1999 Saab 9-5 Wagon: A needed boost
The Saab 9-5 wagon was, company heavies are quick to point out, designed the “Saab way.”
“That means,” says Saab CEO Bob Hendry, “it will deliver what Saab owners expect: good performance and driver control, and outstanding safety levels. It will also be a very versatile car, allowing us to find new customers.”
Translation: Volvo has been doing wagons seemingly forever. Saab sees the Volvo V70s as the company’s latest success with the upwardly mobile, and decided Trollhattan had better get its head in the game.
Well, sort of. At the 9-5 wagon’s launch, Saab officials did acknowledge that the V70 wagon, particularly the AWD Turbo model, has raised the bar in terms of Volvo’s performance image, and yes, it’s a pretty good car. But they’ll only whisper it. They’d prefer you think of the 9-5 wagon as a car designed to gain Saab a new customer group. After all, the wagon, Saab says, was planned back when the 9-5 sedan was still on the drawing board (AW, July 21, 1997). Saab likes to think its wagon is a vehicle designed to break new ground (the company hasn’t offered a wagon in 30 years), rather than a response to the competition.
It will be a good thing if the wagon does attract a new customer group as Saab hopes, because the company needs to continue to grow. Thirty-thousand is Saab’s 1998 calendar-year sales goal, up about 1000 units over ’97. Hendry says Saab can show a “good profit” selling 35,000 cars annually in the States, a number the company hopes to achieve in 1999. The wagon will go on sale next April, and Saab says it will be priced in the $32,000-$38,000 range.
The latest Saab is not merely the sedan with a station wagon rear end stuck on, Saab officials stress. In fact, the 9-5 wagon’s sheetmetal is different than the sedan’s from the A-pillars rearward. Designer Simon Padian says while the two cars were designed together, his team stressed that the wagon not look “like an add-on variant of the sedan. We didn’t want to keep the roof and rear doors the same, like most manufacturers do.
“We emphasized the C-pillar to break up the car’s size. We were trying to get away from making it look boxy-we want the car to look like it’s always moving forward, even when it’s sitting still. And I wanted a really clean, efficient look.”
Underneath, the wagon and sedan are basically the same car, riding on Opel’s Vectra platform. Two engines are available, both transverse: the 170-hp 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, and the 200-hp 3.0-liter 24-valve turbocharged V6. The V6 is the world’s first asymmetrical turbocharged engine (the turbo feeds from the front three cylinders, but delivers compressed air to all six). The Garrett GT17 turbocharger produces low-pressure boost, only reaching .25 bar, but it’s enough to make the V6 feel more powerful than the horsepower figure would lead you to believe. The V6 produces 225 lb ft of torque at a low 2100 rpm.
The 16-valve four-cylinder felt just fine, too. Again, the 170 hp felt like more, thanks to the turbocharger. Balance shafts help keep the 2.3-liter running more smoothly than many other fours.
Neither engine will really blow your mind with acceleration off the line, but the mid-range torque on the freeway at cruising speeds more than makes up for it. When we tested a V6-powered Saab 9-5 sedan (AW, Sept. 21), 60 mph arrived in 7.54 seconds, right in line with a 528i or the Volvo wagon. Saab says the four is about a second slower. Overall, these are both fine freeway cruisers.
Two transmissions are available, a four-speed automatic (optional with the four and standard with the six) and a five-speed manual (standard with the four,unavailable with the six). The automatic’s electronics measure the time it takes to shift so the transmission’s controller can reduce engine torque instantly, improving shifting smoothness. The automatic also has three selectable driving modes: normal, sport and winter, so you can tailor the performance to road conditions.
The suspension consists of MacPherson struts in the front and a split rear axle in the rear. The antiroll bars and shocks have been recalibrated for the wagon’s extra weight (the wagon is about a couple hundred pounds heavier), as well as for the different cargo wagon owners might haul. Saab says the wagon, even fully loaded, sailed through Sweden’s strict avoidance-maneuver requirements, including the A-Class-humbling moose test.
Traction control is standard on the V6 models and optional if you order the four. The system detects slip, and works with the antilock brakes to transfer torque to the wheel with the most available grip.
We drove Saab’s new wagon along the Mediterranean in Spain. The roads, some of which are used on the FIA’s Catalunya Rally, were twisty but smooth. Both versions of the car-the four and the six-handled the driving chores easily. The steering was quick and direct (if a little light at lower speeds), and the wagon felt much like the sedan, giving a smooth, civilized and refined ride. It seemed to fall somewhere in the middle between a sports sedan and a luxury barge-not too hard, but not too soft, either. Road imperfections were thrown off without upsetting the German-solid chassis, and the car was nice and quiet at all speeds. We searched around and finally found some potholes, but they didn’t upset the car, and the interior gave up nary a squeak.
The overall driving impression was that the ride/handling balance was, well, balanced, the interior was roomy and comfortable in our two full days of driving. Both engines were tremendously smooth and provided more than adequate power.
We kept thinking how neat it would be if Saab offered the 9-5 wagon with all-wheel drive. Engineers agreed, and said it would be available “someday,” but they wouldn’t be more specific.
There are a few tricks in the wagon you should know about: In the rear cargo hold you’ll find a pair of aluminum load-securing tracks, the same used in the aerospace industry (in which Saab AB has a long history). They’re almost infinitely adjustable, and are easy to use. Cargo straps can be tightened down to the tracks’ locks so the loads won’t shift during quick cornering or heavy braking.
The cargo hold’s floor slides out toward the car’s rear, so you can slide it out, load your junk, and slide it back in. The tailgate is counterbalanced so it can be raised and lowered with one finger. It can be raised high enough for adults to stand under, and when open, lights illuminate the loading area as well as the ground around it. All neat stuff.
Saab hopes the wagon will account for 3500-4000 of those 35,000 cars the company hopes to sell here in 1999, and the hardware is
certainly good enough. If you want a fast, fine-handling wagon that can haul a lot of your stuff (and look good doing it), the new 9-5 wagon is at least worth a test drive.
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