Future Curbside Classic: 2011 Saab 9-5 – Born From Buicks?

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Particularly in the world of sedans, it’s unusual for an all-new generation to last for only two years. This is especially profound when considering said vehicle’s predecessors were sold for twelve and fourteen years with limited changes. Yet like many cars of troubled brands, the 2010 Saab 9-5 was merely too little, too late, and Saab’s ever-rocky final years are to blame for its untimely death.

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The original Saab 9-5 was introduced for the 1998 model year as a direct successor to the 9000, which was sold from 1984-1998. Although the 9000’s “Type Four” platform was co-developed between, Saab, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Lancia, the 9000 was very much Saab-unique, with only seven parts interchangeable with other models. Engines, transmissions, interior panels, seats, switchgear, and most body panels were purely Saab, as was expected by faithful Saab owners.

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By the time the 9-5’s development began, General Motors already owned a 50 percent stake in the Swedish brand. In typical cost-cutting fashion, GM didn’t see it justifiable for Saabs to continue utilizing exclusive platforms and other components. Like the 1998 Saab 900, the new 9-5 used the GM2900 platform, originally introduced for Opel, but also underpinning cars including Latin American Chevrolets, Australian Holdens, and even the Saturn L-Series.

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The 9-5 still used Saab-developed engines and transmissions, but no longer exclusively. Thankfully, in terms of appearance, the 9-5 was still very much Saab both inside and out. In fact, in terms of exterior and interior styling, the first generation 9-5 exhibited greater lineage to the iconic classic 900 than the very boxy 9000 did.

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Saab’s latest vehicle may have lost some of its exclusiveness, but this didn’t deter buyers from embracing the 9-5. Total production of the first generation 9-5 reached 483,923 units over twelve years. This was almost as high as the nearly 503,000 examples of the 9000, which was produced for fourteen years. Considering this, the 9-5’s average annual production was actually higher.

Saab 9000;9-5 production figures - via essaabparts.comsource: essaabparts.com

The 9-5 initially proved popular in the U.S., with 1999 model year sales (its first year in the U.S.) totaling some 21,361 units. This was more than double the 9000’s best year in the U.S., 1993, when it sold 10,108 examples. 9-5 sales remained at or above 15,000 units in the U.S. through 2003, upon which they started dropping off considerably.

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The 9-5 was given minor facelifts in 2004 and 2007, but apart from incremental power increases and minor trim changes, the 9-5’s evolution over twelve years was fairly minor. By this point in the late-2000s, Saab’s future was looking increasingly questionable. In recent years, Saabs were becoming progressively un-Saab-like, evidenced by the heavily corporate second generation 9-3, the rebadged “Saabaru” 9-2X and “Trollblazer” 9-7X.

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Despite GM’s attempt to sell off its Swedish subsidiary amidst its own financial crisis in 2008, the automaker went ahead with the development of a successor. Given GM’s dwindling interest in Saab, the second generation 9-5 predictably shared more with other GM products than ever before.

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Saab’s mantra may have been “Born From Jets”, but the new 9-5 used the Buick LaCrosse’s long-wheelbase version of the GM Epsilon II platform. Over the previous model, the 2010 Saab 9-5 grew some five inches in wheelbase, seven inches in length, and three inches in width. Although there were some visual ties to the Buick, such as excessively high beltlines and a short, high hood, sheetmetal was unique and unmistakably Saab.

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Drawing cues from historic Saabs, this bold update of the brand’s flagship was really quite a beautiful car. Compared to its predecessor, the new 9-5 exuded a greater sense of power and prestige. Blacked-out A-pillars, unique wheel designs, and sharp lower character lines conveyed aggression, while clear-lensed LED taillights, thick chrome window trim, and a steeply raked roofline gave it a sleek and sophisticated appearance.

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The discontinuation of the first generation 9-5 also saw the termination of the Saab H-engine. Saab buyers still had choices when it came to powertrain, but all engines for the second generation 9-5 now came from the GM parts bin. North American buyers had the availability of either a 2.0L Ecotec turbo I4 (220 horsepower; 258 lb-ft torque) or a 2.8L turbo V6 (296 horsepower; 295 lb-ft torque). Both engines were gasoline-powered, although the 2.0L was also available with “BioPower” E85 capability.

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Elsewhere in the world, buyers also had choice of a gasoline-powered 1.6L Ecotec turbo I4, and single- and twin-turbo versions of the diesel-powered GM-Fiat co-developed 2.0L I4. All-wheel drive was a new option to the 9-5 range, available with the 2.0L Ecotec and 2.0L twin turbodiesel, and the only drivetrain for the V6.

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Although it was an improvement over the horribly outdated and outclassed interior of the old 9-5, the new 9-5’s interior still left a feeling of disappointment. While the interior didn’t flagrantly ooze cheapness, for a car whose base prices ranged between $39,000-$50,000, the plastics, leather, and switchgear just didn’t look or feel the part.

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Egg-crate style vents, Saab’s “Night Panel” switch, and the cockpit dash shape remained, but overall the “Saab-ness” just wasn’t totally there. In spite of this, the new Saab 9-5 was at least competitive in terms of equipment, boasting an extensive list of standard luxury, safety, and technology features, comparable to other cars in its class and at its price range.

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Contemporary reviews gave the 9-5 respectable marks for handling, bestowing especially high praise on its steering and cornering abilities. The 9-5 did feature a wider track and firmer suspension, but most mechanics were indeed shared with the Buick LaCrosse. Power from the turbo-4 was cited on the sluggish side, with most reviewers preferring the more responsive V6.

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Notwithstanding its further loss of individuality and other shortcomings, the 2010-2011 Saab 9-5 was likely a satisfactory Saab for the shrinking group of loyalists that hadn’t jumped the sinking ship for makes such as Acura, Audi, Lexus, Volkswagen, and Volvo (brands that former Saab owners I personally know have gone to). The larger problem was, by the time the second generation 9-5 went on sale, Saab was essentially on life support.

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I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, but in the years since 2008, Saab and its chain of several owners have gone through multiple partners, licensing disputes, lawsuits, bankruptcies, and production issues, among other major road bumps. Saab’s current owner, National Electric Vehicle Sweden, has reportedly produced a small number of the now archaic 9-3, but currently, it doesn’t appear any Saabs are rolling off assembly lines. NEVS has big plans for a future Saab lineup, but a quick look at their website doesn’t provide much hope of this every seeing life.

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Second generation 9-5 production began in early 2010, but due to Saab’s precarious situation, never fully ramped up to maximum output levels. By early 2011, 9-5 production was halted, as the automaker couldn’t afford to pay suppliers. Total second generation 9-5 production was a mere 11,280 units. In the U.S., 9-5 sales for 2010 and 2011 totaled only 3,419 examples, with many models going unsold for some time after dealers closed.

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The second generation Saab 9-5 was hardly a perfect car, and more importantly, it was by no means a perfect Saab. Regardless of its deficiencies, the second generation 9-5 was a striking design, and a car that Saab fans (including your humble author) were rooting for. Unfortunately, its success just wasn’t meant to be. The second generation Saab 9-5 was just too little, too late.

Related Reading:

1997 Saab 9000 CS Aero

2003 Saab 9-3 (COAL)

2011 Saab 9-4X

2011 Saab 9-5 (eBay Find)

Saab: The Eulogy