The Saab 9-5 hasn’t exactly been met with rapturous applause. In fact it's come in for harsh criticism for its even harsher ride quality, particularly from the UK press, and Saab is keen to put that right. So we’ve been invited to spend the day driving with Saab’s chassis engineers as they carry out testing of the new Saab 9-5 Sportwagon estate variant on UK roads.
Is the Saab 9-5 Sportwagon the car that eliminates the 9-5 saloon's flaws and boosts Saab's chances of survival? Read on for our first drive review of the Saab 9-5 Sportwagon to find out...
Saab 9-5 Sportwagon: Fine-tuning for UK roads
This isn’t Saab’s first chassis sortie to the UK’s peculiarly bumpy roads. In fact it used to test here regularly. But cost-conscious former parent, GM, put the kybosh on that, instead insisting that Saab focus on perfecting high-speed stability on German autobahns, with the result that comfort and composure at normal speeds suffered.
Now independent, Saab is back on GB soil. ‘The UK is an important market for us,’ says Anders Knutsson, Saab’s Vehicle Chassis Performance Manager. ‘But any changes we make to improve the car in the UK will also improve the way the cars drive in the rest of Europe.’
Saab 9-5 Sportwagon: the smarter-looking Saab
The 9-5 Sportwagon itself is a handsome car with a smooth, rounded rump and that unusually raked C pillar that immediately identifies this car as successor to the previous squareback 9-5. Like the saloon, it’s available in two trim levels, Vector SE and sportier Aero, the latter identified by its chrome exhaust finishers set into the bumper and standard adaptive dampers.
Saab 9-5 Sportwagon: evaluating the estate
Saab says its 527 litres seats-up, 1600 litres seats-down, cargo bay is on a par with rivals for space. It’s certainly better than the last 9-5’s 416/1490 litre boot, but most competitors are slightly larger. The Saab’s fifth door is good value though, adding just £1200 to the price, almost half of what BMW charges.
As an option, the tailgate can be fully opened and closed remotely from the keyfob or a knob on the driver’s door. But while the load cover retracts with a nudge of the elbow, it doesn’t automatically glide up and down the D pillar as you open and close the tailgate, a trick German rivals manage.
On balance, the estate bit of the Saab 9-5 is a success. Given the tiny price differential, you’d be mad to even consider the saloon. But what about the rest of the car? Saab has two Sportwagons for us to try today. They’re both work in progress 2012 model year cars, which means they benefit from new springs, dampers and top mounts, but not the torque-steer-minimising Focus RS-style fixed strut suspension that will be standard on all but the most basic cars come September.
Driving the 9-5 Sportwagon
We start with the entry-level 160bhp front driver on passive dampers. This is prime fleet fodder, a good looking, roomy family estate with an interesting cabin and stacks of standard kit. With its basic non-variable effort rack it steers sweetly, filtering out far less noise than is fashionable, but feeling more natural as a result. The body control is good too. It’s a car you really want to like but can’t because it rides like it’s got 50-pence pieces for wheels and sounds like there’s 5hp generator tucked behind the dashboard.
The second car, a 190bhp diesel with the adaptive dampers is noticeably more comfortable, but most of the improvement is in its primary ride characteristics, the way it deals with the flow of the road. But its secondary ride, its reaction to smaller high frequency upsets, while better than the passive car, still isn’t quite good enough. So despite the MY12 tweaks, neither car is up to class standards.
‘I’m confident we can fix this with simple tuning of springs dampers and anti roll bars,’ says Knutsson, suggesting that by softening the springs his team will be able to iron out the small bump induced vibrations, and use more damping force to retain the body control. ‘And if we can’t, we’ll do a German-spec car and one for the rest of Europe.’
But sorting the ride out still leaves the problem of those rough old diesels. It’s not just a case of adding more insulation. The GM engines are inherently noisy compared to their VW equivalents, which had far more money lavished on them during development. There’s no quick fix for this – the slick BMW Mini engines going into the next 9-3 won’t fit the 9-5. Come September, the finished wagon could ride like a Rolls, but it’s still going to fighting with one hand tied behind its back.
Get 3 issues of CAR magazine for £1 - Click here