Tested: 1999 Saab 9-5 Sticks to the Formula

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From the May 1998 issue of Car and Driver.

As nice as it is, the new four-­cylinder, turbocharged Saab 9-5 presents the U.S. sales organization with quite a challenge. Why? First, the $30,545 price sets the new 9-5 among a swarm of premium rivals, most of which have at least two more cylinders. Saab buyers looking for a V-6 will have to ante up another $3755, or step up to the $37,350 9-5 SE.

Second, the new car has so many under-the-skin details and subtle refinements, it’s going to be hard to outline them to consumers who are accustomed to being beaten over the head by car commercials. For example, there are active headrests on the front seats that tip up and forward to “catch” the heads of passengers in a rear-end collision. There are double filters in the ventilation system: one electrostatic, the other activated char­coal. There is a “night panel” switch that turns off all the instrumentation except the speedometer, reverting to full operation on a “need to know” basis. And there is an elaborate crash­impact-absorption structure built into the body shell that exceeds regulatory stan­dards to meet Saab’s real-life accident expectations.

In fact, the new Saab is better than we’d anticipated. Knowing that it shares some Opel Vectra–platform architecture, we had expected a little dilution of the marque. Instead, Saab’s association with GM has provided Saab with the resources it needed to develop a strong contender. In the new 9-5, we see just that, even while rec­ognizing that the car isn’t for everyone. Not everyone will accept a four-cylinder engine at this price, not even one with an intercooled light­-pressure turbo that supplies 207 pound-feet of torque at just 1800 rpm and makes the car feel as if it had a V-6. The availability of a manual transmission—a rare commodity in the executive-sedan class—further com­pensates for the lack of cylinders.

Called the Ecopower engine, the 16-valve unit is based on the 2.3-liter light-pressure turbo motor last offered in the 1997 9000, but it now offers 15 pound-feet more torque with lower weight and less friction. Having the low-inertia turbo spool up early gives the 9-5 vivid throttle response at low revs and allows early upshifts with little need for high revs. Of course, we ran to the 6000-rpm redline in every gear to get our performance figures, and that resulted in an 8.0-second sprint to 60 mph and a quarter-mile time of 16.3 seconds at 87 mph. Those are not bad numbers and might even be improved on, given the green engine in our 480-mile test car.

HIGHS: A beautiful blend of ride and handling, gobs of low-end torque, comfortable accommodations.

The 9-5 is not only respectably quick, but also smooth and well removed from drivetrain and suspension vibrations (thanks to two rubber-isolated subframes and twin balance shafts in the engine). Noise levels are low, too, the engine being audible mainly as a distant, quite melodic four-cylinder tone that is free from thrash or clatter. On the other hand, we found the tire roar and suspension bump-thump noise surprisingly loud.

David Dewhurst|Car and Driver

The steering and the shifter feel silky and disconnected from any vibrations, but the steering is not entirely free of torque steer, which it exhibits as a mild weave when the car is accelerating hard. Another little foible that appears only under flat-out driving condi­tions is a kind of flat spot during fast upshifts, when there is a brief lack of response to reapplication of the throttle.

Perhaps the sudden, chopped throttle and accompa­nying turbo-pressure drop just confuse the electronics. Or maybe it’s a function of the car’s electronic fly-by-wire throttle circuitry. Either way, it’s a few 10ths of acceleration time spent waiting.

Not that sprint times are that crucial in a car like this. Engi­neered to optimize space, comfort, stability, and safety, the Saab is projected at the upscale family looking for understated style. And with the 9-5’s classic interior and evolutionary exterior, that’s what it will get. We think the Saab’s new shape is attractive, despite the familiarity implicit in carried-over trademark features like the grille.

LOWS: Pricey for a four-banger.

And if the interior also looks familiar (par­ticularly the dashboard), it is certainly spa­cious, comfortable, and nicely appointed. The walnut-veneer dash has Saab’s typical con­toured instrument panel and console, with all controls set on a carefully calculated arc that puts them at exactly the same reach. The ergonomics are pretty much irreproachable, and the controls operate with intuitive pre­dictability.

Like many a Saab before it, the 9-5 has an ignition switch residing on the console between the front seats. A gimmick? Maybe, but it’s also alongside the handbrake and the shifter, all directly under the central dome light. A big, mussel-shaped key fob handles remote-access tasks with buttons that are uncommonly easy to distinguish and operate. Removing the key from the ignition requires the selection of reverse gear, which prevents runaways and makes illegal towing pretty awkward. (An anti-theft immobilizer is stan­dard issue.)

The power-window buttons are also located on the center console, and their oper­ation is equally self-apparent. Saab has learned lessons from building jet fighters, where puzzling over control functions can lead to lethal confrontations with the terrain. Thus, the steering adjusts for tilt and reach after releasing just one clamping lever, and the forward cup holder pops out and rotates into position at the single poke of a finger.

The stereo system has redundant controls on the steering wheel, the ventilation system is quiet, powerful, and automatic, and the Saab has double sun visors (in matte black) to ward off glare from the side as well as the front.

Out on the road, the 9-5 proves to be a genteel high-performance car. The supple ride suggests that it will fall on its face in the mountains. Not so. The car works very well, has lots of grip, and exhibits progressive under­steer with a reassuring tightening of the line when the throttle is released.

Normally a bit remote, the car com­municates more emphatically as you pile on the pressure, with tires that change their song from a swish to a whiz and then to slight squealing as the limit approaches. The 9-5 negotiates bumps and rises in bends without a major change of attitude, and it can be braked fairly hard in mid-bend without a loss of composure. The brake pedal feels good underfoot, despite a mediocre 194-foot stopping distance from 70 mph, but the electronic brake-force dis­tribution and standard ABS might shorten that distance with summer tires fitted.

The broad torque spread allows the use of a very tall overdriven fifth gear (0.66:1), keeping engine revs low at cruising speeds (70 mph is a bit more than 2000 rpm) and reducing both noise and fuel consumption. The low 0.29 drag coefficient also adds to overall efficiency and low wind noise, allowing the occupants to appreciate the excellent seven-speaker stereo without distraction.

VERDICT: A car whose subtle charms continue to grow on you as time passes.

With its roomy interior, comfort­able seats, large luggage compart­ment (made more versatile by folding rear seatbacks), and quiet, smooth ride, the 9-5 is a car in search of mature owners. The beauty of it is that the luxurious veneer is underlain by dependable chassis dynamics, and the car is fun to drive fast. More important, we grew increasingly fond of the Saab as time passed, and that’s a promise of a good long-term relationship. Who can ask for more than that?

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1999 Saab 9-5
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan


Base/As Tested: $30,545/$33,470
Options: leather seat trim, $1315; sunroof, $1110; front and rear heated seats, $500

turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 140 in3, 2290 cm3
Power: 170 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 207 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm 

5-speed manual


Suspension, F/R: struts/struts
Brakes, F/R: 11.3-in vented disc/11.3-in disc
Tires: Michelin Energy MXV4


Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Length: 189.2 in
Width: 70.5 in
Height: 57.0 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 54/45 ft3
Trunk Volume: 16 ft3
Curb Weight: 3440 lb


60 mph: 8.0 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.3 sec @ 87 mph
100 mph: 21.6 sec
120 mph: 55.1 sec
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 8.8 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 15.9 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 10.2 sec
Top Speed (drag ltd): 138 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 194 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.80 g 


Observed: 18 mpg

City/Highway: 21/28 mpg 


Source: Reviews -


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