Saab's first "large car" debuted as the 9000 in 1985. In typical Saab fashion, power came from a turbocharged 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, but in the 9000, it was mounted transversely to allow for a larger cabin. In 1993, the 9000 Aero debuted in the States with a 225-horsepower turbocharged engine, making it the fastest Saab car in the lineup. When the completely redesigned model finally arrived in 1999, the 9000 became the Saab 9-5. It still retained much of its predecessor's distinctive lines, but replaced the roomy five-door hatchback design with a more traditional four-door sedan arrangement (a wagon was also introduced).
In 2002, the Saab 9-5 received a midcycle refresh that further refined both the sedan and wagon to help them better compete with their illustrious competition. Changes included more power, a retuned suspension, revised styling and additional feature content. The model lineup was also simplified into three distinct "architectural forms" in Saab's words. The base "Linear" model was classic Scandinavian-stark, the midlevel "Arc" model was more luxurious and the top-of-the-line "Aero" was the sportiest model.
For 2006, Saab has given the 9-5 another refresh in an attempt to stretch the car's life cycle several more years. Highlights include a prominent new grille, projector-beam headlights with smoked lenses, body-color exterior trim, a reworked chassis, a new control layout and a price cut of about $2,000. The familiar Linear, Arc and Aero trim levels have been eliminated, as the sedan and wagon now come in one model apiece. The wagon is now called the SportCombi as on the 9-3 line. Equipment is similar to last year's Arc model, though 17-inch wheels and a 260-hp version of the 2.3-liter turbo four are now standard. The old Aero's lowered sport suspension is now optional.
Out on the road, the suspension improvements result in less body roll during cornering than before, as well as a smooth ride quality overall. However, the Saab 9-5 still strikes us as a car that's in need of a full redesign, not just another update. The ride can still be harsh over bumps, and wind noise is excessive for a premium-brand car. In addition, the 2.3-liter engine no longer meets the standards for refinement in this class. Inside, the new control layout is a big improvement ergonomically, but some of the materials used in the cabin are glaringly out of place in a car with a mid-$30Ks sticker price. To make matters worse, the 2006 Saab 9-5 resides in a category filled with quality contenders. While the wagon (SportCombi) is still a reasonable choice for family use given its sizable cargo capacity, in general, the 9-5 is outclassed by its competition when it comes to luxury, performance and refinement. Those craving a classic Saab car may find it appealing, but we think that discerning buyers will find cars like the Acura TL, Subaru Legacy and Volkswagen Passat more satisfying overall.
The midsize Saab 9-5 is available in two body styles -- sedan and wagon (SportCombi), each of which comes in one trim. Standard equipment includes 17-inch alloy wheels with 235/45R17 all-season tires, leather upholstery, walnut trim, heated power-adjustable seats with driver memory, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 240-watt Harman Kardon audio system with an in-dash CD changer, satellite radio, a sunroof, a heated 60/40-split folding rear seat, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. An optional sport package provides a lowered and stiffened suspension, bolstered sport seats and metallic dash trim. A visibility package adds bi-HID headlights, rear parking assist, auto-dimming exterior mirrors and rain-sensing wipers. Stand-alone extras include ventilated front seats, a DVD-based navigation system and General Motors' OnStar telematics system.
Most drivers will find the 9-5's seats exceptionally comfortable, especially those equipped with the optional heating and ventilation feature. Materials quality could use improvement in some spots, but passenger room is excellent all around. A split-folding rear seat and nearly 16 cubic feet of trunk space give the Saab 9-5 an added level of versatility. The SportCombi wagon supplies 37 cubes of luggage capacity with the rear seats in use and 73 cubes when they're folded.
A turbocharged, 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder rated for 260 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque is standard on all 9-5s. A standard five-speed manual transmission routes power to the front wheels. A five-speed automatic with sport and manual modes is optional.
Once the turbo spools up, the 2.3-liter delivers plenty of power for this class, though not in as refined a manner as we'd like. Unlike most sport sedans and wagons, the Saab 9-5 is preferable with the automatic transmission, as its shorter gearing is better suited to the turbo engine's unusual power band. This year's chassis upgrades provide noticeably improved handling, and this along with the 9-5's relative low curb weight, gives it a nimble feel through corners. Competitors have sharper reflexes, though, and torque steer remains an issue under hard acceleration. Ride quality is smoother than before, though it's still a little harsh over bumps.
All 9-5 models feature adaptive-force front airbags, active head restraints and front seat-mounted side airbags that protect the heads and torsos of front occupants. No airbag protection is available for rear occupants. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and stability and traction control are standard on all models. In government crash testing, the 2006 Saab 9-5 earned a perfect five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in frontal impacts. In side-impact tests, the Saab car received five stars for front-occupant protection and four stars for the rear. The IIHS gave the 9-5 a "Good" rating (the best possible) in frontal-offset crash testing and named it a "Best Pick."
The 2006 model year brings a refresh to the Saab 9-5, as the company hopes to extend its life cycle several more years. Highlights include an exterior face-lift, a retuned suspension, a new control layout and a price cut of about $2,000. The familiar Linear, Arc and Aero trim levels are history, as the sedan and wagon come in one model apiece. The wagon is now called the SportCombi as on the 9-3 line. Equipment is similar to last year's Arc model, though 17-inch wheels and the high-output version of the 2.3-liter turbo four are now standard. A revised intake results in 10 extra horsepower for a total of 260. The old Aero's sport suspension is optional.