Classic CARmentary: 1999 Saab 9-5 SE Sedan

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

I remember two things about the 9-5.  First, I had never before experienced ventilated seats.  According to my wife, it was like getting an air enema.  The second thing was taking the car up to Frederick, MD, to visit some friends of my parents, Les and Judi.  We had lunch together, then I drove all of us to Antietam National Battlefield, which Les and Judi thought we would really enjoy.  When we arrived, Les and Judi sat on a bench and told us to walk around.  We asked them if they’d like to walk around with us, and they said that they’d been to the battlefield many times before and were bored with it.  OK.  We didn’t want to leave them on the bench by themselves for very long, so we spent about 15 minutes walking around and drove Les and Judi home.  That was the last time we saw Les and Judi.

Please take my first line below in the context of the time.  The Opel Vectra-based 900 (later 9-3) was well received and the 9-5 was considered an improvement over the 9000.  However, GM only owned 50% of Saab and was not able to fully influence product decisions.  When GM purchased the remaining 50% in 2000, they proceeded to fully screw up Saab.  Apparently, anything with a Saab-like grille and an ignition located in the console qualified as a Saab, including Subaru Imprezas and Chevrolet Trailblazers.  

With the all-new 9-5, it can be safely said that GM hasn’t screwed up Sweden’s Saab. As Ford has done with Jaguar, GM has provided mainly funds and assistance and left the majority of the engineering and styling to Saab. Thus, the new 9-5 has total “Saabness.”

The 9-5 replaces the 9000 at the top of Saab’s two-model range and is aimed just above the entry-level luxury field, where the Volvo S80, Audi A6, Acura 3.2TL, and the BMW 528i reside. Unlike the 9000, the 9-5 is only available as a sedan, although a wagon will soon join the lineup.

Buyers classically like the unique and quirky styling of Saabs, and the 9-5, with its Saab-family grill, up-swept beltline, steeply raked rear window, and thick C-pillars continue that tradition. Inside, the ignition is exactly where Saab buyers expect it: in the console behind the shifter. Drivers are enclosed in a cockpit-like environment where every control is at your fingertips. The 9-5 also comes with a “night panel” setting in which only the first 85 MPH of the speedometer are visible to help the “pilot” concentrate solely on the vehicle’s speed without distractions, with the darkened gauges showing only when necessary. Other interesting features of our test car include heated and ventilated front seats to stymie complaints of clammy leather in the summer, but the sensation takes a little getting used to. Rear passengers also have heated seats as well as plenty of head and leg room. The trunk is cavernous.

An asymmetrically turbocharged V6 that uses a light-pressure turbo on one bank of cylinders to provide power to both is standard on the SE. While most V6s in this class provide the same 200 horsepower, the 9-5’s, working hand-in-hand with the standard four-speed automatic transmission, feels more powerful. Handling and ride are what you’d expect from a European sports-sedan: excellent.

The only complaints are front seats that don’t grip you like the seats of a sports sedan should, and engine noise that passengers found intrusive.

The 9-5 will make Saab fans happy, but its styling, power, and features will probably draw other buyers into the Saab “cult” as well.

For more information contact 1-800-582-SAAB


Type:4-Door Sedan
Engine:200-horsepower, 3.0-liter Turbocharged V6
Transmission:4-speed Automatic
EPA Mileage:18 city/26 highway
Tested Price:$38,870