Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Better Late than Never

With all that has happened here in the past month, one of the casualties has been that I have not had time to drive the 2010 9-5. I was all amped up to drive the very first one, but it was sold so quickly that I lost that opportunity, and by the time a larger batch arrived I was still coping with post-Swedish Car Day catch up on a number of fronts.

After a few aborted attempts in recent days, this morning, I had the keys and a plate on my desk, and I got a chance to drive the car with longtime customer and friend Jon Chomitz. We didn’t stay out very long in the car, as I still have much to keep me otherwise occupied, but long enough to get some firsthand gut reactions to this much anticipated car.

While I had learned how to operate all the gadgets back at a training session in the spring, I felt a bit lost when I got in the car. I dismissed trying to re-familiarize myself, and focused instead on just driving the car and getting an initial impression. I wanted to know what the tactile, visual, auditory and visceral reactions would be to driving the 9-5.

First strong impression—the seats are really firm, almost hard. Not uncomfortable in any way, but as someone who has spent a lot of time in a lot of Saab seats over the years, these felt different, and I would not have recognized them as being Saab seats. Second impression—the suspension is marvelously firm. I did have the selector in the “I” position (for “intelligent,” meaning adaptive). Third impression—I felt small inside the car. I am diminutive, and enjoyed how I could sit fairly high and enjoy a low belt line in older Saabs. In the 9-3 Sport Sedan, one does sit low, but the greenhouse is very airy. Not so in the 9-5. It is very large so there is no claustrophobia, but the side windows are so short, the belt line is so high, that by the time I lifted the seat high enough that I felt I could see well and be comfortable (Saab has always accommodated us short folk with plenty of vertical seat travel), I found myself with my head almost to the ceiling.

On the roadtest, I found the car to be exceptionally quiet and refined. On smooth or rough pavement, the 9-5 felt very substantial. The engine note, while not my cup of tea (I have never heard any V6, even the TurboX, which I enjoyed listening to) is properly masculine in timbre. The steering felt properly weighted, and not overly assisted at low speeds. The brakes were predictable and easy to modulate, and while I did not do any severe braking, given the massive size of the brakes, I am certain that they will be very powerful. Acceleration was reasonably brisk and completely linear. This is one of those cars where you need to watch the speedometer to really gauge your acceleration, because it is carried out so smoothly and progressively that there is little sensation of acceleration compared to the actual acceleration.

One let-down was in using the shift paddles to manually shift the automatic transmission. While I often find that such inputs are often ignored by a car’s computers, today I found the “upshift” command completely ignored. 500 rpm before redline on hard acceleration I started calling for an upshift, and after three clicks of the paddle, and a few bumps off the rev limiter (actually seemed to hover at the limit), then the belated upshift finally occurred. Put the shifter back into drive. I should mention the shifter. It’s one of those pieces you always touch in a car, and this one feels terrific. Like the rest of the car, it feels of quality and substance. The “key,” or fob, is much the same. Less bulky than Saab fobs of old, it is nonetheless heavy and substantial, not plastic or cheap feeling.

Last disappointment is the parking brake. It is a pushbutton affair on the console. I am sure that as a parking brake, it is fine, though I wonder what happens if the car needs to be towed with a dead battery and the brake is set. My complaint is that a parking brake is a very good tool to use when driving in snow to initiate oversteer in tight corners. This may seem adolescent to some, but I rather like drifting in the snow, and between safety systems and this parking brake, I fear the only way to do it in this car is to drive way too fast.

My overall observation is that I was surprised, much as I was surprised by the 1999 9-5. Then, I was comparing that car to the 9000, and it took me quite some time to appreciate the chassis dynamics in a car that otherwise felt way too soft. In fact, I believe that it might be less of a stretch to come out of a 9000 and go directly into the new generation 9-5, much as our first 9-5 purchaser did. I will learn to forgive some of the minor irritations, as one does with any car, as I learn to appreciate subtle refinements which I have yet to realize. The most fundamental impression the 9-5 made with me is that it is grand and substantial. I can’t wait to spend more time in one!

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