Curbside Classic: 2004 Saab 9-5 Arc 2.3t Sport Wagon – A Sob Story

Mention the name “Saab” in conversation with any car-minded individual today, and you’ll usually get either a chuckle or a shudder, followed by a comment along the lines of how it was a shame GM let the brand go to dust and that thankfully Saab is out of its misery. I say this because there was a time when Saabs were truly something of a unique breed, and this uniqueness, dare I say “quirkiness” was why Saab had such a loyal following.

Saabs were a thinking person’s premium car, and in a world where one of comfortable means could have taken his or her checkbook to their local BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, or Lexus dealer and bought a car of similar decadence for a similar price, the Saab buyer sought something these mass market brands couldn’t offer. You see, as with any luxury good, and by “luxury”, I mean something consumed out of want versus need, Saabs were purchased because they offered unique, somewhat unconventional qualities that made their owners feel special.

By the time this 2004 9-5 sport wagon rolled around, Saabs were far from the same level of special that they once were — a direct consequence of General Motors’ involvement (acquiring 50 percent of shares in 1990) and eventual controlling 100 percent of the brand of the brand by 2000. It’s unfortunate, but the small independent Swedish automaker lacked the resources necessary to develop new models.

The 1985 Saab 9000, whose basic underpinnings were part of a joint-venture with Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Lancia, was the first such “mixed breed” Saab, but it simply wasn’t enough. By this time, the automaker was in serious need of a fruitful investor, and General Motors proved the much needed devil that Saab would sell its soul to.

While one shouldn’t be so quick to rebuke GM specifically, as a similar fate for Saab could’ve occurred had any other large automaker gained a controlling interest in the brand, the fact of the matter is that Saab’s fate did ultimately lie in the hands of General Motors. GM’s capital and resources allowed Saab a chance for new product development, yet this gain came at a cost.

GM’s large portfolio of brands competing in similar segments meant that in an effort to save funds, all new Saab models developed under the umbrella of GM would share a significant amount of DNA with cars from other GM brands. What’s worse, is that with so many higher-profit brands to concentrate on, GM would largely ignore the Saab brand, and starve it of significant model updates and new product development.

One of the few occasions under GM’s control when Saab did receive some much-needed attention came in 1997 with the introduction of the the executive class 9-5. A brand-new model which served as direct replacement for the 9000, the 9-5 was not entirely new, as it did share its smaller 900 (and soon to be 9-3) brother’s GM2900 platform, a platform derived from the far more pedestrian Opel Vectra.

In any event, the Saab 9-5 was at least mostly all-new, and featured a rather noteworthy list of innovative features. While Saab was the first automaker to make heated front seats standard in 1971, with the 9-5 Saab introduced ventilated front seats to the world, finally offering a remedy to those who cringed at the thought of emerging from his or her leather-lined luxury car with sweat stains on a hot summer day. Speaking of cooling, the 9-5 also placed an air conditioning duct in the front glove box, enabling cooling to the degree of 45 Fahrenheit to perfectly chill a bottle of Absolut or some pickled herring.

Advanced climate control conveniences were not the only impressive features of the new 9-5; engineers sought out to make it one of the safest cars around with a host of standard safety features and technologies. Among them included dual-stage side airbags, active front head restraints, three-point inertia reel seat belts for all passengers, antilock brakes with electronic brake distribution and traction control system, and highly reinforced safety cage with pendulum B-pillars and three front and rear load paths on each side to evenly distribute energy in the event of a collision.

As a matter of fact, in 2003 the 9-5 was named the safest car on the road by Sweden’s largest insurance agency, Folksam, based on personal injury statistics collected over the preceding two years. It was also the first car ever awarded the highest possible rating in EuroNCAP crash testing.

Riding on the aforementioned Opel Vectra platform, Saab strengthened the chassis by a claimed 70% and added four-wheel independent suspension for superior handling and comfort. As with the 9000 and all other Saabs that came before it, the 9-5 was front-wheel drive. Unlike later generation 9-5s and 9-3s, the first generation 9-5 did not offer all-wheel drive as an option.

European-spec 9-5s offered a host of diesel and gasoline engines, while in North America, turbocharged petrol engines were the only choices, and it is worth noting that they were all Saab exclusives. Initially, buyers could select the base B205 2.0-litre turbo I4 (185 hp), the optional B308 3.0-litre V6 — which started life as GM’s 54° V6 with the addition of a unique asymmetrical single turbocharger (200 hp), and the “performance” B235 2.3-litre turbo I4 (230 hp). By the end of production, the 9-5 Aero’s B235R 2.3-litre turbo I4, was producing nearly 260 horsepower and 270 lb-ft torque. Four cylinders were available with either the engaging 5-speed manual or 4- and later 5-speed automatic transmissions, while the V6 was only available with the automatic.

Most significantly was the fact that unlike the 9000, which offered a popular 5-door hatchback bodystyle, the 9-5 instead would offer a wagon bodystyle. Joining the two-year-old sedan for the 1999 model year, this highly seductive looking 9-5 wagon was Saab’s first wagon since the last 95 in 1978, and the brand’s first 4-door wagon ever. What’s more is that with 231,357 total units produced, the 9-5 wagon accounted for some 47.8% total production of first generation 9-5 production — a feat while not necessarily notable to Europeans, is one very astonishing in the generally wagon-averse culture of North America.

Wearing sleek, ravishing sheetmetal, the 9-5 wagon boasted 37 cubic feet of cargo volume with the rear seats in place and some 73 cubic feet with the rear seat bottoms removed and backs folded flat. Innovative features exclusive to the 9-5 wagon included “CargoTracks” aluminum rail tracks on each side of the cargo floor and an optional sliding load floor capable of extending out nearly 20 inches beyond the rear hatch and supporting up to 440 pounds of weight.

Indeed, during its early years the Saab 9-5 was a very compelling and competitive executive class luxury-sports sedan and wagon. While not without imperfections, the 9-5 lured onlookers with spirited turbo engines, sumptuous accoutrements, and seductive styling, all while providing a uniquely Swedish sense of personality and ambiance.

Unfortunately, its prime years led to middle-aged years and then to very elderly years, with little in the way of major, meaningful updates. Apart from minor revisions to its styling, powertrain, and list of available features, the truth is that the 9-5 soldiered on for thirteen years over a single generation without significant changes. Its second facelift added rather cartoonish chrome front fascia accents, and around this time towards the end of the 9-5 wagon’s life, Saab began marketing it as the “SportCombi” rather than the “Sport Wagon”, though the body itself did not change.

Though its heavily revised economy-based chassis may have provided the 9-5 with competitive ride and handling qualities in the late-1990s, by the late-2000s it was embarrassingly unrefined. For comparison, during that first generation 9-5’s run, competitors from Volvo, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW existed in two or three generations.

9-5 wagon production ended in February 2010, some eight months after the first generation 9-5 sedan ended production. While GM ultimately did get around to giving the 9-5 a second generation, by this point it was too little, too late. The second generation 9-5’s commencement of production nearly coincided with the sale of Saab to Spyker, yet both companies soon ran out of money and 9-5 production came to a halt, never to start back up again. Even more mournful is the fact that a new 9-5 SportCombi wagon was being readied for production, with several pre-production examples even produced. Yet another sob Saab story.

Featured Saab 9-5 photographed at Larz Anderson Park in Brookline, Massachusetts – August 2019

Related Reading:

1997 Saab 9000 CS Aero hatch

2006-2010 Saab 9-5 SportCombi

2011 Saab 9-5 sedan