“The best car that nobody’s noticing”

Karp Saab Presents the new Saab 9-5

Karp Saab Presents the new Saab 9-5

That is, if this rarely-seen luxury sports sedan actually has a reputation. To many shoppers, Saab simply isn’t on the radar, either because it was neglected for so long under former owner General Motors or because its post-GM rapid downsizing has trimmed both dealers and marketing efforts. But we were pretty impressed with the 9-5 in its range-topping form on our first encounter last summer, shortly after Spyker liberated the Swedish brand, so we tracked down a model powered by a more Saab-like turbo four-cylinder for a more in-depth evaluation. What is it? Sharing its underpinnings with the Buick LaCrosse, the 9-5 is the long-overdue replacement for an old Opel-based outgoing model, itself a long-overdue replacement for the 9000. Things move slowly at Saab. While its GM bones are obvious in sensory touches like certain displays and noises, we were pleased to note when we first drove the 9-5 that it shared nothing in its driving experience with the big Buick. Two twin-scroll turbocharged powertrains are available; a 2.8-liter V6 (Turbo6, Aero) or, as tested, a 2.0-liter four (Turbo4). Both engines were designed by GM, but their turbo tricks are entirely Scandinavian. All V6s are all-wheel-drive with a six-speed automatic, while four-bangers are motivated by their front wheels and either a six-speed stick or the automatic. What’s it up against? A significant chunk less-expensive than rivals from Germany like the BMW 528i and Mercedes-Benz E350, the 9-5 exists in sort of the mid-premium market occupied by the Volvo S80, Acura TL and Cadillac CTS. For years the only four-cylinder premium sedan offered in North America, the 9-5 will be joined for 2012 by a revamped 528i with its own turbocharged four. It has taken a long time, but the era of legitimacy for a small-displacement boosted engine in a luxury car has finally arrived. Any breakthroughs? Taking advantage of GM’s parts bin, the 9-5 benefits from a number of high tech features its predecessor could only have dreamed about. Our no-option tester lacked a few optional goodies like self-guided parallel parking, laser cruise control, a 10 GB hard drive audio/navigation system, ventilated seats and a three-way adjustable sports suspension. But it still impressed us with a high level of equipment that is optional on most rivals – things like Bluetooth, leather upholstery, active head restraints, rear side airbags, rain sensing wipers and passive entry with push-button start. It seems like the Swedes have had a lesson in adding value. And if the 18.2 cubic foot trunk isn’t big enough, Saab will sell you a 9-5 SportCombi (that’s Swenglish for station wagon) next spring. What’s it look like? Let’s start by saying that the 9-5 probably won’t look like any other Saab sedan. Shortly after celebrating its independence from GM, Saab hired noted designer Jason Castriota to be its design chief. Think Maserati GranTurismo dripping in lingonberry juice from the fountain at your local Ikea. Or something like that. But that’s not to say that the 9-5 isn’t an interesting-looking vehicle. Certainly more stylized and unique than most rivals, it is undoubtedly a love-it or hate-it design. Nordic-inspired highlights like blue-tinted headlamps and clear tail lamp lens covers provide an airy feel of relaxed elegance. By no means did this sedan come from buttoned-up Germany. Its front fascia is undeniably Saab, with a variation of the same three-hole grille the brand has used since the 1970s. Move around to the side, past the swept-back headlamps with the LED cues that are so en vogue today, and you’ll find an especially slab-sided body. This is a big, big, big sedan. Most uniquely, the roof line seems to sweep downward from the A-pillar to the C-pillar. More a visual effect than an actual change in direction, the designed is supposed to make you think of a fighter jet’s helmet-like cockpit. Even though the “born from jets” tagline is finally gone, we like the inspired design. Keep going past the big C-pillars and you can’t miss the full-length tail lamps. A bulgy rear bumper hides its tail pipes. A BioPower badge indicates that this 9-5 can run on either gasoline or E85, a boon for those living in, say, Iowa. Stylish 18-inch wheels add some excitement to the 9-5′s side profile, although we wish the brand would make a smaller version of the propellers-in-motion 19-inchers offered as an option on the Aero model. And on the inside? While BMW has seen fit to cant its dashboard away from the driver, Saab has embraced its vehicle pilots. A hockey stick-shaped dashboard wraps right around the driver, slightly alienating the passenger. Buttons are generally grouped below a GM-style display unit that seems at odds with the rest of the dashboard. Option up your 9-5 with a navigation system and the screen fills its box nicely. Cheap out (like most of us will do) and you get what feels like an afterthought or a place-holder until something better comes along. But things move up from there. The driver is affronted by a small-diameter three-spoke steering wheel with a pair of flappy paddles for manual-style shifting. Three gauge holes show necessary details, including a a Saab-trademark graduated speedometer and a fun turbo gauge. Peg the red! Speaking of Saab traditions, the gang’s all there. A black panel switch extinguishes everything but the speedometer for nighttime driving, while the center-mounted ignition cylinder has been replaced by a center-mounted ignition button. Continuing the aviation theme, the central display located inside of the center gauge can be configured to show an altimeter-style speedometer. It’s a nifty idea, but we found it incredibly difficult to read. At least the front seats are more first class than coach – and that goes for all five positions. Front buckets are covered in a luxurious-feeling leather with contrasting stitching and the rear offers more leg room than some limousines. Materials are generally strong throughout, with only the faux wood trim feeling out of place for a luxury sedan. We don’t mind wood trim, but this stuff was clearly not carved from a dead tree. But does it go? Relieved of the heavy V6 and all-wheel-drive of our last 9-5 Aero test car, the 9-5 Turbo4 is actually among the trimmer in its class – especially given its large dimensions. At just short of 4,000 lbs., it weighs about the same as the 528i, a car that BMW uses as its centerpiece when it discusses weight savings. Still, the 220-horsepower 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbo four-cylinder is tasked with motivating quite a bit of metal around. It makes the most of its power, especially the 258 lb-ft. of torque available from a reasonably low 2,500 rpm. Aiding the cause is a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic with paddle shifters and a manual gate. The gear lever alone, a tall, leather-wrapped pistol-style affair, is impressive. At idle, the 9-5′s four-cylinder makes itself more known than most sixes, but the light thrum is heard more than it is felt. Devoid of lag like most twin-scroll units, the turbo four can bark the front tires if needed. The 60 mph mark ticks by in about 8 seconds, according to Saab, which isn’t impressive on paper, but the 9-5 hardly felt wanting for power even with the whole family aboard. Highway passing, long a Saab hallmark, is especially impressive. Put the throttle to the floor and the torquey four will pin drivers back in their seats while the boost needle wails its way across its arc. Sadly, the engine note is of the over-refined type; we’d love to hear more turbo whistle like in an old Saab 99. Hydraulic power steering is quick and natural, aided by the small diameter steering wheel. Feel isn’t its strong suit, but the tiller is dead on accurate at highway speeds, where the 9-5 holds in place like a hunkered-down slot car. And that’s really where this big four-door shines. Too large to be a real corner carver, it settles in beautifully in long, sweeping corners and it is remarkably quiet and refined at speed. Big four-wheel disc brakes brought things to a stop without drama, although the pedal had a rather wooden feel to it. Saab offers Brembos in Europe, but the automaker says that Americans wouldn’t like the brake dust. Oh well. Highway fuel economy is a strong suit. We measured 31-32 mpg on several long highway trips, well above the 18/28 the EPA suggests. Why you would buy it: It’s an appealing executive express with room for the whole family and a style all its own. Why you wouldn’t: A creature of habit, you’re uncomfortable trying anything new. Leftlane’s bottom line During our time with the 9-5, we couldn’t help but compare the big Saab to one of its chief rivals, the BMW 528i. It might be powered by the wrong wheels and it might have too many GM bits, but the 9-5 just became the driver’s choice between the two. Where the BMW felt cold and artificial, the 9-5 delighted with its sporty responses and thoughtful touches. Now if only Saab can find a few more buyers for what might be the best car that nobody’s noticing. 2011 Saab 9-5 Turbo4 Premium base price, $43,435. As tested, $44,260. Destination, $825.

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