Saab 9-5 Turbo 4: The car that arose from GM’s ashes

December 22, 2010, 3:00 PM UTC

Like Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Steig Larson’s best-selling trilogy of thrillers, Sweden’s Saab has been abused and neglected, and more than once left for dead. But despite having lost money for much of its existence, the automaker has survived. Now the first new Saab in eight years has been released. Will it be the start of a better life?

Saab has been wandering off by itself in the automotive wilderness for decades. Founded after World War II by an airplane company, it has always gone its own idiosyncratic way with greater (front-wheel drive) or lesser (two-cycle engines) success.

After getting some traction as a two-car-line manufacturer yet fearful of its future, Saab sold a half interest of itself to General Motors in 1989. GM seemed confused about what to do with it from the outset. Bob Eaton, the head of GM Europe who engineered the purchase, went off to run Chrysler shortly thereafter and apparently took the business plan with him.

One problem was that GM, which had too many of its own domestic brands, couldn’t cope with a sub-luxury Swedish marque that had always been described by the adjective “quirky” and whose target customer seemed to be an Earth-shoe wearing English professor at a small New England private college.

Another problem was that out of ideas, and all but out of money, GM allowed Saab’s product cycles to stretch out to forever. Under GM, Saab’s core car, the 9-3 was updated only once since 1994.

Nor was there any serious effort to broaden the product line and develop some critical mass. Unaccountably for a car company in Sweden, Saab never got around to developing an SUV. Instead, it rebadged older vehicles from the GM group: the 9-2X, based on the Subaru Impreza and quickly nicknamed the “Saabaru;” and the Saab 9-7X, based on the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, with the equally unfortunate nickname of “Trollblazer.”

As company histories point out, GM also delayed the 9-3 wagon by three years, canceled a 9-5 replacement in 2005, and announced a planned shift of production away from Saab’s historic home in Trollhättan to Opel’s factory in Russelsheim, Germany.

As GM was sliding into bankruptcy at the end of 2008, it put Saab up for sale. After several potential deals collapsed, GM announced Saab would cease operations in 2010. But two-and-a-half weeks after a self-imposed deadline, a second bid arrived from Spyker, a Dutch company that had previously been rebuffed. A deal was completed, and after a two-month hiatus, Saab began to produce cars again.

The first new car from Saab-Spyker, the 9-5, is entirely a GM-Opel creation. Beneath its skin are the same mechanical underpinnings you would find on the Buick LaCrosse and Opel Insignia. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means this is the biggest Saab ever: 197.2 inches overall or 6.8 inches longer than the old 9-5.

Design is a subjective matter, but to my eye, the 9-5, never a particularly attractive car, hasn’t been improved in the current iteration. A beltline that rises sharply from the front fender to the trunklid, combined with the clamshell-flat roof from a Saab concept car of a few years ago, gives the 9-5 an unusual but not particularly appealing squashed look. Its side panels drop straight from the windows to the rocker panel and are devoid of any interesting bulges or creases. The integration of the hockey-stick rear pillar, a heritage design cue, is awkward.

The 9-5’s interior is functional without being particularly distinctive or eye-catching. Saab has thankfully avoided the mind-bending control complexity of other European cars and included some of its own unique features, like the black-out panel for night driving. A longtime Saab fetish, the console mounted ignition switch, has been cleverly replaced by a stop/start button.

My carbon gray metallic test car was powered by the smallest engine in the 9-5 family: the 2.0 liter L4 turbo that puts out 220 horsepower. It is a variation of GM’s global Ecotec engine whose presence Saab unaccountably advertises on the rear deck lid. The engine is designed to produce more torque at lower rpms than a typical turbo four though I would never mistake it for a six-cylinder. Fuel economy is a commendable 18 mpg city/28 highway.

By EPA measurements of interior space, the 9-5 is full-size and it drives like a large car, though not a particularly heavy one at 4,156 pounds. It handles well, yet the ride can be skittery over broken surfaces. Saab seems to have finally banished the turbo-induced torque steer that had infected earlier models.

With an as tested price of $43,435, the 9-5 is inexpensive for its size but pricey for its engine displacement. A BMW 335i with a six-cylinder, 300-hp engine starts about $2,000 less.

Like Lisbeth, Saab seems destined to remain an automotive outlier, the car for people who want something different. Whether there are enough of those people in this era of brand proliferation to provide Spyker with a better return on its investment than GM achieved will remain an open question.