Saab’s painful separation from General Motors has been well documented, but with new owner Spyker now in place, financial backing from the Swedish government and the European bank, an engine deal with BMW and a stunning new flagship model now on sale, the next mission in the carmaker’s story is ready for take off.
The aircraft puns are quite unavoidable once you have driven the new 9-5, and for most owners, sitting in the cockpit of this car is as close as they will get to piloting a fast jet.
Sink into the luxurious leather driver’s seat and you are almost there, surrounded by a plethora of switches and dials on the centre console which control the car’s main functions. There is even a touch-screen display to programme your destination into the GPS navigation system, change radio stations, or select your favourite album from your MP3 player.
But for any would-be pilots, Saab has two more treats in store – a head-up display which can project the car’s speed, rev counter, cruise control setting, or GPS navigation instructions onto the windscreen in green lettering, while on the dashboard, the centre dial can display what looks like an aircraft’s altimeter, but actually shows the 9-5’s road speed instead of a plane’s height. It looks brilliant, and I loved it.
As well as doing a good impression of an aircraft, the top-of-the-range Aero model I’ve been testing had yet more tricks up its sleeve. The optional touch screen GPS system will not only take you to your destination, but if your mobile phone is paired to the car via its Bluetooth system, it will even provide the phone number and ring it up for you, so if you’re going to a restaurant, your table will be waiting when you arrive. It’s all clever stuff, but most importantly, it’s intuitive and easy to use.
Saab isn’t known for updating its range of cars too regularly, but I have to say, this new 9-5 has been worth the wait. There are few cars I get excited about driving these days, but from the moment I saw the first press pictures of Saab’s new flagship, I have been looking forward to getting to grips with this one.
In my opinion, it looks even better in the metal than it does in those carefully lit publicity pictures, but you have to give it a close inspection to notice the subtle blue tinges to the light units, and the cleverly-styled Saab badging on its bootlid.
It’s a big car, aimed squarely at the executive market, which provides generous room inside for five people to travel in the lap of luxury, and its huge boot will accommodate plenty of luggage.
The range starts with a 160PS 2.0-litre diesel engined model, while for those who prefer petrol, a high output 180PS 1.6-litre engine is available for a small premium.
Further up the range is a 2.0-litre petrol engine, with the model I have been testing, the 2.8-litre V6, sitting at the top of the tree. Another interesting point worth noting is that AWD versions of the car are available with 2.0-litre petrol or diesel engines, as well as the top of the range model, so unlike some of its premium German rivals, slippery winter conditions won’t pose any problems for Saab 9-5 drivers.
There are two trim levels from which to choose, Vector SE or Aero, and of course, a generous options list to make sure you can have your car just the way you want it.
The start button, making its debut in the 9-5, is located in the same position as the key used to be, so will be familiar to fans of the brand.
To drive, the new Saab 9-5 feels as special as it looks. Beautifully put together, there is no hint of a squeak or a rattle, the steering is nicely weighted and provides just the right amount of feedback to the driver. Travelling in this car is as smooth and as comfortable as it gets.
At motorway speeds, the interior is impressively quiet with very little wind or road noise making itself heard, and in the V6 model I tested, the hushed tones of the silky smooth power plant are a delight to hear when you press the pedal towards the plush carpet.
As adept at cross-country sprints as it is on a motorway cruise, the AWD system gives the new 9-5 an in-built feeling of security. Most Saab drivers will never explore the upper limits of this car’s performance envelope, but even with its mighty 300PS fully deployed, it handles in a predictable and assured manner, having despatched the 0-100km/hr benchmark in a mere 6.9 seconds, it is an engaging machine to drive quickly.
The diesel engined cars, although obviously not as potent, are just as capable in the handling department, with any engine noise kept to a minimum inside the car.
Success for the new Saab 9-5 range seems assured. Beautifully designed and built to standards befitting a premium brand, I feel that like me, the company’s loyal customers will struggle to find much to criticise in what is arguably Saab’s most important new model ever.
But will it be enough to ensure the carmaker’s future? As excellent as it is, this is a large executive car, the market for which is shrinking the world over as we motorists are encouraged to switch to smaller, greener, more fuel efficient vehicles.
The rest of Saab’s range is long-in-the-tooth and beginning to show its age, so if the company is to ensure its long-term survival in a fiercely competitive global market and thereby secure Swedish jobs, it needs to follow up its undoubted success with the 9-5 with a smaller, more affordable, greener vehicle – and fast!
If it can do this, then the foundations for Saab’s future will be built on so much more than a wing and a prayer.
The company’s association with General Motors, however, isn’t quite over yet. Creating new cars is a long-term and ongoing project, so July next year will see the launch of the estate version of the 9-5, the Sportswagon, followed by a new 9-4X Crossover model.
In 2012, an all-new 9-3 range is in the pipeline, which as well as the saloon and Sportswagon, will renew one of Saab’s greatest successes, the 9-3 Convertible.
Victor Muller, who owns Dutch firm Spyker, has declared his desire for a small car, while at the Paris Motorshow, which runs until October 17, the Saab stand will be showcasing an all-electric prototype, based on the current 9-3 Sportswagon.
As for the company’s long-term future, a deal with German carmaker BMW to supply its 1.6-litre petrol engine has just been signed at the Swedish company’s headquarters in Trollhättan. This is a big step in the right direction, which I expect will lead to further co-operation, perhaps in the form of a small diesel engine.
A Saab spokeswoman explained how the company is working on strategic partnerships with other companies and is currently in the process of rebuilding its global sales network. It is also busy developing new markets in countries which could not be more diverse than the Swedish firm’s homeland – China, Russia, India and Brazil.
Saab then, certainly has the ambition to succeed – if it can translate that ambition into sales, then its long-term future, and that of its predominantly Swedish workforce, will be assured.
As a long-standing fan of Saab, I wish them well.