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New Car Test - Saab 9-5 SE

A great all-rounder.

by Julian Edgar

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If you looked at just the spec sheets you could be forgiven for thinking that the low pressure turbo auto-trans Saab 9-5 SE sedan would be, well, kinda boring to drive. Not as slow as the bottom-of-the-range 2-litre that has just 110kW, but a long way behind the highly boosted 169kW Aero. In fact, with a recently improved peak power of 136kW, the SE could be thought of as being in no man's land. After all, the car weighs in at 1553kg and - despite its styling which makes it look smaller than it really is - it's certainly no petite thing.

But get away from the pamphlets and drive the car, and the story's quite different.

And it's all in the torque figures.... Like many of the Euro turbo cars, the Saab engineers have aimed primarily for driveability, rather than outright top-end power. The turbo may only boost to 0.4 Bar, but it's doing so from near idle revs. As a result, torque is way up over what you'd expect from a 2.3 litre four cylinder - and even better, its stays strong right through the midrange as well. In fact, there's a stonking 280Nm available from 1800 rpm all the way to 3500 rpm. As a quick comparison, the supercharged 2.3-litre V6 of the Eunos 800M develops the same peak torque - but at a relatively lofty 4000 rpm.... The grunty Magna V6? It's got 7 per cent more peak torque - but it also happens no less than 2200 rpm higher in the rev range!

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So forget for a moment that you're driving a turbo four - the Saab 9-5 never feels that way. Instead, the auto trans and very strong bottom-end grunt integrate into a seamless thrust of power; responsive, willing and able. In the 0-100 sprint it's no more than respectable (factory claimed time is 9.5 seconds), but the punch available with even minor twitches of the throttle make it a drivable delight. After hoping to be thrown the keys to the Aero (max of 1.4 Bar boost!), we expected to be disappointed with the SE's power. Surprisingly, we weren't.

But the engine's not all good news. A bit like Grandpa's Axe, this is a mill that can trace its origins back a helluva long time. The major downside of the venerable design is poorer NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) than you'd expect in a car of this $69,000 price. Particularly bad at idle and very low revs, the engine smooths out at cruising speeds. Unfortunately it's once you get past the low rpm roughness that a transmission whine often intrudes - you really need to be over 80 km/h before the driveline becomes completely aurally composed.

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And it's at these higher speeds that the Saab really shines. As with nearly all Saabs over the years, the 9-5 can cover kilometres with absolute ease. The long travel and wonderfully damped suspension absorbs the worst of road irregularities with only an occasional dull thump intruding, while the low wind noise, excellent aerodynamic stability and linear steering reduce driver workload. It's also in this type of travel that another advantage of the low-blow four-cylinder approach becomes apparent. At 110 km/h the dash gauge shows that the turbo isn't boosting; the result of this and the intrinsic lower frictional losses of a Four rather than a Six (or Eight, or...) under the bonnet mean that this large luxury sedan can be sipping fuel at an incredibly parsimonious rate - we saw instantaneous fuel consumption figures as low as 6.5 litres/100km and on a long, gently driven freeway trip, we'd would expect to average in the mid Sevens. Of course, boot it around town in stop/start traffic using lots of boost and the consumption changes dramatically; however 10-11 litres/100km is still easily achieved in these conditions.

While the suspension is obviously biased towards ride comfort, in all but a couple of situations the 9-5 steers very well. As with all large front-wheel drives (especially those with an abundance of low-rpm torque!), the Saab enjoys open sweeping corners rather more than tight mountain tracks. Driven fast on a typical winding road with corner advisories around 80-90 km/h, the Saab is superbly composed. Turn-in is good and the cornering line is tenaciously held. Interestingly, over one bump on our test road that unsettled the rear of even the $166,000 Audi S6, the Saab's back tyres remained tracking truly. But get into hairpin territory and the front 215/55 Michelin Pilots - being worn on attractive 5-spoke 16-inch alloys - will let go, the car understeering with determination. In wet conditions the understeer can become a power-induced plough; this is one car that should be fitted with traction control in all models.

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The SE's interior is lavishly trimmed in leather - these days, all Australian-delivered Saabs are both 'all-leather' and 'all-turbo'. The heated front seats are electrically adjustable and come with three memory functions - initially we found the seats slightly uncomfortable, but after a few days we couldn't sing their praises highly enough. Both front and rear room is absolutely excellent, while the boot is simply enormous. Fold down the rear seat and the flat-floor capacity is of wagon dimensions. In addition, the cabin is full of well thought-out features: the centre armrest slides forward so that it can be positioned to match the seats; the air-conditioned glovebox is huge - especially in a car with a passenger side airbag; the air vents are intelligently steered with front-mounted joysticks; the sun visors have a twin hiding behind each - you can position one visor to the side and fold down the other at the front; the adjustable reading light transmits absolutely no extraneous rays into the driver's eyes when used by the passenger; the central locking button is positioned so that the passengers can lock the car if the driver alights..... the list of effective features goes on and on!

Not so good is the eight-function trip computer - in fact it is a disaster. The display is mounted in the centre of the dash - a long way from the driver's line of sight - and worse still, the functions are scrolled through by means of two buttons placed in the same panel. To check on, say, the outside temperature, the driver is required to reach across, press one of two buttons (each button activates a separate list!) and scroll through until the right parameter is read out. This is such an awkward and distracting procedure that we were reluctant to operate the trip computer while driving the car. Infinitely better would be the placement of a single scroll button on a steering column stalk and positioning the display in the instrument panel. To add insult to injury, there's no instantaneous fuel consumption read-out - to get this figure you must reset the system, so losing the average. We can't think of any current cars that have worse trip computer system...

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The SE comes with full climate control, with temperatures able to be set separately for the driver and front seat passenger. The system works competently, though the car arrived with a setting that cut off airflow to the face after each re-start. Apparently, these defaults can be re-programmed by the dealer.

Safety is assured with a long list of features. In addition to Saab's undoubted record in engineering the car's body to meet high crash standards, there are four airbags (two front and two side); active head restraints that reduce the chance of whiplash if the car is rear-ended; a dashboard indicator of doors ajar - including the boot; very good headlights - complete with washer/wipers; a boot-lid mounted safety triangle; a left-hand mirror with a demarcated wide-vision section; and excellent interior lighting that provides enough night illumination that occupants can see what they're about to step out onto.

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But for our money the best feature in the cabin is the single CD/radio/cassette. An extravagant system using dozens of Harman Kardon speakers (well, maybe not dozens but there are speakers in each door, in the rear deck and in the dash - including one for the centre channel), on CD the sound is simply superb. The imaging, depth and sound stage are quite magical, while the frequency range and power are both light years ahead of a typical factory system. On FM the quality was noticeably lower, though it needs to be said that it still remained very good. A CD changer is optional.

And while GM has now owned Saab for a number of years, the 'Holden-isation' of the marque is so subtle it takes an expert to pick the GM bits now being employed. Under the bonnet there's stuff like a Holden airflow meter and Opel power steering fluid reservoir, while inside the cabin the electric mirror controls look familiar. But the engine management system is still Saab's own electronic throttle Trionic, and idiosyncrasies like the floor-mounted ignition key remain. Not so good is a build process that allows the cars to leave the factory with nary a clamp to be seen on the boost control system hoses; at one point during our test the wastegate hose fell off.... Disaster was averted by the management system limiting boost to limp-home status via - we assume - manipulation of the electronic throttle.

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The Saab 9-5 SE is a wonderfully practical car - roomy, safe, comfortable, accomplished and polished. The design that shows its age in some aspects has also allowed for a long and effective evolution, giving a package that quite clearly achieves the goals intended for it.

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