2011 Saab 9-5

Expert reviews

These reviews are written by independent automotive journalists providing an objective and reliable assessment to help you make a smart buying decision. 2011 Saab 9-5.

Reviewed By: J.P. Vettraino
© 2011 NewCarTestDrive.com


The 2011 Saab 9-5 is all new, representing the first full re-design of Saab's large sedan in 14 years. Measured by features, interior finish, space and smoothness, this 9-5 is the best Saab ever.

The new 2011 Saab 9-5 is built to go head to head with the Audi A6, which offers similarly sized engines and front- or-all-wheel drive, like the 9-5. Other 2011 Saab 9-5 competitors include the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class, Lexus GS and ES, and Volvo S80. To a lesser extent, the 9-5 competes with more mainstream sedans like the Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus and GM's closely related Buick LaCrosse.

The Saab 9-5 probably isn't the most thrilling car in that set, in a visceral, seat-of the pants sense, but it's well designed and executed in nearly every respect. Its body structure is as solid as the proverbial brick outhouse, and our appreciation for the 9-5's strengths increased the more we drove it over winter-slick, beat-up roads during heavy commuting hours around Detroit.

This sedan was created when Saab was a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, and was ready to launch when financially strapped GM began negotiations to divest itself of the Saab brand. And while Saab is once again independent, the 9-5 carries a GM legacy. It's built on GM's Epsilon platform, which provides the foundation for sedans such as the Buick Regal, and its engines and transmissions and are drawn from GM's global inventory. Experts who drive lots of cars will notice the 9-5's similarities with some recent GM models, but consumers probably won't. Old-time Saab enthusiasts will certainly see familiar Saab traits in the new 9-5, both inside and out.

Think of the Saab 9-5 as a big car. It's roomier than most of its European competitors, providing interior space on par with the full-size Toyota Avalon and Ford Taurus. Yet it's a bit more responsive in terms of driving dynamics than either of those cars. We found the interior straightforward and nicely finished. It offers one of the largest trunks in its class, with folding rear seats that increase cargo volume.

The new 9-5 comes well equipped, with leather standard along with seat heaters and driver-seat memory. It has more standard safety features than the federal government requires, including side-impact airbags for rear passengers. Options include a fine-sounding audio upgrade, rear-seat DVD and climate controls, and safety features such as lane-departure warning. Saab's bi-xenon Smart Beam headlights might be the best we experienced. 17/27 mpg.

The 9-5's turbocharged engines are powerful for their size, more powerful than many larger ones, and they can run on E85 ethanol. The 9-5 offers four-cylinder and V6 engines. The turbocharged V6 comes with all-wheel drive.

The Saab 9-5 Turbo4 is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 generating 220 horsepower and 258 pound feet of torque. The Turbo4 is front-wheel drive. A 6-speed manual transmission comes standard, a 6-speed automatic is optional. We found the 9-5 Turbo4 delivers sufficient thrust with either transmission, and excellent fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 33 highway, according to the EPA.

The Saab 9-5 Turbo6 XWD is powered by a turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 and comes standard with all-wheel drive. The engine delivers 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Saab's full-time variable XWD is pronounced cross drive. V6 models are offered only with the automatic. We found the V6 models add horsepower and all-wheel drive to the equation, delivering fabulous all-season capability and a greater potential to thrill.

We like the new 9-5. It's different enough to satisfy the different-drummer vibe that has characterized Saab through its history, but close enough to the mainstream to deliver the interior finish, features and trimmings that premium sedan buyers have come to expect. And we liked it more the more we drove it. Bottom line, the new 2011 Saab 9-5 is a good car by virtually any measure.

Model Lineup

Saab 9-5 Turbo4 sedan ($38,525); Turbo4 Premium ($43,435); Turbo6 XWD ($48,030); Aero XWD ($49,565)

Walk Around

Saab calls its all-new 9-5 sedan organic sculpture, adapting subtle surface curves inspired by the widely acclaimed 2006 Aero X concept car. The 9-5 was developed when Saab was still a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, and the GM influence is visible in its finish and proportions. Yet its styling certainly evokes Saab tradition.

The 9-5 is the largest Saab sedan ever. Its 111.7-inch wheelbase is nearly identical to that under the new Audi A6, which is the 9-5's primary competitor, in Saab's estimation. At a length of 197.2 inches, the 9-5 is longer than just about all potential European competitors, including the A6, BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class and Volvo S80. Compared to non-European sedans, the 9-5 is a bit smaller than the Ford Taurus and nearly identical in exterior dimensions to the Toyota Avalon or the closely related Buick LaCrosse.

The 9-5 follows the Scandinavian tradition of minimal exterior trim or stylized detail. Its prominent, deep grille is flanked by so-called ice block headlight clusters, trimmed with LED marker lights. The front and middle roof pillars are blacked-out, as is the top portion of the side mirrors. This creates the effect of a single, wrap-around horseshoe shape for the windshield and side glass. With Saab's signature hockey-stick bend in the rear pillars and the bright trim edging the windows, the Saab 9-5 hints at the old Saab 900 hatchback. It takes a bit of getting used to in a larger, longer sedan.

The top-of-the-line 9-5 Aero model is distinguished buy its 10-spoke turbine wheels, larger cut-outs around the fog lights in the front bumper and larger exhaust tips in the rear. In total, the 9-5 is a very handsome car, even if it seems a bit soft or marshmallow-y at first blush. The beholder's appreciation for its subtlety increases with time.

Beyond appearance, the 9-5's shape generates a low 0.28 drag coefficient, contributing to low wind noise and better fuel economy. The slightly concave shape to the trunk lid increases rear downforce, promoting better stability at high speeds, and the rear lights are shaped with small side spoilers to smooth airflow over the tail.

The upcoming Saab 9-5 SportCombi wagon might be the best looking 9-5 of all. Its long roof tapers slightly toward the rear, extended by a prominent spoiler over the sharply raked rear glass. The rear-most roof pillars are blacked out, creating the same wrap around effect as the forward windows. (The SportCombi is expected Fall 2011 as a 2012 model.) The wagon's power operated tailgate can be opened or shut with the key fob, and its opening height can be programmed with a simple rotary knob on the driver's door, from about halfway to full extension. It's a handy tool for opening the gate in tight garages.

Interior

The 2011 Saab 9-5 is easily the roomiest sedan Saab has built, with the most luxurious appointments. It's classified as a mid-size car by the federal government, but it's difficult to figure why. The 9-5 feels spacious inside, like a large car, and its interior measurements match those in the full-size Toyota Avalon or Ford Taurus.

It's easy to see a General Motors influence inside the 9-5, and that's no big surprise. GM owned Saab when this car was being designed and engineered, and many of the components inside and out are GM sourced. Still, the GM traits may be noticeable only to people who are intimately familiar with GM's latest cars. It's easier to find the familiar Saab quirks and design cues inside the 9-5.

The dashboard seems familiar all the way back to the Saab 9000, flowing from the gauges down to the center stack in a single sweep. The requisite Night Panel black-out switch and center-console starter switch are here. Yet with options like Saab's first head-up display and a lane-departure warning system, this 9-5 is not as minimalist as Saabs past. The upgrade harmon/kardon audio system is one of the best we've heard. The interior finish is better, richer, than ever, and there's way more room in the back seat.

The fit and materials are top-notch throughout. One test car had a two-tone interior scheme, black over ivory, and it was quite appealing. The leather is the thick, heavily grained type, rather than smooth and butter soft, with perforations in the seat inserts to allow for the optional ventilation feature. The standard wood grain trim is fine. The dark anodized metal in the Aero is sporty, but combined with the solid black dash, it seems a bit dense. The headliner is soft, thick and rich, but it's not prissy. The weak-link may be the dark plastic topping the dash and door panels. It's soft and rich to the touch, but the graining almost makes it look hard.

We like the 9-5's front seats a lot. They're large, probably great for big folk, yet they're both supportive and comfortably soft, and they're contoured properly to snug smaller bodies. The seat controls aren't overly complicated, but there's a great range of travel and seat-bottom adjustment.

There's also what we'd call a slight visibility issue from the driver's seat. The front roof pillars are flat toward the interior, with a big cross section for strength, and stretched fairly far forward to the front of the car. Factor in large side mirrors, which work fabulously for keeping track of what's behind the shoulders, and there's a noticeable chunk of real estate obscured in the forward field of vision. It can prompt some double- and triple takes when turning left from a driveway, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The 9-5's steering wheel feels great in the hands, covered in pleasantly tactile leather with a wide range of tilt and telescope adjustment. That on the Aero is squared off on the bottom, so the driver can drop it low without rubbing thighs while driving or bashing them on exit. There are redundant controls for audio and phone functions on the right spoke, and the world's best cruise-control switch on the left. It has an on-off master switch on one side with a big cancel button on the other, sandwiching a thumbwheel that flicks down to set or subtract speed, and up to resume or add speed.

The gear selector has a pistol-grip lever, leather-covered and substantial. To its left on the console sit round push buttons for the park-distance warning, the optional lane departure warning and the starter. The seat heaters have three stages, rather than infinitely variable rheostat dials, and the hottest one really, really cranks, perhaps for those long, cold Swedish nights.

The 9-5's dash layout will seem very familiar to current or former Saab owners. It sweeps over the steering wheel and down around the driver, almost completely separated in spirit from the front passenger. It's finished in black, and all business. The big Night Panel switch sits right of the wheel, eliminating all night-time illumination except the speedometer when it's engaged.

The gauges are readable and not overly complicated, with white script on a black background and Saab's traditional green needles. The speedometer is the largest, square in the center; the tachometer sits left, and a combination of fuel, coolant temperature and turbo boost to the right. The speed readout is a radial meter around the edge of the largest gauge. The space inside can display a range of trip data, vehicle info or compass setting, selected by a button on the turn-signal stalk. One choice is a larger speed indicator, rotating up and down in the style used on aircraft.

The head-up display projects on the windshield just above the steering wheel. We're not terribly fond of HUD, nor convinced of their value, but Saab's is a good one. The information displayed can be tailored by the driver, from simple speed to rpm to various vehicle readouts, projected in a compact space. It can be adjusted for location and intensity, and best of all, it can be turned off. Of course, if you aren't going to use it, why pay for it? In theory, it makes sense, however, as it provides the driver with speed information without requiring a glance to the instrument panel.

The door panels are nicely done. The release levers are easy to find, working without any awkward twists of the wrist. The window switches sit precisely at the fingertips, and the mirrors can easily be adjusted with the driver's head and shoulders in standard driving position. Garage-door buttons are overhead with the reading lights and sunroof switch. The OnStar call button is on the rearview mirror.

The main cluster of audio and climate-control switches are collected in the flat center stack, canted slightly toward the driver, below an LCD information screen or optional navigation touch-screen. The switches aren't the largest you'll find in an automobile, but we like the spread and intuitive design in their location. Most are pushbuttons, though there are radial knobs for frequently adjusted functions like tuning, volume and temperature.

There's decent storage space inside the 9-5, particularly as European brands go. The bins at the bottom of the doors are deep and lined with a grippy material, largely eliminating sliding objects and their accompanying, annoying sound. The cooled glove box is large, and more, its door swings wide and flat and makes a nice tray in front of the passenger. The center console box is big enough for a decent-sized handbag, with connection jacks, power point and a removable tray inside. The cupholders are deep enough to securely hold cups, and the covered bin that contains them can also hold other stuff.

The 9-5's outboard rear seats are excellent, carved out and supportive, but soft. The backs don't recline, but they're raked at a comfortable angle. There's adequate legroom for six-foot humans for extended drives, and only a bit less headroom. The center seat is usable too, though it's flat and higher than the outside positions. Whoever sits there will have to straddle the hump and center console.

There are also some useful features for rear passengers, starting with two large vents on the back of the center console, which can be directed or switched off. The optional three-zone climate control adds temperature adjustment and a separate fan. The reading lights are located in the center of the roof, rather than at the edge, but they work just fine.

Rear-seat storage includes smaller but still-lined door bins, stretchy pockets on the back of the front seats and a bin in the drop-down center armrest. The cup holders in that armrest are deeper and steadier than most others similarly located, but the armrest itself is a bit problematic. Its snug fit and lack of any sort of strap can make it difficult to pull out.

With 18.2 cubic feet of volume, the 9-5's trunk is one of the largest in its class, and larger than that in some longer, wider cars. It has an expansive opening, a high-swing lid, tie-down points, little closed bins in the space next to the rear wheel wells, and a power point. The pass-through into the cabin is large enough to slide a couple of 4x4s through, or either side of the 60/40 split seatback folds flat with one button.

The trunk comes standard with a cargo bag, hooks and an umbrella holder. An optional U-shaped track in the trunk floor holds an adaptable, telescopic cargo divider. It can split the trunk into sections, or quickly secure various sized items to prevent sliding.

The SportCombi wagon, too, will offer various cargo options, including the U-track and a slide-out load floor. The standard cargo shade automatically closes when the tailgate is shut, and with the rear seat backs folded forward, there is 56 cubic feet of space. The load area stretches more than six feet to the front seatbacks. It's perfectly flat and square between the wheel wells, and the lift-over height is just over two feet.

Driving Impressions

The 2011 Saab 9-5 shows key indicators of long term satisfaction, because the driver likes it more the more time he or she sits at the wheel. That suggests the 9-5 is good at the important stuff, regardless of how it delivers in some flashy sense. This sedan is thoroughly thought through and well sorted, and we suspect we'd like it better in a year than some other cars with more power or a bit more short-burst excitement.

What stands out first is the build quality and overall solid structure of the Saab 9-5. We never noticed a shimmy or rattle pounding down the Midwest's worst winter roads. It's very calm inside the 9-5, with little wind noise or road hum or undesirable mechanical sound, and just a muted thunk from the tires as they crack over some flaw on the road surface. That could be the biggest upgrade from Saabs past. If the newest model loses any of the brand's old character or quirk, it more than compensates with overall refinement.

The 9-5's engines are taken from the General Motors inventory, but they're among the newest in GM's vast worldwide line up, and very good. Both the four-cylinder and V6 apply the latest materials and control technology, including independently variable valve timing. The 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 has high-pressure direct gasoline injection, which delivers a host of power, economy and emissions control advantages. Both are flex-fuel capable, so they can operate on gasoline, E85 ethanol or any mix of the two.

If you think the four-cylinder seems small for a car the 9-5's size, don't. The four is big on power, with a peak of 220 horsepower, to be exact. Its 258 lb-ft of torque matches some V6s nearly twice its size. With the manual transmission, it will easily take the 9-5 from a stop to 60 mph in under eight seconds, so it's more than quick enough for real-world applications, and it still delivers 20 mpg city, 33 highway, according to the EPA. The four-cylinder is quite smooth in normal operation, thanks to built-in balance shafts, and in daily use it rarely seems to be working too hard.

That said, the 2.8-liter V6 feels like an upgrade. It uses a single, dual-scroll turbocharger to deliver 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. The V6 is smoother than any Saab engine in memory, and it's strong enough to move a substantial car with some urgency. Torque comes evenly from about 2000 rpm almost to the redline. By the numbers, the V6 drops the 0-60 time to well under seven seconds, a substantial improvement, but it also drops EPA ratings to 17 city, 27 highway, thanks partly to the added weight and friction of the all-wheel-drive system.

We like the 6-speed automatic transmission, too. It starts with an effective control program, which makes for good interaction between the engine and transmission. Shifts are smooth in both directions, and while the automatic downshifts can be just a hint slow for our taste, that problem can be addressed with the manual shift feature. With it, the shifts come at the driver's command. The steering-wheel shift paddles work well, with upshifts on the right side and downshifts on the left.

The 9-5 rides more comfortably than any Saab we've driven. The foundation is that solid body, which limits the transfer of road shock into the car. The ride is relatively soft, but it's well damped, which means it isn't bouncy or floaty.

Driven aggressively, the front-wheel-drive 9-5 tends to understeer, or push toward the edge of the pavement, like most cars. That's good for safety, because it typically makes the driver ease off the gas pedal and slow down. There's quite a bit of body roll or side to side lean in the front-wheel-drive 9-5, but at an aggressive pace on a twisty road, it remains cool, calm and collected. The shocks do an excellent job managing side-to-side transitions. Even when all four wheels drop over a sharp lift, the 9-5 keeps its composure.

The power steering system mixes new electric technology with more conventional hydraulic assist, using an electric motor (rather than a belt on the engine) to turn a hydraulic pump. The goal is a compromise between the fuel-saving efficiency of an electric system and the more familiar feel of hydraulic assist, and we like the way this system works. We found the steering direct, appropriately quick and accurate. Effort on the wheel decreases at slow speed and increases at high, and the power assist keeps pace with repeated, abrupt directional changes.

In the current fashion, the Aero model features a driver-adjustable electronics package called DriveSense. DriveSense alters steering weight, shock absorber rates, shift points, and front-rear power distribution in the all-wheel-drive system with a single three-option switch. The choices include comfort, sport and Intelligent, which automatically adjusts electronic controls according to the driver's inputs.

Saab's XWD all-wheel drive (pronounced cross-drive) was developed with a Swedish company called Haldex. It varies power delivery between the front and rear wheels, depending on which can provide more traction, theoretically sending up to 90 percent front or back. It also uses an electronically controlled rear differential that can vary the amount of power between the rear wheels. In hard cornering, or when undertaking a high-speed lane change, the brief application of more or less torque to either rear wheel helps the rear of the car more accurately follow the direction of the front wheels.

The all-wheel drive is a definite advantage in a snow storm, as we experienced first hand. Even traveling straight ahead, it limits any tendency for either the front or rear wheels to slip out of line, minimizing small steering corrections that might turn into something a lot harder to get a handle on. XWD also helps find whatever grip is available to keep the 9-5 moving forward at a safe pace.

Secondarily for some drivers, foremost for others, the all-wheel-drive also improves the 9-5's handling in the high-performance sense. It greatly reduces the amount of understeer during hard cornering, compared to front-wheel-drive models. With XWD, a driver familiar with its characteristic can tighten the 9-5's line through a turn by feeding it a bit more power.

Some of the 9-5's other high-tech systems pay big dividends on the road, starting with the optional bi-xenon Smart Beam headlights. These not only swivel in the direction the car is turning: they also automatically optimize light patterns to suit prevailing speed, road and driving conditions. At speeds below 31 mph, for example, Smart Beam delivers a wide, flat light pattern to better illuminate potential hazards or pedestrians along the road side. When the windshield wipers' rain sensor detects rain or snow, the lights cast an asymmetric pattern that helps the driver see lane markings. At high speeds, the lights project a dense beam as far ahead as possible. Smart Beam can also turn the high beams on and off automatically according to oncoming traffic, relieving the driver of that duty. In short, our 9-5 Aero test car had possibly the best headlights of any automobile we've tested, evaluated by the distribution, penetration and quality of light they deliver in all conditions. If there's a downside to Smart Beam, it's that you won't notice the familiar level of improvement when the high-beams switch on over a lightly traveled road because the low beams are so effective.

Saab's lane-departure warning works essentially as billed. Its crucial component is a mirror-mounted camera that sees essentially what the driver sees, scanning lane stripes and pavement seams. If the 9-5 wanders across a lane marker without a turn signal, the system beeps loudly and gets the driver's attention. Its value on dark, empty roads is obvious, but in typical urban driving it can be quite annoying. Then it's more encouragement to use turn signals, because if the driver doesn't the warning system is going to squawk with every turn or lane change.

Big-ticket technology aside, the new 9-5 is the smoothest, quietest Saab ever, certainly the most advanced and probably the best, by most objective measures. It's well sorted, but so are plenty of cars the 9-5 competes against. Buyers who can embrace its unique Saab character and GM underpinnings should be rewarded with a competent, comfortable, truly satisfying sedan over the long haul.

The all-new Saab 9-5 is smooth, quiet, comfortable and very well built. It's different enough to stand out, but generally understated in exterior design. It's the roomiest Saab sedan ever, with the most high-tech features. The four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive 9-5 Turbo4 is adequately powered, more than competent in every aspect of its dynamic performance, and surprisingly fuel efficient. The V6 all-wheel-drive 9-5 Turbo6 and Aero models are more exciting. In objective terms, the 9-5 is arguably the best, most advanced Saab yet. Saab loyalists should rush for a look at this car.

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit.

While we don't currently have any Saab 9 5 vehicles in stock, we do have 71,148 other cars to choose from. at carmax.com

While we don't currently have any Saab 9 5 vehicles in stock, we do have 71,148 other cars to choose from.