Tuesday, September 28, 2010

2010 9-5: A Fresh Look

The following was submitted by Mike Bugda, a regular at CRS for many years, after spending some time with me in a 2010 9-5.

First, everyone who reads this should understand that Pierre and I go back to at least 1990, when I had a 900 Black turbo (may it rest in peace), where we extolled the virtues of this car from its exhaust note, to its wonderful utilitarianism, to its total embracement of what Pierre has been known to refer to as “Swedishness,” which includes practicality, only adding what you need and little more, safety, innovation and driving fun. Who else had turbos in 4-cylider hatchback cars with FULL fold-down seats back in 1981?

On to the car:

My original concern was focused around a fear that the new 9-5 was somehow a “saabified” version of a Buick Lacrosse, as SAAB/GM had done with the 9-7x, which I do not care for at all, as I am decidedly NOT an SUV type person. Furthermore it seems to me that an SUV is somehow the antithesis of what SAAB is about.

Okay, so that’s where I initially started from.

Today, I met with Pierre to go for a test ride and engage in some form of a Point-Counterpoint discussion on the whole SAAB 9-5 from every aspect we could come up with, in the hour or so we had time to share driving around with one and chat about it all. Here’ s what I recall thus far from what we did today.

1. Sleek. This 9-5 has to be the sleekest model they’ve ever come up with period. The roofline is lower than I expected, I do like the overall shape although both Pierre and I have previously likened it to a Camry. Once up close, I could also see some of the Aero-X design elements, such as the side window treatment. It really does look much nicer up close than in any pictures I’ve seen.
2. Engine. Yuk. Why would they start with a six cylinder when a true SAAB would begin with a turbocharged four? Isn’t that what makes a Saab a Saab after all? Pierre suggested a couple of possible reasons, which were acceptable, but I still want my four banger! [PB—I don’t think I’d have started with “Yuk.” I’m a four cylinder kind of guy, too, but there is certainly a market which demands this level of performance, and besides, it’s nice to see Saab start with the haut de gamme, and have the more pedestrian version come later.]
3. Sitting in the damn thing. Well, I had to admit I liked sitting in it, but challenged my good friend as to what makes this whole interior deal “SAABish”. We looked around and could agree that the cockpit wraparound thing for the driver was SAAB inspired as was the start button on the console – which is essentially unimportant now except for being a legacy type of thing, which Pierre had to demonstrate had a “no accidental shutoff” feature when the car is running and in drive. Pierre later noted the black plastic of the console wasn’t so good, but aftermarket choices could fix this easily. [PB—I don’t want the aftermarket or Hirsch to fix this. Saab should, and I believe I’ve read that there is a change coming.]
4. Driving (Mike). I liked the HUD, but we discovered later that this was not a uniquely “Saab thing”. I did however like the ride, “the cockpit feel”, and the seats. Pierre however posed the question that if everything was covered up, could you tell it was a SAAB by just sitting in it – something we both recognized we used to be able to knowingly expect to say yes to categorically. The only thing I could for sure say, was that giving the seating I could tell it was probably European, but not necessarily “SAABish”. Acceleration was decidedly smooth, but doesn’t give a good sense of how fast you’ve gotten up to high speeds like previous SAAB’s. No “grunt” factor, which may not be bad. Excellent “SAAB Like” steering response as well.
5. Driving PB--There more I drive the car, the more I like the balance in the suspension. I like the Drive Sense, but need more time in the car to really understand the differentiation in a visceral way . Next, I noticed how quiet it was internally. Not very Saab like—but a welcome improvement! I like the feel of some of the controls, irrespective of their origins. I decided I didn’t like the placement of the “SID” (or whatever it’s now called) control on the turn lever stalk. I much preferred these controls on the steering wheel. The steering wheel is great, and I love the heft and feel of the gear selector, though Mike thought it was way too erotic…..but that’s Mike.
6. Gizmos. No real unique Saab gadget per se as we also later learned that many of the stalks on the steering wheel column and such are pretty much standard GM now as well. However I did notice later the logical layout of the controls on the console, which IS a SAAB thing, but I’ll be damned if we could find an “AUX” input for an iPod or such. [Ed—I did locate it later—both the jack and USB ports are in the rearward center console. I would have preferred to see them in the more forward covered console along with the power port.]
7. Surprise Visit: As we were returning, I swung into a Buick dealership to do a quick “comparo” with a Buick Lacrosse. You’da thought I dropped Pierre into Nazi Germany in broad daylight during the war the way he slunked down in his seat and carefully slithered around the place. Geez. Well he was wearing SAAB emblems everywhere that day, but the guys, all retired and overweight linebackers from some second string college team didn’t care a hoot anyway. So we sat in the Buick, and there’s the HUD, the same steering wheel stalks, but crappy seats for overweight 60 somethings, and a lot of plastic in what I thought was a crappy rendition of a console. It felt like I would be driving my living room and not a contemporary “world car” like the 9-5. Pierre of course was kinder about the whole thing, being French and all I guess, or maybe he was afraid they’d take him prisoner or something.
8. Driving Back. So after Pierre bee-lined it back to the 9-5 to launch outta’ the Buick lot, we talked about the higher belt line which kind of bothered him as can suffer claustrophobia here and there. I thought sitting in the back seat would have more of that effect due to the diminishing window size form the Aero-X window treatment. I didn’t mind the belt line as I felt more secure and safe with this configuration, and saw it as a plus, but not a “SAABish” thing. Trunk Space is huge, but both Pierre and I felt that making this thing into a hatch looks like it’s almost already done now with the way the tail slants back. THAT would be “SAABish” – and we both felt that would make us happier with the car overall. A Hatch is SAAB legacy if you ask me. [PB—Nobody’s asking you, Mike.] What I want then, is what I would describe as a SAAB designed version of the BMW Series 5 Gran Tourismo, which I would NOT pay $75k for.

Summary: Is it “SAABish” enough? The answer is yes. But here’s the thing; some of the things we’ve become accustomed to in these cars have evolved into something better, leaving behind some things we loved so much in these cars. Pierre tells me the four-banger is coming, so that would be important to me, and 220 HP would be enough for me even for a car of this weight. God is it heavy! The innovative things we admired in the car, like the HUD, although also shown in the Buick would seem to me to be inspired by SAAB, so I think they’re SAABish enough in the gadget side. Logical controls layout – check, Saab put them in there. Turbo charging – check, just like downtown! Good drivability and road feel, check! Front wheel drive. Check! (Although the Buick has that too now!) So yes, there’s enough in this car for me to recognize it as a SAAB, some things I’ll have to adjust to, as the product has evolved well (meaning improved) from what it was, even if I loved those things, including the exhaust note!

I, of course, will want to drive a four-banger and manual shift version before I’m willing to consider writing a check, and if it came with a hatch, then I’m sure I’d be sold on the car, but yes, I liked more than I thought I would thanks to my friend Pierre, but I would need to drive it more to become better acquainted with what it is now, and adjust my thoughts some. [PB—In my first few weeks at CRS in 1989, Felix Bosshard, the owner, gave me a draft of his quarterly newsletter to proofread. I took a red pen and marked it all up, noting that he had written a number of run-on sentences. He then gave me one of “those” looks over the top of his glasses and said, in a deliberate and perturbed tone, “I LIKE run on sentences.” Ergo, I will not comment on Mike’s refusal to use more than one period in the last paragraph.]

SAAB could also use a better ad agency as the “Time is now” thing they have going. Pierre and I both laughed at how his son thought it was an IKEA ad. [PB—I’m not sure being mistaken for IKEA is such a bad thing. It just can’t be the only thing.] I can’t make the connection with the moose and the pine tree the engineer pulls out of the paper sheet – how does that translate to the car I drove today?

PB—I had great fun tooling around with Mike in the 9-5. Mike has all the requisite traits of a good and loyal Saab customer, and has become a real friend of ours over the years. We enjoy seeing him come in, even if his jokes aren’t what they used to be. Whatever I think about the 2010 9-5 doesn’t matter in the least. Saab’s first challenge is to convince customers like Mike that the 2010- 9-5 is worthy of their consideration (which I think we’ve accomplished) and then Saab needs to deliver that vehicle in a configuration which satisfies those customers not just as a Saab loyalists, but as automobile purchasers. Then Saab needs to find a way to attract all those who once were proud Saab owners, but who have wandered away for one reason or another, and there are many of them out there. Finally, there is the dream of conquest, of finding customers among those who have never owned a Saab. If asked, I would counsel Saab to concentrate wholly on its current and former client bodies until a new cadre of Saabs is on the street to attract attention of the uninitiated. Then again, like Mike, nobody’s asking me.


Swade said...

Good news for Mike re "God is it heavy!"

The 2.0T feels like a much lighter, nimbler car than the V6. It doesn't have the out and out power, but it's a more engaging car to drive IMHO.

Anonymous said...

As a one month owner of a 2010 9-5 Aero, my fifth Saab since 1993(93 9000 CSE, 94 CVT, 2000 and 2004 9-5 Aeros)I am also a returning customer after a five year hiatus away from Saab. I find a lot more to like about my new car than not. I really feel it is a modern interpretation of the 9-5. I think the car drives like a very up to date, current European sports sedan. Is the GM DNA around, absolutely. Is it a re badged Buick, no way. This car drives very Saab like, especially the pull from 30mph on up(in sport mode) from the low end torque most of us love. I love all the new technology, voice activation works pretty much flawlessly. Best lights I have ever seen on a car.
I think the car has a real presence when you see it in person, photos don't do it justice. Too much more to talk about here, just wanted you to know there are some returning loyalists out there.