Friday, November 17, 2017

Saab Story Part One: The 9-5 of the range.

1997-2001 Saab 9-5 SE sedan 01.jpg

Saab never used to build cars for the conventional person. Most people who bought Saabs were very intelligent people and knew that they didn't want to fall into the cliches of BMW and Audi Drivers. This is why Saab still has the most loyal fan base of any company. Most people take pictures of their cars, people with Saabs take pictures with their cars.  This sense of pride made me wonder why do people love their Saabs so much? Why do people smile whenever they talk about their Saab? Is it true that once you test drive a Saab you buy one? 

 This was the first 9-5 wagon which appeared in 1998. It was the most unique looking wagon I had ever seen during the time. The unique wrap around rear windscreen and the large yet roomy boot made this 9-5 a real alternative to the sport utility vehicle. This was in the era when having a wagon was still considered 'cool' before sport utility vehicles took over and slowly made the wagon look lame. I still have a special place in my heart for wagons and the 9-5 always managed to hit all the sweet spots for me. This version seen had a 3-liter asymmetrical low-pressure turbocharged six-cylinder engine.

This engine is good for about 200hp and is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It's not a fire cracker of an engine like you'd expect from Saab, but it was smooth and easy to drive around town and on the motorway. Once the turbo kicks in and you that's when the real joy comes into your heart. This turbo really does push you back in your seat. At some point I forgot I was even driving a wagon. The unique driving experience really does characterize the Saab well.

The interior was what I loved most about Saab, and the central console mounted ignition switch is just about the most awesome thing I've ever seen on a car. I wish other cars had this design. No one understands the benefits of not having to hear your rattling keys from a column based ignition switch. In Saab Eyes if you are in a front collision and the steering wheel is designed to deform away from the driver, the ignition switch will buckle down and intrude into the space where your legs are and potentially cause leg injury. Those Swedes thought of everything when it came to safety! This is why the ignition switch is in the center console away from the areas of the body will cause injury. Not to mention keep theft far - far away, as the trick of having a center console igniton switch is that you can directly lock the transmission. Which means that no one is geting anywhere with your Saab unless they have the key. Clever Saab! Clever!

Unlike most cars, Saab's Interiors have always reflected their Aircraft heritage. The 'Night Panel' function which alloys you to shut off all the instrumental lights that aren't needed to reduce eye strain. Everything within the dashboard is within easy reach of the hand. It's very driver focused, which helps you stay focused on what's most important and that's driving.

I started really paying attention to Saab when they started trying to compete with Audi and Mercedes-Benz. Even though we all knew that Saab's main rival was Volvo. The newest generation of the 9-5 was the one I have shown here. It wasn't really a next generation, more like a facelift and a few changes mechanically and interior wise. If you sat both cars side by side you won't really be able to spot out the difference. In this model year, the 9-5 switched to all four-cylinder engines. One thing that Saab should always stayed true to. Six-cylinders and eight-cylinders are okay but it doesn't have the magic of a turbo four.

Photo provided by Rual 

Something that Saab has always managed to put into their cars. This 9-5 I have here had a 2.3-liter light-pressure turbo engine which produced 185hp. Again, the engine is what won me over with this car, along with all the quirky nature of Saabness. The front seats were a dream to sit in and still remains one of the best I've ever sat in. The interior again is just like the previous 9-5 wagon I test drove, everything is focused towards the driver. It gives you this sense of safety and comfort. I didn't get that feeling from a BMW or Audi. The 9-5 is one of those cars you can just relax and drive smoothly. You know you have a turbo and when you put that turbo into gear it really does come through. In the Saab case it wasn't the turbo, it was the sheer driving exprience and that was what made the car brilliant. I loved how it felt even on the roughest surfaces. The 9-5 managed to feel much more comfortbale than the 5-series that I had test drove which basically had the firmest and roughest suspension I ever test drove on a car.

For the short amount of time that I had the 9-5 wagon, I immediately wanted to buy it right there. It's just an amazing vehicle and it really does put a smile on your face. Which brings me back to the first question that I asked, why do people smile when ever they talk about their Saabs. I sort of get why, but it's really hard to explain it. It's not the fact that you're paying less than a BMW or Audi. It certainly isn't the styling because it doesn't appeal to all. It's the way the car makes you feel when you are behind the wheel. It's a warm and fuzzy feeling, sort of like when you pet a fuzzy cat. It just grows on you and you'd never expect this type of emotion to occur in a car. This is why Saabs will be missed by their fans and those who choose to carry on the Saab Heritage.

Photo provided by Felipe Melecio 
The final facelift for the 9-5 range came around 2006 and it was probably my least favorite version of the 9-5. Well I said that only looking at the pictures. When I seen it in person that's when it quickly warmed on me fast. This 9-5 was refreshed and really did look just as good as when the first one rolled into the scene in 1997. Saab had addressed their complicated climate controls and used simple dials and of course they trimmed down the line-up to one engine and I'll have to say it was the best decision Saab made. This engine produced 260hp from a tiny 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine.

There was a five-speed manual gearbox and a six-speed automatic gearbox. I never had the chance to personally test drive the 9-5 with the five-speed manual gearbox like I did in the 9-3 Viggen. The six-speed automatic was smooth and worked well with the turbo engine. This version shown above was in Aero Trim which of course had the nicer alloy wheels and firmer suspension. Xenon headlamps and a really nicely trimmed leather upholstry. The electric sunshine roof is a welcome add, even though I thought it kind of ate into headroom a little bit. (I don't know why I felt like complaining about headroom. Clearly I'm short and headroom will never be an issue for me.) Moving on. This version of the 9-5 was probably one of the best I've driven compared to the wagon I previously mentioned. It felt more grown up and more sophisticated which I liked a lot. Saab had retuned the suspension so it didn't feel like it was going to run out of grip in the middle of a turn or the ESP had to step in to keep the front wheels from torque steering it's rubber off. (This only occured in the Aero form which of course had the most powerful turbo engine.)

I could talk about the driving impressions all day when it comes to Saab. It really doesn't feel like any other car on the road and I really do like that feeling. It's a great car and it really does what it is aimed to do and does it well. Most people say that it's expensive and the interior is old. In my opinion the interior isn't old, it's a retro throwback to the former quirky days. Also the fact that the 9-5 is way safer than a BMW and Audi shows you where you put your money. If I were to buy this and give it to my kid, I'd know they would be safe and can walk away from a crash. These vehicles are built like tanks and will withstand anything! (Well not literally anything but you get the point.) I only had this 9-5 for a short amount of time and again I wished that I could just buy it right then and there. It's the unique attention to detail and of course the ever exaggerated driving experience that really helps make the Saab unique and I loved it.

Photo provided by Raul 
Sadly the last of the 9-5 ends here. Saab was purchased by Spyker who thought they could save the company from bankruptcy, but then again for a super car company that doesn't know much about mainstream vehicles, this purchase was really a bad one. Saab has always been the company that did things differently and never mainstream compared to rivals, even though with this generation of the 9-5 they ditched the center console power window switches. The center console ignition switch still remained but was replaced by a push button start system. I'm not a huge fan of this technology as it seems rather gimmicky.

This 9-5 had a 2-liter turbo four-cylinder with 220hp and a 2.8-liter twin-turbocharged six-cylinder with 300hp. I was able to test drive both and thought the 2-liter turbo four was the most entertaining to drive. It helped make the 9-5 light on its feet and feel way more driver focused than the six-cylinder which just felt heavy and boring to drive. Even with 300hp it didn't feel like the Saab I grew to love in the past. It really did change to the point where it made me rather sad and disappointed. The interior lay out was still there and the driver focused details were there, just the sheer driving experience was lost. Saab tried too hard to compete in a segment it wasn't really destined to compete with. Saab is a niche brand and appeals to those who don't want a conventional Audi or BMW. The unique styling is there and I applaud Saab for staying true to their unique designs, just the overall impression was rather disappointing, I think Saab could've done a way better job but it felt rushed and unready.

Saab will always have a special place in my heart. I understand why people stand by their cars even if the company no longer builds cars. Saab has that special something words can't describe. It's fun to drive, the engines are excellent and the overall attention to detail is really impeccable. I felt really great to be able to have driven the Saabs that I have driven in my time and hope that one day I can own my own Saab and pass it on to my kids. The company that started the turbo craze and the safety fetish will always be one of the best and will be missed.

Devon M

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