CARLSBAD, California — Our convoy of wagons snakes over the spine of the southern Sierras and drops into the hot, parched Anza Borrego Desert. This was once a portion of the Butterfield Stagecoach route, and I can only imagine the contrast of travel. My coach has seats that will cool my backside (or heat it when the desert cools at night), a chilled glove box to keep liquids cold and chocolate from melting — not to mention nimble steering, a superb suspension and a turbocharged engine to propel me through space at speeds that range from slow to many horses.
A sign directs me to our lunch stop, some two-and-a-half miles into the desert on a slightly rutted dirt road. I realize that I’ve been on this trail a number of times in the past, but always driving a sport-utility vehicle or a light truck. Today, my transport is a Saab 9-5 wagon — and I’m impressed by its safety and comfort, versatility and fashionableness.
These days, SUVs dominate the U.S. market. In fact, it's almost cliché to mention the light truck segment's explosive growth in the past decade here. In Europe, however, where fuel prices are higher and streets smaller, even the most thrifty and maneuverable SUVs are a rare sight while the likes of the Suburban, Expedition and other large sport-utes are as foreign as Fiats in Kansas.
Fuel for the sport-wagon fire
Light trucks don't sell well in Europe, but the demand for vehicles that combine sport and utility — the fuel for the SUV boom — is alive and well there, just as it is here. Enter the sport wagon — a niche product stateside, but all the rage across the pond.
Audi's A4 and A6 wagons, for example, are some of Europe's hottest cars but sell in relatively small numbers in North America. Mercedes' C-Class and BMW's 3 Series sedans have found many American homes, but did you know that both could be had in station wagon form in their home markets? With the exception of the popular Volvo wagons and Subaru’s Outback sport, the sport wagon is still a relatively new concept, but it’s a niche that is growing fast.
1999 Saab 9-5
Now, Saab is riding the wave and joining the import brands by offering its own sporty station wagon based on the 9-5 sedan. New last spring, the 9-5 sedan (say "Nine-five") replaced the 14-year-old 9000 model. Built on the same platform, with an all-new body from the B-pillar rearward, the wagon's lines are just as suited to its nose as those of the sedan. And not only does the new car integrate well into the 9-5 lineup, it's the first Saab wagon in more than two decades, yet at a passing glance it seems right at home in the family, as if it had been with us all along.
1999 Saab 9-5 Wagon rear
The 9-5 Wagon’s rear cargo area offers tie-down tracks made for accessories like dog leashes and cargo nets.
The Saab Wagon’s cargo area is masterfully executed. Graceful lines at the rear of the greenhouse belie the wide, deep and tall load space behind the fold-down seats. A novel sliding floor (a dealer-installed accessory) fits flush and can be extended as much as 20 inches beyond the bumper, easing the loading of cargo and ready for a tailgate party. It can support 440 pounds. Another unique feature on the wagon is a new rear wiper, which automatically cleans the glass when the windshield wipers are in use and reverse gear is selected.
Passenger accommodation is equally as good as cargo room, with comfortable seating for four adults, although it’s designed to hold five. The extra-wide front buckets are especially supportive on long trips, and they feature an active head restraint system
1999 Saab 9-5
to reduce whiplash injuries. From the driver's seat, Saab's aircraft heritage is clear: the dashboard is nearly vertical and wraps toward the "pilot" and visibility is excellent. A host of features can be programmed. Our only qualm is with the cryptic climate control —once sorted out, though, it's less than a minor annoyance in an otherwise excellent cabin.
Saab’s classic turbocharging underhood
As in the sedan, power comes from either the 2.3-liter four-cylinder or 3.0-liter V-6. Both are turbocharged, producing 170 and 200 horsepower, respectively. The four-banger is the more Saab-like engine of the pair, though its light-pressure turbo kicks in at low revs, nearly eliminating the turbo lag often associated with the Swedish engines. It achieves
excellent economy and pulls the wagon around with authority.
More interesting, though, is the asymmetrically turbocharged V-6. The turbo draws the exhaust that powers it from only one bank of the vee, yet it feeds all six cylinders. What's more, the Saab engineers replaced the wastegate with advanced computer controls and cast the exhaust manifold and turbocharger in one piece, reducing size, weight, and cost. For the lead foots among us, this is the engine of choice.
Disc brakes on all four wheels provide plenty of stopping power, and an anti-lock system is standard. The equipment level on the base model is notably high, with such top-shelf features as a cabin dust/pollen filter, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, automatic climate control, heated power mirrors, power front seats, wood trim, CD player, fog lights, and headlight washers as standard equipment. Safety features include front and head/chest
side airbags. Leather seats (with heat and ventilation, if desired) can be ordered, along with a memory driver's seat, Harman Kardon premium stereo, and a sunroof. And since the Saab is a member of the GM family, the unique OnStar assistance system will be available as an add-on soon.
With stellar road manners, SUV-rivaling cargo capacity, and surprisingly good fuel economy, Saab's 9-5 now enters the budding sport wagon segment and is destined to be a popular addition to this premium market segment that is quickly becoming chic and upscale. On sale in April, priced at $31,850 for the four-cylinder and $36,900 for the six-cylinder, Saab expects to sell 3,800 units through the end of year and will build 30,000 to 35,000 for sales worldwide.
We can’t help but think these wagons will be an easy sell. With Saab’s unique image, a high-performance wagon fits the brand perfectly. With its near-perfect execution, the 9-5 Wagon fits the bill for those of us who don’t want to turn to trucks in search of utility.