Friday 6 December 2019

Looking for Saab's old mojo

The first Saab to be released by new owner Spyker is a looker, but the dead hand of GM can still be felt in the workaday 9-5, writes Campbell Spray

CRUISE CONTROL: The Saab 9-5 is at its best on the motorway
CRUISE CONTROL: The Saab 9-5 is at its best on the motorway

LET'S play good cop, bad cop. Or shall we just divide the brain and heart of this motoring writer? Perhaps not, there'll be pretty slim pickings from either.

The car that is causing such angst is the Saab 9-5 and the first thing that must be said is that it is good to see any new Saab being launched. For too long, the company's future looked in doubt and the acquisition of the marque by the Spyker Group from General Motors earlier this year seems to point one of the great car firms in the right direction.

The General Motors' influence on Saab went from being a benign touch to a dead hand so that, by the end, some models were barely distinguishable from an Opel or Holden.

And that is the beginning of the dilemma over the 9-5. The large saloon is a Saab, yes, but so much of the work happened under the GM ownership that a lot of the personality is lost. In more ways than one, it is a stretched Insignia.

However, for all that, it is a beautiful looking car. Despite its quite massive size, the 9-5 attracted appreciative glances whenever it was driven or wherever it was parked.

There is a lovely grace about its long-booted shape. Inside, despite the very high spec, the car wasn't so promising. It was rather uniformly black with very few touches that reminded of the great fighter-plane cockpit feel of past Saabs. Setting an extra speedometer like an altimeter in the middle of the other dials doesn't really do the trick.

Yet the level of safety and comfort equipment on the 9-5 is absolutely massive and offers a very strong price advantage over its premium competitors like the BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. This is by far the most technologically advanced Saab ever; but the basic model, which is the 9-5 Linear, still comes in at €36,500, with the 9-5 Vector with its leather upholstery and electric front seats at €39,500. Automatic is about another €3,000. It was a pity that Saab didn't feel that the Linear was also worth the Bluetooth connectivity and front and rear park assist that goes to the Vector. On such a car, both are really musts. There is a good list of factory options, including a head-up display at €830. Most seem well-priced.

The 160bhp two-litre turbo diesel is very economic and clean with a road tax in the manual versions of just €156. Yet, it doesn't have the flexibility or grunt to make this a car to excite and definitely doesn't remind you one bit of the marque's great rallying history. Rather, it makes for a superb motorway cruiser, and, for the executive who has to drive long trips throughout the country, there is not probably a car in this sector that offers better value or a safer and more competent ride. Yet take it around the back roads and look for some excitement, and disappointment will be the order of the day. The car just doesn't have the necessary power or spirit, and the rather imprecise gearbox doesn't help either. It acts and feels like the very long and heavy car it is. The new company head by Spyker's Victor Muller must do a lot of work on their next cars to get rid of the GM legacy and almost reinvent the Saab passion.

The 9-5 has absolutely massive of space. In the back, there must be class-leading room for three passengers of almost luxury car status, although the middle person, as always, will be slightly discommoded. The boot is so deep that young children must be used rather like chimney sweeps of yesteryear to search the furthest reaches.

I was very excited to pick up the 9-5 and feel that the company's future is now assured. I was equally delighted to give the car back. In many ways, it was just too big and cumbersome for my everyday driving. I did love the looks, which bode very well for future cars. Yet the driving and interior style left a lot to be desired and had very little in common with the great Saabs I owned nearly 30 years ago and a number of models I have driven since.

There will be a lot of Saab fans like me out there who will be drawn to the 9-5 -- and for space, value and safety they will get what they want. But for passion, style and great driving characteristics the company is once again a work in progress.

Best of luck to it.

Sunday Independent

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