ATLANTA — Typical Atlanta traffic, heavy with few places to merge onto the freeway. Spotting an opening, I press the pedal to the floor and feel myself hurled back into the firm and enveloping driver’s seat. This is a car that begs the age-old question: where’s your pilot’s license?
TheCarConnection recently got the opportunity to review the entire Saab lineup for 2002. With few major changes for the upcoming model-year, we decided to focus in on the model that seems to best blend three Saab attributes: performance, functionality and, of course, that quirky brand character that has, over the years, built up a small but phenomenally loyal core of customers.
For 2002, Saab revises the 9-5 lineup with three new model designations: Linear, Arc and Aero. The latter is the name the Swedish automaker applies to the performance version 9-5. It starts with a 2.3-liter in-line four engine and bolts on a high-output turbo with an overboost function that turns this modest-sized powerplant into a real screamer. For 2002, power has been boosted to 250 horsepower, an increase of 20 ponies, no small feat.
In years past, that extra power might not have been especially useful. Saabs had an unpleasant reputation for torque steer, that annoying characteristic on front-drive cars to dart left or right when power came on. And older Saab turbos would take their time building up boost, so there would be a lag when you stomped on the pedal before you suddenly felt the car lurch off to one side or the other. Not so with the 9-5 wagon. The HOT booster has virtually no lag. It’s there when you need it. And there’s little to no perceptible torque steer. Traction Control helps, of course, as does the Electronic Stability Program, or ESP, that’s now a standard Aero feature.
2002 Saab 9-5
Making the driving experience all the more enjoyable is the new five-speed automatic that’s now a standard feature in the Aero. It is smooth-shifting with gearing well planned for those who want to get the most out of this engine. For real performance-oriented drivers, the five-speed stick is a nice alternative. Saab’s never been known for manuals, but this one proved unexpectedly smooth and easy to shift quickly.
The exterior of the 9-5 has been changed ever so slightly for 2002, the front bumper and fascia extended just short of an inch. The change, according to chief designer Simon Padian, was “inspired by the form of Swedish architecture.” Subtle, but it does seem to give the nose better balance.
The interior has also been revised, according to Padian. Purists may recognize the changes, but to those who don’t drive a Saab every day, the details may be obscure. One thing’s clear, they’ve left the key where the Nordic gods apparently intended, on the center console. It’s that “quirky” thing Saab executives don’t like to talk about. The key placement obviously gobbles up some usable space. And the interior, overall, is a bit dated in appearance, despite the ’02 update.
The Aero model gets new seats for 2002. The new buckets are more supportive than last year’s, a pleasant addition for the Saab lineup’s performance machine. Unfortunately, the new seats no longer offer the built-in cooling fan, a particularly pleasant feature in warmer climates.
As noted, we chose the Aero wagon, in part, because of its functional advantages. The cargo hold is one of the largest in the segment, certainly much more useful than the cramped compartment found in the BMW 5-Series. And the Aero offers several hidden compartments, as well, a great feature if you want to hide a purse or some other small valuable.
2002 Saab 9-5
2002 Saab 9-5 Aero WagonEnlarge Photo
For holding awkward loads in place, there’s a trick series of tie-downs in the form of cargo floor rails. We’d prefer to see some easier-to-use cargo rings bolted into the back.
We need also note that with the accordion-style cargo compartment cover in place, the wagon is virtually as quiet to drive as the Aero sedan. Jetting out onto freeway, we were surprised to find ourselves doing close to 100 before backing off on the throttle. The Aero’s HOT, sure-footedness and lack of wind noise make it easy to exceed the freeway speed limits in a hurry.
Handling is solid and inspires the necessary level of confidence when you’re pushing this wagon around the tight-and-twisties, but we did find the steering boost turned up a bit too high. The feel is much too light for such a sporty car, especially at freeway speeds.
But on the whole, our complaints are few. The 2002 Saab 9-5 Aero wagon is a surprisingly good mix of performance and practicality. Its functionality far outweighs the quirkiness factor, which could win over a few folks who don’t normally put Saab on their shopping list.
2002 Saab 9-5 Aero
Base Price Range: $40,000 (est.)
Engine: turbocharged 2.3-liter in-line four, 250 horsepower
Transmission: five-speed automatic; five-speed manual optional
Wheelbase: 106.4 in
Length: 190.1 in
Width: 70.5 in
Height: 57.0 in
Curb Weight: 3620 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 20/28 mpg (automatic) 22/30 mpg (manual)
Safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, traction control, ESP, “smart” multistage airbags, head and torso side-impact airbags, active head restraints, child seat anchorage points.
Major standard features: OnStar telematics system, anti-theft alarm and immobilizer, xenon headlights, aerostyle styling package, leather sport seats and sport steering wheel, eight-speaker Harman/Kardon AM-FM-CD audio system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles