First Drive: 2010 Saab 9-5 Aero [Review]

The 2010 Saab 9-5 is the best car to ever come from Trollhattan. But was it worth saving from near death? Is it the best Saab ever? And is it really even a Saab?

This is the review that almost wasn't written. This is the car that almost wasn't driven. This is the automaker that almost didn't live.

At the risk of sounding like a cliched, patriotic Jeep ad (although the patriotism here would be fully Swedish), that the Saab 9-5 is alive for the 2010 model year is the result of unparalleled perseverance from both internal and external forces. About six months ago, Saab built about 60 9-5s while General Motors was shutting down the brand. The 9-5s were spared the fate of becoming Nordic Tuckers thanks to Spyker's Victor Muller, Saab Sweden's Jan Ake Jonsson and Saab USA's Mike Colleran. With Colleran serving as their negotiator in Detroit (despite receiving a GM paycheck), Muller and Jonsson plucked Saab from ashes.

The lingering question from everyone: Was it worth it?

The best Saab ever
Unfortunately, calling the 2010 9-5 "the best Saab ever" damns it with faint praise. Saab has unquestionably made some great cars over the years, like the rally-proven 93, the rocket-like 99 and 900 Turbos, the segment-defining 9000 Aero and even the admirably tossable current 9-3. Line up every Saab variant built and you'd fill the smallest room of Jay Leno's garage.

Starving for cash is a way of life at Saab. In the last 25 years, Saab has had two midsize designs (9000 in 1985, 9-5 in 1997) to rival five generations of BMW 5-Series sedans.

A mere glimpse of the new 9-5 is enough to dispel thoughts of the outgoing model. Viewed head-on, it is almost a dead ringer for the well-received Aero X concept car, while even the side and rear profiles reveal interesting styling details. The sides are perhaps a little too slab-like for our tastes and the C-pillar, usually a controversial cue on Saabs, is an acquired taste. Yet the clamshell-style roofline and the fascinatingly complex tail lamps make up for most of our misgivings. All of the 9-5's lights, both front and rear, are covered in a trick blue-hue clear plastic, a bold look that screams "Scandinavia."

Unlike cross country friend-and-foe Volvo's conservativeness, the 9-5 is both intricate and cohesively simple at the same time. The design is fresh and modern, if a little trendy.

Most of the 500 or so 2010 9-5s that are hitting U.S. shores as you read this will all be range-topping Aero models with the trick 19-inch turbine-style alloy wheels. Less stylish 18s are standard

It's not until you climb into the 9-5's cavernous rear seat area that you realize how large this new sedan is. Especially toward the end of its long life, the outgoing 9-5 sold mostly to buyers who came to look at a 9-3 but realized they could get a marginally roomier and more powerful 9-5 for about the same money. No longer will that be the case; the 9-5's much increased dimensions mark it as a clear mid-sizer and not a compact offering.

At 197.2 inches long, the 9-5 is probably the largest sedan most buyers will find. That's a good thing in North America, but it could hinder European sales.

From the front seat, the 9-5 feels much smaller. That's mainly because of the intimate feel courtesy of a wrap-around dashboard and upright windshield. The driver never feels constricted, though, and the Aero-specific seats of our test vehicle were, in typically Swedish style, among the best we've ever experienced.

Today, 9-5s might not say "General Motors" anywhere obvious (finding the logo makes for a fun scavenger hunt), but GM devotees will recognize some switchgear. Turn signal stalks, pictographs, the navigation system and a high-resolution screen situated in the speedometer. At least Saab traded some of its unique flavor for GM's best parts bin goodies. The navigation and audio interface is top notch and we loved using the heads-up display that shoots the car's current speed onto the windshield.

Unfortunately, one of the 9-5's most unique styling element feels instead rather incomplete. The show car we saw at last year's Frankfurt Motor Show boasted a trick tech-styled applique on the dashboard. The part, we're told, was too complex to produce in mass quantities, so instead the 9-5's dashboard is swathed in black plastic. It's good plastic, but it's plastic. We hope future 9-5s get something different.

Despite its GM influence, certain Saab touches inevitably remain. Following the latest automotive trend, the 9-5 eschews a key for a fob (a reformed Cadillac key), but at least the starter button is located behind the gear lever. Tradition? Maybe.

For the short (think month-long) 2010 model year, Saab is starting things off with only a handful of range-topping 9-5 Aeros. They feature a 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 also seen in the Cadillac SRX. Good news: Before disposing of Saab, GM enlisted the Swedes to turbocharge a standard V6.

Here, it cranks out 300 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and a decent 295 lb-ft. of torque at a low 2,500 rpm. Mated exclusively to a six-speed automatic with both paddle-style and gear lever shift-it-yourself ability, the V6 is smooth and quite torquey.

The V6 is mated exclusively to Saab's all-wheel-drive system, XWD, which consists of a Haldex center differential and an electronic limited slip rear differential. It normally supplies most power to the front wheels, but a sport mode sends more grunt to the rear (and firms up the steering and increases throttle response). A comfort mode exists for grandma, while an "intelligent" mode adapts to the driver's habits over the long run for a not-quite-as-sporty feel.

At a portly 4,400 lbs., the 9-5 is about 250 lbs. chunkier than a BMW 535i xDrive or Audi A6 quattro.

For 2011, the 9-5 will be offered with front or all-wheel-drive 2.0-liter turbocharged models and a standard six-speed stick. The 2.0Ts feature 220 horsepower and, Saab estimates, up to 34 mpg on the highway - 4-5 mpg better than the segment leaders. We'll look forward to driving a 2011 9-5 soon.

Ready for takeoff?
Saab doesn't deny that the 9-5 shares some of its basic platform with the Buick LaCrosse and Opel Insignia. While we haven't driven the Opel, we have enjoyed the LaCrosse. And, not to get ahead of ourselves, we rather liked the 9-5. But the two could hardly feel less alike.

We slung the 9-5 through twisty byways along the New York-Pennsylvania border and found it to be a genuine blast to drive. Set to sport mode, the steering feels "just right," offering good control and rewarding the driver with positive feedback. The V6 willingly tugs the 9-5 along, at times feeling very rapid (especially in terms of midrange torque), although the six-speed automatic occasionally balked at the suggestion of a downshift.

The 9-5 stops just short of feeling aggressively sporty, instead walking the fine line between outright performance sedans and luxury liners. It feels amazingly light on its feet - especially given its curb weight - and extraordinarily tossable. Credit the standout steering for one, but also the firm-yet-compliant suspension.

The same couldn't be said for the brakes. For now, U.S.-spec 9-5s get typically soft GM-feeling low dust brakes. For 2011, certain models will eventually be available with extra cost Brembos. Bring 'em on!

Range-topping 9-5 Aeros use the unique HiPer front strut suspension created by Opel to mitigate torque steer by ensuring that the strut and wheel don't rotate together. Application in an all-wheel-drive car might seem a little odd, but Saab ensures us that it instead helps add in more steering feel and better control.

Regardless of their intention, it seems to work. We'll have to wait for a spin in a standard 9-5 without the suspension setup to judge its effectiveness.

A brief opportunity to toss the 9-5 around the track at the Monticello Motor Club revealed predictable behavior but an impressively nimble feel. We continually doubted Saab's assertion that the 9-5 is as heavy as it is, although its dimensions tell another story.

On the open road, though, the 9-5 really shines. The steering is straight line accurate and the car displays remarkable refinement, with nary a wind whistle entering the cabin.

A serene cruiser and a nimble driver - what more could you ask for?

Leftlane's bottom line
Look beyond a few pieces of switchgear and the 9-5's uniquely Nordic nature shines through. It's not a Saab of yore, but it shouldn't be. It's a Saab of the future, a car that almost didn't exist. Absolutely the best Saab ever, it's the kind of car that could easily save an automaker.

And it will need to.

Saab's biggest task will be luring buyers who might otherwise take home a needlessly tech-heavy (and surprisingly non-sporty) BMW 5-Series or the still staid Mercedes-Benz E-Class. With many buyers trying to eschew the traditional luxury image, the amazingly fun-to-drive 9-5 certainly has a fighting chance. At about $50,000, the 9-5 Aero is expensive, but it's not out of line with the quality of execution. The upcoming 2.0Ts will be in the much more reasonable mid-to-upper $30,000 range.

Saab and its dealers simply need to get buyers into their showrooms. They will no doubt be impressed.

2010 Saab 9-5 Aero base price, $49,990.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.