Road Test: 2003 Saab 9-5

VIENNA, VA – Saab. The name alone tends to create an odd reaction with many people, even those who consider themselves to be die-hard car enthusiasts. Phrases like “quirky and strange” or “upscale yet off-beat” are just a few of the comments that folks use when trying to describe a Saab to others. Often accompanying those descriptions are family stories about Saabs and go something like, “I had an uncle who owned several Saabs – he was always sort of weird…” And while it may be true that the Saab brand attracts people who want to break from the norm and value individuality over group approval, the brand today is much more mainstream than many think.

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Only time will tell what effect General Motors ownership will have on Saab Automobile AB of Trollhattan, Sweden, but if the 2003 9-5 is any indication as to where things are headed, we’d say they’re on the right path. We found many things to like about the 9-5, a few that were very clever and a few that were, yes, quirky.

The 2003 Saab 9-5 series offers a few different engine and transmission configurations to the potential buyer. There are two versions of the turbo-charged 2.3L 4-cylinder powerplant: a relatively sedate 185 horsepower model, or the more lively 250 horsepower model. Either of the 4-banger models can be had with a 5-speed manual or a new 5-speed automatic. Buyers who opt for the larger asymmetrically turbo charged 3.0L V6 are not offered a transmission choice – the flavor is strictly automatic.

Take a step up to the “luxury touring” model (Arc) and you’ll have no say in the engine department – it’s a take-it-or-leave-it 3.0L asymmetrically turbo charged V6 with a stodgy automatic transmission (sorry gear shifters).

And for those who take their latte’s with a double-shot of espresso, the high performance Aero model offers a 2.3L High Output Turbo that wrings 250 ponies from the internals – or over 100 amazing horsepower per liter. Transmission choices are similar to the Linear – the 2.3L motor is offered with either a 5-speed manual or an all new 5-speed automatic.

Since all 9-5’s are front wheel drive, many would (in all fairness) suggest that the forced induction + FWD = massive torque steer. But Saab has done a terrific job of eliminating all but the slightest hint of torque steer from their platforms.

Our test model, an Arc sedan, revealed only the slightest tendancy to wander under hard acceleration. Much of this has to do with the marriage of the turbo to the torque converter – information is shared between the two systems to deliver smooth and steady power.

Manual transmission models may induce a greater sense of torque steer, but our research has revealed very few complaints from 9-5 owners. To further mitigate the dreaded torque steer phenomena, Saab has developed their 2.3L and 3.0L engines to produce an almost flat torque curve from as low as 1800rpm, which eliminates any feeling of turbo lag while jabbing at the gas pedal. This flat torque curve also provides plenty of passing power without the need for a downshift. Torque is good – torque is your friend, and Saab seems to have embraced this sentiment fully.

The first time you sit behind the wheel of the 9-5 you will immediately notice the cockpit inspired dashboard layout and other small aircraft design touches. Saab Automobiles grew out of the Swedish Aircraft Company Ltd (Saab is a Swedish acronym) and they are proud of their link to aircraft design and its influence. Controls are wrapped around the driver and the dash has a sweeping arc – creating the impression that you are behind the controls of an airplane. Looking overhead, you’ll notice a map light and “Fasten Belts” indicator, which look like they were once part of an airliner (and probably were).

The center stack houses the “System Info Display”, stereo controls, and HVAC dual-zone climate controls. The location of the HVAC controls make them a bit difficult to adjust and to further complicate matters are flanked by small rheostats for optional seat heaters and seat ventilation system.

The ventilated seats are a rare option, but are absolutely wonderful on a hot summer’s day. Speaking of the seats, they are some of the best our highly calibrated tushes have ever experienced. Our only complaint is that they lack some side bolstering, which would be nice during spirited driving; the Aero offers sport seats that are slightly more “controlling”. With great thigh and back support, 8 way power adjust, and 3 memory settings, the Sweedish seats will let anyone get comfy for the morning commute or a road trip. The driver’s seat ergonomics are excellent and there is plenty of leg, knee, hip, and shoulder room for folks over 6 feet tall.

Saab puts great emphasis on safety (but we all knew that) and has pioneered an anti-whiplash headrest called Saab Active Head Restraints (SAHR), which reduce whiplash-related injuries greatly.

Rear seat accommodations are very good as well, especially head room, which is normally compromised in other sport sedans. Our tester came with rear HVAC air vents and seat heaters, which were appreciated by passengers. When not ferrying people the rear seats flip and fold with a 60/40 configuration, allowing the 9-5 to carry a prodigious amount of cargo.

The trunk offers 15.9 cubic feet of space – one of the largest in its class, and the folding rear seat almost doubles that space. By comparison, the BMW 5-series offers only 11 cubic feet of cargo space.

We carried a variety of odd-shaped items and were surprised with what the car could hold. A 6-foot ladder and several cans of paint were easy, four 16″ tires were carried without drama, and the car even handled the wares from a shopping spree at the local warehouse club with room to spare.

Suffice it to say, the interior is very roomy and airy with excellent visibility in all directions. If you carry passengers frequently or just want a car with a little more interior room, make sure to consider the 9-5 before making a decision to go with another brand.

OK, so you’re asking, “where’s all the quirky stuff?” Well, the car does offer some unusual features. The most noticeable of which being the ignition key – it fits into the center console; not the dash, as a “traditional” auto might. It’s a Saab feature that goes back decades. Aside from throwing valets and first time Saab owners a bit of a learning curve, we found that if you carry a lot of keys (or more annoyingly a lot of novelty key fobs) on your keyring, you’ll find they occasionally get in the way of the power windows controls which are also on the center console.

Expanding on the “tales from the quirky side” is another odd feature – the air-conditioned glove box. We’re not real sure exactly what you would want to keep cooled in there, but you can open a little flap that allows cool air to circulate inside of the glove box if you’ve just got to have it.

With so much emphasis on cupholders, we have to comment on the Saab’s unique cupholder system. Most people would like the cupholder, which stylishly glides and rotates out of the dash. But we imagine a few will think it’s a bit weird – we say this only because the cupholder reminds us of the folding tray tables from, you guessed it, an airliner. Adding to the quirkiness of this cupholder “system” is that there’s only one of them. The other front cupholder is a chintzy removable center console mounted one, which makes for an odd combination.

For night driving the 9-5 offers a feature called “Night Panel”. Pushing the appropriate button dims all of the dash lights except for a portion of the speedometer. Controls stay “muted” until you “wake” them by adjusting them. For example, ff you adjust the radio, its display will come on momentarily before going dim again. We found the feature to make night driving on dark highways much more pleasant and less stressful on the eyes.

One little feature that took us awhile to figure out was a plastic tab that protruded from the inside lower left corner of the A-pillar, just above the dashboard. Turns out this little nub is a parking pass holder. Placing your parking pass or ticket in the holder makes it visible to others and prevents it from getting lost. We can’t recall ever seeing that on another car. So, yeah, a few unusual features that can be considered quirky, useful, innovative, or dumb, depending on your perspective.

But get the 9-5 on the road and your perspective changes. You’ll first notice how small the car feels. The car has a light, athletic feel to it. The turbo engine mated to the automatic transmission allows for easy cruising and quick passing maneuvers. It’s responsive without being twitchy and smooth without feeling ponderous. Our tester model’s V6 provided a smooth, torquey feel and gave the car a little heftier feel when compared to the 4-cylinder models. Only a test drive will tell you which engine choice is the best for you.

The V6 emits a noticeable growl under acceleration that some will find sporty and others annoying. The 5-speed auto shifts have just the right feel. For 2003 Saab offers a “Sentronic” manual gear selection for the automatic. Place the gear shifter in the “M” position and the driver can shift gears manually via steering wheel mounted finger pads. The Sentronic option is available on all automatic equipped 9-5 trim levels.

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The Arc model we tested is tuned more for touring than canyon carving. The standard 16″ Michelin tires provided a smooth ride but were not up to the task of performance driving, especially with the heavier V6 under the hood. The Aero comes standard with 17″ alloy wheels and performance tires (gorgeous BBS 2-piece wheels are an option) making it the choice for the driver who wants the most responsive 9-5 he can get.

The Aero also comes with a deeper chin spoiler, side skirts, the aforementioned sport seats, a sport steering wheel, and the requisite suspension upgrades which transforms the cruiser into a bruiser. Since the pricing for the Aero and Arc are very close to one another you can choose your favorite 9-5 flavor to suit your personality and driving style.

The Linear model is several thousand dollars less and makes for an affordable entre into the 9-5 world. All of the above are available in stylish wagon models for those who need their unique capabilities. A 9-5 Aero wagon is a very cool kid hauler and would definitely blow the doors off of any plodding SUV on the way to soccer practice. Might as well haul around the little ones in turbocharged style, right?

As much as we liked the Saab 9-5 we struggled to determine where this car fits into the marketplace. Its pricing puts it on a level with the Acura 3.2TL, Audi A4 and A6, BMW 3 series and 5 series, Infiniti G35 and I35, Jaguar S-Type, Lexus IS300 and ES300, Lincoln LS, Mercedes Benz C-class, VW Passat W8, Volvo S60 and S80 and many other cars in the $35,000 to $45,000 price range. That’s an incredible amount of competition and there are many fantastic cars on this short list.

So where does the 9-5 fit in? Well, it’s one of the few brands on the market that has a distinct personality and character. Whether you find that appealing or not is completely up to you. Safety is a strong selling point, and it’s one of the safest cars not only in its class but in the world. Euro NCAP gave it a 5 star rating and considers it as one of the safest cars they’ve ever tested. IIHS gave it its highest rating, “good”. This focus on safety has been a hallmark of the company since it started building cars in 1949 and continues today with their Real Life Safety philosophy, which focuses more on real world crash survivability than just lab-based testing.

Saab quality has made a quantum leap forward as evidenced by the award for Best Mid-Luxury Car in the 2001 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study.

If you’re in the market for a uniquely styled, safe, fun to drive car with a distinct personality, then the Saab 9-5 may just be the ideal fit. Unlike that odd family uncle, Saab seems to be improving as it matures, and may even lose its title of “quirky”. Whether it’s GM’s influence or the result of persistent maturity, the 9-5 defines its own presence by fitting neatly into a loan niche within the import luxury crowd and is definitely worth a serious look.

Written by Roadfly Charlie

Charlie is Roadfly’s founder and publisher, and was taught to drive by his father in a 1974 Porsche 914. That made poor Charlie a Porsche fanboy for life, and after driving a 911SC at 16, he bought and campaigned a variety of 944s at racetracks up and down the East Coast, earning awards and track records in his twenties. Charlie never really got over the car bug, and after a career in real estate development he founded the Internet media firm that became Roadfly. Charlie lives in McLean, VA with his wife and two daughters, and between the demands of family and business doesn’t have much time to play with cars anymore, excluding the machinery we review.

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