Car choice: Take your place in the hot seat

Saabs are great value for money, but for a trouble-free life, you're best off buying Japanese, writes James Ruppert
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Mike Jones is tempted to buy a second-hand Saab 9-5 HOT (being a slightly more powerful version of the standard 9-5, with 250bhp), but, browsing the web, he has come across reports of poor reliability that are putting him off. However he has also found that on other places, owners seem really pleased with their Saabs.

Mike wants to know whether, in his words, these models are "good reliable old buses or a whole heap of trouble"? Mike is looking at a 2002 model, with that 250bhp and around 54,000 miles under its wheels.

I'm a huge fan and serial owner of large Saabs. They represent incredible value for money, especially when compared with BMWs, Audis and Mercedes. The equipment list is very long indeed and, in the case of the 9-5, includes dual-zone climate control which keeps both driver and passenger snug in their own temperature-controlled environment.

That is the sort of extra usually only found on the most expensive luxury cars, but it comes free on a 9-5. As are the heated seats, a great Saab tradition. Best of all, Mike wants to buy a used Saab. Now, because they depreciate so quickly compared with the higher-image premium German rivals, the asking prices for Saabs are often very low.

So, for instance, the 2002 HOT model that Mike is after would have cost more than £27,000 new a few years ago and now, with 60,000 miles, would be sold by a dealer for around £10,000. Saloons and estates are available.

But I'm avoiding the question, which is, are modern Saabs reliable?

On the whole the answer to that is "yes", but the key is to find a car that has benefited from consistently good servicing. Any Saab Mike buys ought to have a full Saab dealer service history so that all niggles will have been dealt with. Usually these are of the order of minor annoying electronic and electrical failures - such as problematic computers and central locking.

Mechanically they are tough and the engine will easily cover a six-figure mileage. It is essential to find a good local specialist who can source spares cheaply. However, if Mike wants to have a niggle-free life then the only way to do that is to buy Japanese.


It is hard to think of a car that has a similar character to the Saab 9-5 HOT, which has 250bhp, but then there is the Lexus GS 430, made by the luxury arm of Toyota. Like the Saab, the Lexus is a large and luxurious saloon with generous equipment levels.

Mechanically there is at least one major difference in that the Lexus has rear-wheel drive, whereas the driven wheels on the Saab are at the front. If, though, Mike is after a sporty drive, which he must be by specifically choosing the HOT version, those front wheels can scrabble for grip.

Car road testers will tell you at length about torque steer in front-drive cars as the steering wheel bucks around in your hand while accelerating hard. But in contrast a rear-wheel-drive car such as a Lexus, where the power is delivered to the rear, simply squats down and gets away in a much less dramatic and more effective fashion.

There are also two types of engine, with the GS of either a smooth six-cylinder 3.0-litre or a 4.3 V8. The 3.0-litre produces just over 200bhp, whereas the V8 has 280bhp. Both are smooth and quick and built to highest standards. They also cost £1,000 more new than the Saab sells for, so a 2002 3.0-litre would be £12,999 and a 430 £14,999.


Another Japanese saloon with a sporty character is the Subaru Legacy. Like the Saab it depreciates quite heavily and is also fairly well equipped, although it costs a lot less new than the Saab.

The Legacy has permanent four-wheel drive and a pleasingly noisy engine, which is "flat"; the cylinders oppose each other just like in a Porsche 911. All that means that if Mike drives the Subaru hard it won't fall off the road. The four-wheel drive means that there are phenomenal levels of grip.

Inside there is plenty of room, though not quite as much as in the Saab, and some find the cockpit dated.

The Legacy is incredibly tough, despite appearing to be quite a complex package. Subarus routinely rack up huge mileages without major fault. Again the key is proper servicing, but major failures on these cars are very rare.

There are 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre options, although the larger engine is probably better placed to satisfy Mike's performance ambitions. A new model Legacy came in from 2003, so Mike could probably afford the latest one. A 2003 2.5 SE would be £10,499, whereas a 2.5 GX Luxury from 2002 would be £6,250.


Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail James Ruppert at, giving your age, address and contact number, and details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested and your budget.

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