Curbside Capsule: 2006-08 Saab 9-5 – Bad Plastic Surgery

Swiss-American socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein continued to have facelifts so she would look more like a cat. The Saab 9-5 continued to have them so it would look like it was still a competitive offering in the premium midsize segment. Who was more misguided, Jocelyn or the team at Saab?

It must have been hard for Saab. The features it had long been known for – no, not the gimmicks like its ignition placement, but rather the FWD drive layout and turbo engines – were becoming increasingly popular with other brands. And although Ford poured money into Volvo, affording it an expansive model range, GM kept the spigot taut with Saab.

1997 9-5

That sounds like it wouldn’t be a problem for Saab, considering the overly long generational cycles of their products. After all, the 99 and its revised 900 replacement were sold for 25 years in total. But as GM took the Saab brand mainstream, they could no longer rely on the quirky Vermont college professor market. Going mainstream was somewhat of a double-edged sword: there were theoretically more buyers but, in turn, greater demands to keep one’s product fresh and desirable to them.

The 9-5 sold well enough initially. In Europe, it managed 30-36,000 units annually, on par with its Swedish rival the Volvo S60. In the US, it sold more than twice as well as its 9000 predecessor. But by 2006, European sales had waned slightly and US sales had flatlined. A mild yet attractive facelift in 2002 had kept the car fresh but for most cars that would have been a mid-cycle enhancement. The 9-5’s Epsilon-based replacement was still three years away, leaving Saab to put the 9-5 under the knife once again.

Before and after

The result was less than convincing and the changes made the car look like a bad Chinese redesign. To use another analogy, it was like wedging an older lady into a 20-year old’s clubbing dress. Originally, the lady looked old, yes, but dignified. Maybe you couldn’t tell exactly how old she was, but you would certainly figure it out from the exposed cellulite and varicose veins after her makeover. The 9-5’s restyled front and rear exposed the age of the design. The redesigned front end, in particular, was overwrought; one internet commenter made me chuckle by referring to the chrome-lined headlights as resembling eyeliner around the eyes of a sleepy prostitute.

No matter how unattractive a car may be, somebody will like the look. What really matters is how the car drives. Sadly, by 2006 the 9-5 was none too impressive. This was a car in one of the most intensely competitive segments in the market; with a starting price of around $34k, the 9-5 was priced directly against the Acura TL, Lexus ES, Infiniti G35, and Volvo S60. But the newly standard (in North America) 2.3 turbocharged four-cylinder engine, although punchy (260 hp, 258 ft-lbs) and fuel-efficient (18/27 mpg), came with old-school turbo lag.

Ride quality was commendable but the cabin was noisier than rivals’, while torque steer and excessive vibration remained issues. In the mid-size segment, these flaws could potentially be excused. Not in the premium mid-size segment.

The 9-5 couldn’t even hang its hat on its sport sedan (or sport wagon) credentials. Steering was vague, while handling was less than compelling. The end result was a car that could do neither luxury nor sport convincingly. The final nail in the coffin was the dated interior, the 2006 facelift doing too little to keep it looking fresh. To Saab’s credit, this was more than a nose job: the suspension was retuned, the less powerful engines axed (in North America) and the price slashed. But it was too little, too late, and to be sold for too long.

The awkward 2006 9-5 was yet more ignominy for the neglected and mistreated Saab brand. After the 9-5 spent ten years on the market – an eternity in that segment – Saab finally introduced its replacement. The new 9-5 still used a GM platform but now deftly blended Saab heritage design cues, both inside and out, with a fresh and up-to-date look. But it arrived right as GM was going through bankruptcy proceedings and trying to offload Saab. Saab eventually found a Chinese buyer after both the Koenigsegg and Spyker purchase attempts fell through but GM refused to let them use the brand new 9-5 and 9-4X models due to intellectual property concerns. This meant the 10-year old 9-5 was succeeded by a new generation that lasted just 2 years.

It didn’t even live long enough to see a bad facelift.

Photographed in Washington Heights, NY in May 2017.

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