Motoring: Back in the race?

Can the new 9-5 save Saab's reputation, asks John Fordham?
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Saab admirers have had a lean time in recent years. The long-time serious devotees probably joined the club, via ownership of the rugged, beetle-browed 900, sometime in the early Eighties. It was a reliable, distinctive and well-balanced automobile built with a disregard for economy of materials in a way that felt as if it could shrug off an avalanche. Some may even go back to the smaller, buglike Saabs of the pre-900 era that were so often to be dimly seen skidding through erupting volcanoes of mud on old rally footage. Saabs were quirky and tough - that was the message.

But as Saab went upmarket and the later and plusher 900s found themselves chasing the disappearing bumpers of ever-more sophisticated BMWs and Mercedes, the Swedish company's eccentric originality began to desert it, and the balance of its books followed. A bigger, more executive- angled Saab, the 9000-series, retained the company's reputation for quality, but not for charisma and character, and its suspension was dire. When General Motors stepped in and a replacement 900 series began to be built with Vauxhall Cavalier components, world-car homogeneity seemed to be turning the Saab story into bar-room nostalgia.

The 9-5, launched this autumn, is widely regarded as Saab's last chance to get back in the game at the level it was once at. To get serious with BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Volvo - not to men- tion Nissan, Honda and Rover - the Swedish company would need to recapture its personality in secure, positive handling, and in practicality and rugged-build quality, but all subtly balanced against telltale Saab motifs from the past, like the aircraft instrumentation and floor-mounted ignition key. Fortunately for Saab, those long-time fans, and for the queue of new admirers the company badly needs, it's finally worked.

A couple of weeks with two 9-5s (the 2.3 litre and 2.0 litre versions), on open roads and inner-city bone-rattlers alike, has mostly been a real pleasure. Although the car doesn't quite touch the balance of the BMW 5-series, its general poise and calmness through fast A-road twisters make the limited remaining pleasures of driving spring back to life. The alert responsiveness of the traditional Saab four-cylinder engine to power demands is striking. It's pretty quiet, very comfortable, spacious, and cheaper than its BMW rival. Externally, it crosses the styling of the latest 900 and 9000 series cars, and in that respect the Swedish company's nervous conservatism of recent years has continued to let it down because the 9-5 is no head-turner. But it's a fine car in its class.

The steering feel of the 9-5 is back to the sharp but weighty sensation of old; the ride comfort is massively improved over the old 9000 cars, as is the cabin welcome (9000s managed to be both plasticky and spartan). The specifications are generous, including a CD player that sounds as if you've driven into the Albert Hall. And though driving buffs will always prefer the equivalent BMWs for their uncanny handling and silently fluid six-cylinder engines, the Saab's mid-range flexibility, which gives that eager leap just when you need it on the way out of a dipped bend, or passing a truck, is impressive indeed. A hot ticket, and just in time.


SAAB 9-5 2.0 PRICE pounds 24,445


Classic turbo-charged four-cylinder Saab engine, very punchy at mid-revs, and quiet as a four-cylinder can be made to be; smooth gearshift, very responsive kickdown in auto version; acceleration from 50-70mph in fourth gear takes under eight seconds .


Slight tendency to fast-corner roll and wider cornering than a BMW, but less than the much-improved ride comfort would suggest; firm, well-weighted steering; good build-quality, dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, active head- restraints that move forward to reduce whiplash on impact, but no traction control.


Excellent interior, very supportive seats front and back, good leg and head room and spacious boot, traditionally attractive Saab instrumen-tation; very good stereo with CD player with steering wheel-mounted controls, electric windows and mirrors, alarm/ immobiliser, remote central-locking, sun visors reduce side as well as front dazzle, automatic gearbox pounds 1,200 extra, electrically adjustable seats extra.


Not very exciting appearance; also noisier than its main rivals.


Many Saab virtues reasserted, good price for class, specification level and comfort.


BMW 5-series (pounds 25,700): terrific engines, unshakeable handling poise, BMW cachet; Mercedes E-class 2.0 (pounds 24,590)): stately, silent, carved-from-rock feel, but a bit dull; Audi A6 1.8 (pounds 21,492): very good value, well finished, spacious, but limited performer in this league.