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2011 Saab 9-5 BioPower

posted by on 26 July 2011 in Passing Lane

At the Geneva Motor Show last March, we sat in on a round-table interview with Saab CEO Victor Muller. In the quiet confines of the glass office tucked in behind the gleaming white show stand, Muller told our assembled group that the new 9-5, and indeed all new Saab models, would be shooting for the heart of the European premium car market. When pinned on which competitors he saw most aligned with his beloved Swedish brand, he said not so much BMW or Mercedes, but Audi. The smallest of the German luxury brands rose up from the ashes of a questionable reputation and has carved out a solid segment of the market as an alternative to the more established (read: less hip) icons of the Autobahn. Going toe-to-toe with Audi means two things in my book: first-class interior appointments and leading-edge technology. This thought plays time and time again throughout our week with the new Saab 9-5 BioPower sedan.

Matching Audis on interior quality is a tough mission these days; besting them is nearly impossible. Perhaps the biggest downfall of the 9-5 is not the design of its cockpit, but rather the execution of its assembly. Here, the most egregious error is the obvious sharing of so many GM components without so much as a veneer of original graphics or finishes to conceal their origins. From headlight switches to radio controls to instrument clusters, the general look is not much different than that of a contemporary Buick. Not that the current GM switchgear is bad stuff — it’s leaps and bounds better than the sad grey generic plastics of just a generation ago — but it lacks the polish and tactile precision of genuine European cars. If you think we’re overplaying this point, consider that Audi employs engineers tasked with making sure things like the window switches create the “perfect” click when they’re activated. Nuts? Sure, but that kind of maniacism is what sets Audi apart in a crowded field.

Beyond the more inane details that might torment the obsessive-compulsive mind, there are other obvious clues to the cheapness that was built into the 9-5 when it was conceived as a product of the General before the big divorce. Saab, for instance, stands alone in its use of faux-wood graphics in place of real wood veneers on the dash and doors. For a brand whose core constituents included interior designers and architects, it’s pretty ballsy to expect potential buyers to be fooled by the foil appliqué. The leather on the seats, likewise, is stiff and textureless, the same low-grade hides that have graced Chevys, Buicks and Pontiacs for years. A far cry from the days when a swatch of hide hung from the driver’s headrest boasting the small Scottish tanner’s exceptional product. In an era when its competitors flaunt supple Nappa skins, the 9-5’s hides represent the entry point for what can be classified as real leather.

So on the merits of its interior alone, the 9-5 misses the mark as a true Audi competitor. But what about the A-team’s other hallmark, innovative technology? Our test model was a 9-5 Premium, a car with the base 2.0T engine but a higher equipment level than the standard 9-5. Navigation is not included as part this trim level, but can be had as a separate option. Should it be ordered for an additional $2395, the eight-inch touchscreen color display in the center console would provide a decent lay of the land, although the graphics are far from the crisp, clean, three-dimensional renderings of the latest systems from Germany. There would also not be the type of increasingly common multi-function interface — iDrive, MMI, COMAND, etc. — that other competitors offer. Instead, the Saab uses a touchscreen. In our car, there was simply a radio, with an all-green, square-matrix LCD display that reminded us somewhat of a digital alarm clock.

Impressive, however, was the parallel parking assist feature, which flawlessly guided the big sedan into some very tight spots in downtown Chicago. It’s included from the premium model on up. So too was the air-conditioned glovebox. Items like rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rearview mirror, universal garage door remote, Bluetooth phone integration and satellite radio are also included, as one would expect in a contemporary premium sedan. Options packages include rear seat entertainment (which adds rear-seat climate control) at $2130, a technology package with bi-xenon headlamps, head-up display, advanced parking assistance and lane departure warning for $2490, and Harman/Kardon sound system at $995. But for a few exceptions, the 9-5 keeps up with the Joneses pretty well in the technology department. It also holds onto an odd but useful feature that debuted with the 1994 Saab 900, but that no one else has jumped onto — the night panel. This clever bit of usable technology ditches all extraneous instrument light beyond the speedometer at the push of a button, cutting down on eye strain during long nighttime drives. It’s a small detail, one truly born from jets, that helps solidify what’s left of Saab’s identity.

While it certainly needs some refining before Saab can consider itself a genuine alternative to Audi, the 9-5 does offer an A6-sized car for roughly A4 money. The 9-5 is a big car in all the right places, with a huge rear seating area and a generous cargo hold. It’s also a very handsome and daringly original design on the outside, one that won’t easily be lost in the mall parking lot. If you can overlook the low-rent materials, the Saab 9-5 isn’t a bad way to step into a substantial European sedan for not a lot of money.

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