Saab, which began as an aircraft producer in the late 1930s, long has built sporty, ultrasafe non-mainstream cars for generally affluent individualists.
As with most Saabs, the redesigned 9-5 premium midsize sedan and station wagon edge more toward the mainstream for 2006, although unique Saab features remain, such as a console-mounted ignition switch.
General Motors owns Saab, and the small Swedish automaker is one of GM's upbeat operations. Sales last year of 38,343 Saabs in America topped 2004 results -- and U.S. sales through April totaled 11,366 units, compared with 10,518 in the same year-ago period.
The 9-5 wagon (Saab calls it the "SportCombi") I tested is virtually identical to the 9-5 sedan. The sedan has a big trunk, and the wagon has such a large cargo space with its rear seat folded forward that it outdoes some midsize sport-utility vehicles.
The 2005 model designations (Linear, Arc and Aero) have been merged into a single model, the 2.3T, in sedan and wagon body styles.
The 2.3T sedan costs $34,100 in base form and $35,195 in Sport form, with a sport suspension, specially bolstered seats and unique interior and exterior trim. The wagon costs $35,100, with the Sport version at $36,195.
The large amount of comfort and convenience equipment includes heated front/rear leather seats, power sunroof, upscale 200-watt sound system with in-dash 6-disc CD player and even a glovebox tied to the air conditioning to provide refrigerator temperature to stow, say, chocolate or a cold drink.
Ventilated front seats -- a nifty option for summer -- cost $400 for the 2.3T Sport and $995 for the 2.3T.
Safety items include front side air bags and Saab's Active Head Restraints, which help reduce the risk of neck injury in a rear-end collision.
The latest 9-5 has no less than 1,367 new or modified parts. The most obvious changes are cosmetic -- it has the most dramatic frontal design change since the Saab 900 was launched in 1979, although it's clearly a Saab with such items as a "clamshell" hood.
There's new front/rear fascias, front fenders, front/rear lights and new tailgate and trunk lid, with color-matched side moldings and door handles. A new grille has a horizontal bar representing an aircraft wing to salute Saab's aviation heritage.
The aerodynamic 9-5 has a sportier stance, with a wider rear track. And a revised suspension for the nicely evolved chassis provides crisper handling, improved body control and steering precision -- and new low-profile 45-series all-season tires on 17-inch alloy wheels.
The redesigned aircraft-style interior has new instruments and control panels. The main instrument panel curves around the driver and down toward the ignition key, hand brake and electric window switches -- all put between the front seats and ahead of the central armrest/storage box. However, it takes time to get used to the ignition switch and power window controls on the console.
Saab is a master at extracting lots of power from turbocharged four-cylinder engines, which act as if they have at lest two additional cylinders. The 9-5 has a 2.3-liter turbocharged, intercooled four-cylinder with dual overhead camshafts, 16 valves and twin balance shafts for smoothness.
The engine produces 260 horsepower -- or 10 more than last year -- and additional torque. This sedan/wagon can do 0-60 mph in less than seven seconds. The engine has virtually no turbo lag (delayed throttle response) and works with a five-speed manual gearbox or a responsive $1,350 five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability. The 9-5 happily cruises at 75 mph, with plenty of power for merging and passing.
Estimated fuel economy is 21 mpg city and 29 highway with the manual and 18 and 28 with the automatic.
The 9-5 handles almost like a large sports car, with sharp steering, flat cornering and strong anti-lock brakes. The ride is supple, even with the Sport version's stiffer, lowered Sport suspension. A stability control system helps a driver maintain control in difficult situations.
Saab buyers have an average household income of more than $120,000, but one need not be that affluent to get a Saab because it's among the most reasonably priced sports sedans/wagons.
2006 SAAB 9-5
LIKES: Fast. Good handling. Roomy. Well-equipped. Non-mainstream.
DISLIKES: Console ignition switch and power window controls take getting used to.