Victor Muller looks at me and (half-jokingly) says, "Crazy isn't it? To get the first 9-5 I had to go and buy the company." I like this Saab-Spyker CEO for his candor. He hands me the key fob to this 2011 Saab 9-5 pre-production car and says I can have a spin in it so long as he's my constant passenger.
I've liked driving every GM world car (or now, in Saab terms, former-GM world car) that's been built on the global Epsilon II architecture, be it the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia (European and UK 2009 car of the year), Chevrolet Malibu, or Buick Lacrosse. Now the chassis has found its way to this decidedly more Saab-like second-generation 9-5.
While gathering pearls of "the new Saab" wisdom from Muller, it didn't take long as I drove for it to wash over me that Saab, in this new premium sedan, has a success on its hands so long as it doesn't get all screwed up again. The 2011 9-5 is a dynamic driver and looker, well-built, not yet at the Audi level it wants to be in the cabin, but laced inside and out with that sturdy Scandinavian alternativeness we've been missing in Saabs for some time now.
While driving with Muller, I couldn't help but notice that this 9-5 is a fully loaded Aero with the 296-hp Holden-supplied 2.8-liter V6 as pumped up by a BorgWarner turbocharger and fitted with the company's outstanding XWD that combines an eLSD rear differential with the Haldex all-wheel traction.
The 9-5 Aero interior is a solid execution in taking the recent Opel/Buick/Cadillac quality and making it Saab's own. The dominant color, apart from the soothing grays in the leather and dash, is a vibrant antifreeze green. All instrument needles, some touchscreen buttons, and ambient lighting trim bits shine with this traditional Saab hue. I felt embraced in Nordic-ness as the cabin glowed soothingly around me.
There is no longer a standard key insert for the ignition by the driver's inboard thigh-what I call "the heritage anchor." It has been suitably updated to a push-button start/stop with tiny light slots that glow green, too. The old-time space-hogging handbrake lever is gone as well, all 9-5s now being fitted with a discreet electro-hydraulic handbrake. Looking straight through the three-spoke steering wheel inspired by recent showcars like the Aero X, you see a digital onboard data dial. Among other things, this little disc can show an airplane altimeter-style speedometer readout, which struck me as sufficiently cool.
As I've always felt, the full leather and its stitching can still be made more upmarket. "Yes," Muller agrees, "we're going to be working on perfecting the Saab interior experience, and a big part of that is constantly improving the materials choices." Not long after the midsummer North American launch of the 9-5, in fact, Muller tells me there will be a premium-level personalization program offered in part to help solve the puckered-leatherette feeling of the current material. The Aero sport seats could be more sporting as well in regard to overall support, especially at the sides.
Any improvements to the outgoing 9-5's exterior looks are going to be better than what Saab's larger car was forced to live with in recent years. This 9-5, at least, starts to rediscover formerly shunned airplane fuselage-style sleekness and angles. The shape is very clean and looks good in the light silver-gray. All the lighting elements deliberately take on a chilly feeling, particularly up front, where the term "ice block" is being used to describe the slight blue tint. In back, the bar of light running the width of the trunk is a new look that will be part of all future Saabs.
Particular to the Aero look are the much meaner and larger front air intakes, 19-inch "turbine" wheels dressed in aggressive Goodyear Eagle F1 tires, adaptive cornering LED headlights, and dual rectangular exhaust tips visible through the fascia. This exact car, in fact, is the only 9-5 model initially arriving in North America. The 217-hp 2.0T turbocharged Ecotec four-cylinder will arrive later in 2010 and the XWD and eLSD will also be available as options for that engine. In a really evolved move, the new 9-5s will all come available only with the six-speed Tiptronic automatic in North America. The manual shift linkage in European 9-5s and 9-3s is the worst I've had to live with. Only if this standard and traditional setup is greatly improved should they think of bringing it, and only in cars smaller than the 9-5.
The sort of driver involvement in the sportiest Aero Saabs has always been uniquely pleasing. I find myself using more body English here and there as though I'm autocrossing and being cheered on by Swedish fans. The Holden V6, though heavy and still not direct-injected, with intake and exhaust variable valve timing and most of its 10.9-psi turbo-aided 295 lb-ft of torque ready between 2000 and 6000 rpm, gets this larger 9-5 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. There's a minimum of turbo lag involved, although it'll be better when a twin-stage bi-turbo setup comes along in a Viggen version. "The Viggen name should play a significant role in the future," Muller says. No, no mainstream Saab will ever be the fastest or lightest (preliminary numbers put true curb weight for this top-trim 9-5 at over 4,500 pounds), but the drive feel is fantastic and I can't think of any other car I'd want in treacherous weather conditions.
Talking length, the 2011 Saab 9-5 is 6.8 inches longer at 197.2 inches (7.0 inches longer than the Insignia or Buick Regal) with a wheelbase stretched by 5.3 inches. This makes it longer than both the Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series. Muller stands just over six-foot four inches and he set himself up in the driver's seat. I, at six feet, sat in back behind him and there was a tremendous amount of space for knees and head. So the 9-5 is finally sizeable and competitive in the market it has been meant for all along.
The chassis control system, called here Saab DriveSense, works on a rheostat to the left of the automatic joystick. Set to Comfort, Intelligent, or Sport, the system controls the suspension feel, steering assistance, ESP threshold, and throttle/transmission response. Initially, I felt little difference between the C and I settings. But once Muller nudged me to put the foot into it, the potential difference in the Intelligent setup became clearer. In this mode, various dynamics parameters adapt at 11 different levels depending on how you're generally driving at that time. Saab chassis teams have improved the damper feel at lower speeds in urban areas and at speed over highway bumps to where there is less steering column vibration. I still wish that I could set up the suspension independently from the rest of DriveSense.
The steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, standard on the Aero V6, operate nicely, though appearance and feel could be improved, while tightening the steering ratio to avoid hand-over-hand moves. In DriveSense's Sport mode, things improve a touch, but the overall steering needed for lock-to-lock at 2.7 turns isn't really yet Aero optimized.
And then the forced on-center steering feels a bit robotic compared to others in this segment and with these aspirations. Again, I just had to push Muller's Saab harder to get at the less composed side of the Scandinavian persona. It's tradition, and I actually really do like it.