Motoring: Is it a car, is it a plane?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Some of Saab's new 9-5 seems to have come from the maker's aircraft branch, as John Simister discovers.

Who knows, maybe the aero connection led to the new 9-5's remarkable cup-holder. This object looks as though it must surely be geostabilised by gyroscope, so that your McDonald's milk-shake will stay put even when you're pulling near 1G in a banked turn.

"Push", it says on a vertical strip of plastic next to the facia's centre console. Do as instructed, and out will comes a U-shaped support between the arms of which is suspended a plastic circle (the cup-holder). As the support nears the end of its outward travel, the circle pivots through 90 degrees to become horizontal, and, well, gyroscope-like. Car manufacturers' marketing departments describe such things as surprise-and-delight factors, and it did the job for me.

A warm first feeling, then, for Saab's new BMW 5-series and Audi A6 rival which replaces the saloon version of the old 9000. It contains a number of components from General Motors, which owns a big chunk of the Swedish company; the floorpan and suspension, for example, are enlarged versions of Vauxhall Vectra items. But the look, the feel and the two smaller engines are all Saab's own.

Saab is desperate to keep its identity within GM, and the parent company encourages it to do so. A Saab without Saab-ness is pointless, after all. So, what is Saab-ness? The 9-5 is meant to epitomise the notion, so it has the bold front grille, the waistline rising into a curiously curved rear window, the vast instrument panel flowing down to the gear lever, even the ignition lock which locks that lever in reverse instead of anchoring the steering wheel. All these features are trad Saab.

The engines are all turbocharged, which is very Saab, and the whole feeling of flow over bumps and around bends is much more an improved version of the old 9000 experience than reminiscent of a giant Vectra. Just as well, too.

Basic engine fare is a choice of two four-cylinder units, a 2.0-litre with 150bhp and a 2.3 with 170bhp. More interesting, though, is the 3.0- litre, 200bhp V6 that comes to the UK next February, based on a Vauxhall engine but with an "asymmetric" turbo. The idea is to optimise half the engine for low-speed pull, the other for high-speed power, and it works well.

This engine, available only with automatic transmission, is far and away the best of the 9-5's three. Of the two you can buy right now, though, the smaller is the better because its greater smoothness more than makes up for its slightly less lively performance. You would expect the 2.3 to be smooth, too, given its balancer shafts, but it feels coarse and harsh in a way that past Saab engines did not.

Nor is this the only refinement problem. All 9-5s are prone to wind noise, their manual gearchanges, when fitted, are sometimes obstructive, and I'm sorry to say that the whole car, while an improvement on the ageing 9000, feels far from the leading edge of the design and engineering art. It's comfortable, roomy, as well equipped as an executive barge usually is, and it looks reasonably distinctive, but it comes across as a car designed three or four years ago.

Gadget-wise, the 9-5 is great. The basic ingredients are less so. If Audi and BMW are to be the targets, Saab's designers need to find a little more inspiration.

Saab 9-5 2.0

pounds 21,995. Engine: 1,985cc turbo, four cylinders, 16 valves, 150bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: Top speed 133mph, 0-60 in 9.7sec. Fuel consumption: 24-29mpg.

Rivals:

Audi A6 1.8T: pounds 23,110. Radical looks with chiselled curves, beautifully built, agile, faster than Saab.

BMW 520i SE: pounds 24,165. Expensive, conservative, but has six cylinders, is thoroughly honed for a great drive.

Vauxhall Omega 2.0 GLS: pounds 20,495. Lower price reflects humbler engine, but handles well.

Volvo S90 2.5: pounds 22,020. Lacks elegance but has lusty six-cylinder engine. Good value.

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