When General Motors was on the ropes a couple of years ago trying to get its act together, they got rid of some underperforming brands. Pontiac: gone. Saturn: buh-bye. Oh, and they desperately wanted to rid themselves of the Saab unit, which had been snapped up in the 1990s during a buying spree.
The Swedish brand known for its sensible yet funky cars almost bit the dust entirely in 2009, but a Dutch company called Spyker came in and rescued it in the nick of time. The Swedish government also had a hand in the deal, lest one of its two long-time car companies die out in a bit of national shame.
For 2011, we get our first new model from the reworked maker, a car that was in development back when Saab was still under the GM umbrella. The new 9-5 sedan is a nice contender in a crowded field of luxury cars, especially if you’re someone who always liked Saabs.
I have to admit a soft spot for the cars. They never took on rivals in volume, performance, technological breakthroughs or anything else. But Saabs have always had this nearly indescribable charm. When most sport sedans had low-slung seats, the Saab chairs were high and orthopedic. Competitors sought more power with larger engines, but Saab slaved away on turbocharging in order to wring more power from modest sized ones.
The 2011 9-5 sedan still kind of dances to its own band, but is nonetheless a formidable competitor in that $40-50,000 luxury sedan category. Base price for the car is around $38,000, but a nicely equipped example should set you back somewhere in the mid-forties if you don’t need things like all wheel drive or the bigger engine.
I got to spend a week in a version called Turbo4 Premium, which means that it carries the base four cylinder engine making 220 horsepower thanks to a turbocharger, and sends that power to the front wheels through a 6-speed automatic transmission. (You can actually get a manual, a bit of a rarity in this class, but very few U.S. buyers are likely to choose that one.)
So much of the car is familiar if you spent any time in Saabs of the past. From the egg-crate design of the dash vents to the way the word “turbo” is written on the boost gauge in lower-case font, this is definitely a Saab.
Other things about the interior were familiar to me as well, but not from Saabs. The controls for the radio, climate system and cruise control were all right out of other General Motors products, since this car began its life as a GM vehicle.
Despite sharing a few knobs with low-rent Chevrolets, the 9-5 is overall quite nice to drive. The boosted four-banger under the hood is a tad sluggish off the line, but once the turbo spools up there’s plenty of power for entering freeways or climbing hills. The steering is firm but not too racy, as is the suspension.
And those seats – pure Saab all the way. They feel like you could spend all day in them, and have wonderful heating elements just the way Swedes probably prefer it during their long, dark winters. There’s also lots of room in both the front and back of the car, though my tall frame felt a bit cramped in the rear as far as headroom goes. That’s the price you pay for the car’s sloping roofline.
One place the 9-5 Turbo4 shines is in fuel economy. The EPA rates it at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway. Considering that this sedan is neither small nor light, that’s pretty good. It does ask for premium fuel however, which as I write this has crested the $4 per gallon mark.
So if you ever had a Saab and miss it, or like the idea of not driving the same thing as everyone else at your place of work, take heart. The new 9-5 is out, and it’s still very much a true Saab.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net