- Classy, elegant styling that stands out
- Awesome seats, front and rear
- Quiet, isolated ride
- Responsive, well-weighted steering
- Safety features
- Feels overpriced
- Hold-on-a-sec V-6 powertrain response
- Not quite as tech-loaded as rivals
The 2011 9-5 could be Saab's saving grace; it's a classy, comfortable, and well-designed flagship, with a lot more character than most luxury sport sedans.
Post-GM, Saab has barely been staggering forward under Spyker ownership. Yet for the first time in years, the brand's dealerships have fresh sheetmetal: both in the form of the new Cadillac SRX-based 9-4X, and the all-new flagship sedan, a completely redesigned 9-5.
The 9-5 has made it to market. And for what it is, it's a shame that Saab doesn't have more marketing resources or stronger dealerships with which to promote it. This is one of the best new efforts of the model year, with an excellent, spacious interior and a great mix of supreme isolation, driver involvement, and uniquely Saab character.
Design-wise, the new 9-5 is a much more sophisticated sedan that, quite frankly, looks great from all angles. It eschews two common design traits of modern luxury sedans: all the creases and cutlines, and the high tail and high beltline, resulting in a fresh and different look, with smooth, glossy sheetmetal and a softened, somewhat rounded tail that hints to the hatchbacks and sedans of Saab's past. Inside, Saab heritage is reassured with details such as the swoopy instrument panel that cants most controls a bit toward the driver, as well as the expected ignition button located on the center console rather than the steering column or dash. The dash flows cleanly around to the doors, while the instrument panel has bright, backlit green gauge needles and a prominent turbo boost gauge, presented in that Saab-retro all-lower-case font, as other nice details for the in-crowd.
The 9-5 is offered with a choice of two different engines—a 220-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder or a 300-hp, 2.8-liter V-6. Both are turbocharged, and both should offer quite lively performance. With four-cylinder (so-called Turbo4) models, you get front-wheel drive, and a choice of between a six-speed manual and six-speed automatic, but all V-6 models (Turbo6) get the automatic transmission and XWD (all-wheel drive). Steering is surprisingly good—well-weighted, with a nice, natural feeling on center and a precise feel, even if there isn't much feedback.
The 2011 Saab 9-5 takes a step up in size, to the larger side of mid-size, and the automaker has made great use of the extra space. The new 9-5 not only has some of the best front seats on the market; it also has enough space for long-legged adults in back, excellent materials and trims, and a quiet, comfortable ride. While most German mid-sizers like the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class end up putting the pinch on rear-seat accommodations as soon as there's someone taller in the front seat, the 9-5 still manages enough knee room and legroom for taller adults in back. Ride quality in the 2011 9-5 is great, too—just absorbent enough in the top Aero model to soak up coarseness and minor bumps while staying quite firm, well-controlled and responsive.
In its top Aero trim, the 9-5 can come close to matching the top sports sedans from Germany with respect to features and technology, but not quite. You can get an excellent surround-sound system, rear DVD entertainment, park assist features, lane departure, and even a head-up system. One feature that isn't missed is a complicated catch-all interface; Saab has avoided a solution like iDrive, COMAND, or MMI, while also avoiding the clutter of too many buttons. We like that.
The hurdle: It's priced solidly in line with those top German sport sedans. With a price that starts just below $40k for the base 9-5 and runs up to nearly $60k for a well-optioned 9-5 Aero, the 2011 9-5 is priced as a thoroughly premium offering. Given Saab's recent upheaval and its very shaky dealer network, that's a hard argument to make.
2011 Saab 9-5
The 2011 Saab 9-5 takes a different design path compared to most luxury sport sedans, and there's a lot here to like inside and out.
Inside, Saab heritage is reassured with details such as the swoopy instrument panel that cants most controls a bit toward the driver, as well as the expected ignition button located on the center console rather than the steering column or dash. The dash flows cleanly around to the doors, while the instrument panel has bright, backlit green gauge needles and a prominent turbo boost gauge, presented in that Saab-retro all-lower-case font, as other nice details for the in-crowd. A chunky, flat-bottom steering wheel greets the driver, and various shiny trims accent the cabin, with a nice combination of dark and glossy in the sporty Aero model. About the only issue we could see is that the design might appear a little drab inside with some of the color combinations.
2011 Saab 9-5
The 2011 Saab 9-5 doesn't quite have the athletic responses of pedigreed sport sedans, but it's more rewarding to drive than most other models that straddle luxury and performance.
We haven't driven the four-cylinder version, but based on experiences with the smaller 9-3 it's stout and responsive but a bit more peaky. The turbo V-6 makes its peak torque of 285 pound-feet at just 1,850 rpm, which means it should be able to respond solidly either just off a standing start or pull strongly from near the bottom of each gear—and it does, but this engine behaves more like the turbocharged engines of a decade or more ago: Step your right foot down, and there's a slight rubber-band-like pause before the power comes on with a whoosh. You adapt to it quickly, but it's not at all like the nearly instantaneous power delivery you get from BMW's excellent turbo V-6.
Steering is surprisingly good—well-weighted, with a nice, natural feeling on center and a precise feel, even if there isn't any feel of the road or adhesion. For a vehicle that's primarily a front-driver, we didn't expect much, but the 9-5 is easier to position and plant in tight corners than many other luxury sedans. Go full throttle even with the steering off-center, and the wonderful weighting is lost, but it's still very easy to control.
The balance between comfort and responsiveness is among the best we've encountered in sport-luxury sedans here; just to the right of your knee is a dial with three modes: Comfort, Intelligent, and Sport. The simple setting controls throttle, shift points, and steering feel, as well as the continuously variable real-time suspension damping system. Both in steering and in turn-in, the difference between Comfort and Sport is noticeable, yet we were happy to leave it in Intelligent for most of the time; transitions were smooth and the system was unobtrusive, bringing the best of both modes.
2011 Saab 9-5
Comfort & Quality
The 2011 Saab 9-5 has some of the best seats of any mid-size luxury sedan—including a supportive, adult-sized backseat.
Crawl around the 9-5's interior, and you'll quickly take note that it's one of the roomiest, most comfortable cabins in this class. Thanks to its Saab's Swedish heritage, combined with its Dutch ownership and management, its seats are among the best of any vehicle for taller people up front, with top models getting extending thigh supports as well as great back support that isn't merely lumped at the bottom. There's also a bit of side support to hold you in place for corners, without giving you the wedged-in feel of some sport seats, and the soft, pliable, ventilated leather is breathable and comfortable for the long haul.
In back, the perches are configured for adults, too. Two can sit in long-distance comfort in back; a fold-down armrest and pass-through, as well as contouring, make the middle position best kept for shorter stints. Back-seat passengers also get their own climate controls
While most German mid-sizers like the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class end up putting the pinch on rear-seat accommodations as soon as there's someone taller in the front seat, the 9-5 still manages enough knee room and legroom for taller adults in back.
Ride quality in the 2011 9-5 is great—just absorbent enough in the top Aero model to soak up coarseness and minor bumps while staying quite firm, well-controlled and responsive. Engine noise is pretty well muted, and wind noise is never an issue.
The driving position is great, too, with the swoopy instrument panel design putting everything quite close at hand. Up close, Saab hasn't worked very hard to mask the GM roots for most of its switchgear, but that's quite alright; some of it feels directly poached from Cadillac, the rest from Opel and Buick.
2011 Saab 9-5
Those who value safety will find a lot to feel secure about in the 2011 Saab 9-5.
The 9-5 has not yet been rated in the new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) roof-strength test, but the IIHS has given it top 'good' results for frontal, side, and rear impact. The federal government hasn't yet tested the 9-5—and likely won't as it's a rather low-volume model—but in EuroNCAP testing it achieved a top five-star rating, too.
Saab is one of the few automakers that maintains its own team of crash investigators, in its home Sweden, and they design their vehicles not only to meet specific government and safety-organization crash-test criteria, but to reduce injuries in the real-world crash conditions they see.
Standard safety features on the 9-5 include a third-generation active head restraint system, side curtain bags, front and rear side bags, plus of course electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes. Saab also says that the brake lights will flash rapidly under hard braking to help alert drivers following.
There's a lot of active safety in the 9-5, too, including bi-xenon Smart Beam headlamps, a Lane Departure Warning system, and a head-up display.
2011 Saab 9-5
The 2011 Saab 9-5 can be had with a lot of features, but many of them are reserved for the top Aero V-6 model, and it can approach $60k when loaded.
Bluetooth is standard on all models, while top Aero models are loaded with dual-zone climate control, power front seats, xenon headlamps, front and rear park assist, and an excellent Harman/Kardon sound system. Surround-sound audio is optional, and a package pairs a lane-departure system with a head-up system. A Rear Passenger Package brings tri-zone climate control, rear-seat DVD entertainment with flip-up screens, and rear vents.
While OnStar is included, some of GM's top Cadillac tech and infotainment features were kept from Saab. There's an available parking-guidance system, but it doesn't steer you into place like the more sophisticated ones. Also, the 9-5's available navigation system doesn't include the live-traffic functions that are offered in a number of other models in this price class—as well as in the more affordable Saab 9-4X.
One feature that isn't missed is a complicated catch-all interface; Saab has avoided a solution like iDrive, COMAND, or MMI, while also avoiding the clutter of too many buttons. We like that.
2011 Saab 9-5
In base front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder form, the 2011 Saab 9-5 is quite green; just steer away from the turbo V-6 if you want to keep it that way.
We haven't found the Turbo6 engine, as it's badged, to be very fuel-efficient in real-world driving, either. Over about 150 miles of driving, split over a couple of days—mostly a mix of crawling along in Washington, D.C.–area traffic and commute-style conditions on some of the surrounding freeways and countryside—we only managed to average about 18 mpg.