The drawn-out launch of the new Saab 9-5 is finally happening. Not before time, too: the previous model went on sale when we last had a Conservative Government, and there's been no all-new Saab of any description since Tony Blair was in 10 Downing Street. Saab hasn't exactly been prolific in recent years.
Still, everyone concerned with the company is relieved just to have got to this point. Once long-time partner General Motors (GM) gave notice in 2009 that it wanted a divorce, it looked like Saab might crack up completely, particularly after a whirlwind romance with Koenigsegg came to nothing. Now the Dutch company Spyker is helping Saab back to its feet.
The aftershock of the break-up with GM will be felt for some time, though. Saab's model plan – replacements for the 9-5 and 9-3 ranges, and a mid-sized crossover to be called the 9-4X – is largely that which was in place under GM.
New Saab 9-5
Take the 9-5 saloon, the first of that clutch of new cars. Its platform – including crash structures, running gear and electronic architecture – was commissioned by GM to underscore more than a dozen cars worldwide, including the Vauxhall Insignia.
The engines and transmissions are in widespread use within GM, too, so it's mostly fine-tuning that differentiates the Insignia and the 9-5. The Saab has a longer wheelbase, a stiffer structure and a unique interior: crucially, it also has retuned suspension and steering, and slightly different throttle settings.
The impact of all this is that the 9-5 feels quite different to the Insignia. Or maybe we should speak in the plural, since there are so many combinations of engine, gearbox, suspension and driven wheels that, on the evidence of what we've seen so far, no two 9-5s are the same.
By September there'll be 1.6, 2.0, and 2.8 V6 petrol engines, and a couple of 2.0-litre diesels – all turbocharged – with a manual or automatic six-speed gearbox and front- or four-wheel drive. There are also different suspension layouts, depending on whether the car has the regular or the sport set-up, and there's a three-mode active damping system called Drive Sense that's standard on the V6 and optional with some of the others.
GM's less-desirable traits
A couple of less-desirable GM traits have been allowed to remain, almost regardless of how the car is set up. The 158bhp lower-powered diesel and the 296bhp V6 are overgeared for UK driving conditions, so unless you're cruising along a deserted motorway you'll find sixth largely unusable. Payback with the diesel comes in the form of 139g/km CO2 emissions and lowest-level company car tax.
The manual gearshift is vague and the gate so wide that you'll need the help of the front passenger to reach reverse, while the auto – standard with the V6 – is slow to kick down and not always particularly smooth-shifting. It's better with the 217bhp 2.0-litre turbo engine, but still no match for the ZF 'box in German saloons. There's an overly strong self-centring effect to the steering, too.
There's also much that's good about the 9-5, though. Refinement is impressive enough to make a bit of wind noise noticeable at motorway speed, and the ride – on Swedish roads at least – is excellent, regardless of what's attaching the wheels to the car.
The actual ride quality, and in turn the responsiveness of the car, varies according to the set-up and the size of the wheels and tyres. The 158bhp diesel with standard suspension and 17-inch rims is fairly squidgy, while the V6 with just about every item in the sales brochure is the most alert and comes closest to delivering some steering feedback. In all cases you get the impression this is a car that puts comfort ahead of excitement, though.
What's the 9-5 like inside?
The 9-5 is a stylish, unfussy car with a vast cabin and boot, and there's a natty luggage-divider that keeps your bags from skating around. Quality is good if not quite up to Audi or BMW standards, but these were early cars, so things may have improved.
The layout and content is all very Saab – a bit busy, but you'd probably soon get used to it. The technology on-board means the 9-5 needn't have too much of an inferiority complex against the Germans.
Some versions are clearly better than others, but the 9-5 is at least fanciable again. The next step, as Saab admits, is to convince everyone the company is here to stay and not just going through another liaison that will end in tears.
On sale: Now
You'll like: Refinement; ride; space
You won't Gearshifts; long gearing
What Car? says: Not title-winning material, but a worthy opponent
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