In 1999, the human population topped 6 billion, Wayne Gretzky retired, people freaked out about the Y2K bug and a 17-year-old Prince song became relevant again. The Saab 9-5 was also introduced for that year, which makes it one of the oldest cars on the market. In the intervening years, the 9-5's engine and trim lineup have been simplified, the driving dynamics improved and the exterior styling tweaked. But for the most part, the 2008 9-5 belongs to the same generation as the car that dawned in that final year of the 20th century. As such, the 9-5 remains the comfortable car it has always been with an impressive number of features, but it pales in comparison against much newer competitors.
The 2008 Saab 9-5 is available as a midsize sedan and a wagon known as the SportCombi. That latter name comes from a German term for wagon, or since Saabs are "Born from Jets," combi can also refer to a commercial aircraft usable for either cargo or passenger duties. The 9-5 fulfils that description as well, as its spacious interior offers plenty of passenger room and a maximum cargo capacity of 73 cubic feet.
Two years ago, the 9-5 underwent a significant freshening that included an exterior face-lift, a retuned suspension and new GM-sourced switchgear, which combined to make the 9-5 a more attractive player in the midsize luxury segment. That segment, however, is one of the toughest out there, occupied by sedans like the Acura TL, Lexus ES 350 and Infiniti G35 and wagons or small crossovers such as the Acura RDX and Volkswagen Passat. With lots of standard features, the 2008 Saab 9-5 provides compelling value, but so do its competitors, and we expect most shoppers are going to expect more refinement than this Saab provides. For the Saab 9-5, there's just no escaping the fact that it's still partying, er, driving like it's 1999.
The 2008 Saab 9-5 is available as a midsize sedan or a wagon known as the SportCombi. Each is available in two trim levels: 2.3T or Aero. The 2.3T features standard 17-inch wheels, a sunroof, leather upholstery, eight-way front sport seats, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel, heated front and rear seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a cooled glovebox, rain-sensing windshield wipers and a nine-speaker Harman Kardon sound system with in-dash six-CD changer, satellite radio and auxiliary audio jack. The largely similar Aero adds a sport-tuned suspension, different 17-inch wheels, special interior trim and two-tone leather seats.
Major options include the Visibility Package, which adds xenon headlights, rear parking assist, and power-folding, auto-dimming outside mirrors. Stand-alone options include cooled front seats and a touchscreen navigation system. The standard in-dash CD changer is unavailable with the navigation system -- buyers must choose whether to keep satellite radio or instead opt for a trunk-mounted CD changer at no cost.
The 9-5's overall design hasn't changed much since the car was first introduced, but the once convoluted, button-happy radio and climate controls have since been replaced by straightforward GM-sourced units. While this improved ergonomics, some Saab fans might be disappointed that the interior no longer has much of the Swedish brand's traditional distinctiveness. Materials quality could also be improved.
Otherwise, the 9-5 is a comfortable place to spend time, with ample passenger room and exceptionally comfortable seats -- especially when equipped with the ventilation feature. For those who need extra cargo capacity, the SportCombi wagon is a good alternative to an SUV, as it supplies 37 cubic feet of luggage capacity with the rear seats in use and 73 cubes with them folded. Both of those capacities are greater than luxury compact SUVs like the Acura RDX and BMW X3.
All 9-5 sedans and SportCombi wagons are front-wheel drive and powered by a turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-4 that makes 260 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual is standard, while a five-speed automatic is optional. Many vehicles in this class offer six-speed versions of both types of transmission. Fuel economy is still respectable, however; an automatic-equipped 2008 9-5 sedan has an EPA estimate of 17 mpg city/27 mpg highway.
Once its 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 2008 Saab 9-5 is preferable with the automatic transmission, as its shorter gearing is better suited to the turbo engine's unusual power band. The 9-5's relatively low curb weight gives it a nimble feel through the corners. Many competitors have sharper reflexes and a better ride quality, however, and torque steer remains an issue under hard acceleration.
Standard safety equipment on the 2008 Saab 9-5 includes antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control, active head restraints and front-seat side airbags that provide head and torso protection. Side curtain airbags that protect rear occupants are not available. The OnStar communications system is standard. In government crash tests, the 9-5 earned a perfect five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in frontal impacts. In the side-impact test, the 9-5 received five stars for front passenger protection and four stars for rear protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 9-5 the best possible rating of "Good" in front-offset crash testing, and a second-best "Acceptable" for side-impact protection.
Changes to the Saab 9-5 are light for 2008, including only the addition of standard OnStar, sport seats and rain-sensing windshield wipers.