealers or much promotion. But the problem mostly is that Saab's solid, cleverly engineered cars never have been mainstream autos here, with offbeat items such as a console-mounted ignition switch. (The redesigned $71,200 Range Rover has that switch location but gets away with it because it has an illustrious reputation.) Also, some Saabs had hatchback designs that Americans associated with economy cars--not autos such as the fairly high-priced Saab.
The newest Saab is the 9-3 sedan, which dumped its traditional hatchback design for a regular trunk. It's nearly mainstream, but has a console ignition switch and continues as a nonconformist rival to automakers such as BMW, Audi, Acura and Infiniti.
The larger 9-5 is offered as a sedan and station wagon. It was revised for 2002 and is hard to beat for utility, safety and comfortable fast driving over all kinds of roads.
The 9-5 has Saab's oldest design and isn't as refined as some rivals, although it doesn't feel especially dated. It looks sleek and is especially fast in 250-horsepower sporty Aero form (0-60 mph in 6.5 seconds). Other 9-5 models are the base 185-horsepower Linear and more-luxurious 200-horsepower Arc.
Buy or lease a 9-5 Aero and you get two-day intensive driver training with racing professionals at the Road Atlanta race complex near Saab Cars USA headquarters in Georgia. The goal is to learn how to drive a fast car more safely in a variety of conditions.
The Arc has a turbocharged 3-liter V-6, while the Linear and Aero have turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engines. Power of the Aero's engine is impressive, considering its small size. But Saab is a whiz at extracting lots of power from small engines. It helps that the solid 9-5 isn't overly heavy, weighing from 3,470 to 3,580 pounds.
Prices range from $33,995 for the Linear sedan to $39,350 for the Aero wagon. Even the Linear is very well equipped, with items including automatic climate control, power sunroof, power front heated front seats, leather upholstery and cruise control.
As with Sweden's Volvo, Saab long has been very safety minded. For instance, the Linear has standard electronic traction and stability control systems, anti-lock brakes and side air bags up front. GM's OnStar emergency assistance system is standard.
For added safety, the $1,195 Touring Package has powerful bi-xenon headlights, a rear park assist to prevent hitting unseen objects, automatic-dimming outside mirrors and rain-sensing wipers. Standard are three dual windshield washer jets, which show unusual attention to detail.
The Arc adds heated rear seats, and the $38,650 Aero sedan I tested has bolstered sport seats, sport suspension, wider 45-series tires on big 17-inch wheels and stronger brakes.
The Aero also has newly available $995 ventilated front seats, which make hot-weather driving more comfortable. Standard in the Arc, these seats have electric fans that draw cooling air in through perforations in the leather.
New for the latest 9-5 is race-car-style manual gear selection of the five-speed automatic transmission via steering wheel buttons. A driver upshifts by pressing the right-hand button and downshifts with the left-hand button. That's OK, but I left the car in "drive'' mode most of the time because the transmission is smooth and responsive.
Thanks to the automatic's fifth gear, the Aero's engine loafs at 2,200 rpm at 70 mph. It delivers an estimated 20 mpg in the city and 30 on highways with the automatic. That transmission is standard in the Arc but is $1,300 extra for the Linear and Aero, which have a standard five-speed manual gearbox with a rather rubbery shifter.
There's slight turbo lag (delayed throttle response) with the four-cylinder engine at low engine rpms, but it's not really objectionable. Steering is quick, although rather light, and the ride is supple. The easily modulated brakes provide quick, sure stops.
The 9-5 offers lots of room for four tall adults, who comfortably sit upright in the quiet, upscale interior. Gauges are easily read. There are lots of controls, but they have a decent size and can be sorted out fairly easily. However, the console-mounted power window switches would be more convenient if put on the front doors.
Even the sedan has a large trunk, and cargo room is enormous with the entire rear seat folded forward. The wagon provides more cargo volume (73 cubic feet) than most compact sport-utility vehicles.
Outside door handles are easily gripped. But inside handles should be larger, and the power door locks make a clanking sound not in keeping with the 9-5's upscale nature.
Many Saabs are bought by individualists who don't care if neighbors own more common European sedans such as BMWs. However, with GM shooting for higher Saab sales, upcoming models may be more mainstream.
Fast. Distinctive. Roomy. Comfortable on all roads.
Older design. Console-mounted power window switches. Clunky power door locks.