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Saab 9-5 2.3t Wagon (2001)

SEE ALSO: Saab Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

Saab's flagship luxury car, the 9-5, is the most mainstream Saab ever built, but it is in every way a Saab. Offered in sedan and wagon body styles, the 9-5 combines spacious comfort, performance, and clean, economical operation in a way that is pure Saab. It can appeal not only to the committed Saab faithful, but to anyone looking for a rational but luxurious car. And, the wagon is an inviting alternative to an SUV, with as much room and interior flexibility as a mid-sized luxury sport utility and much better handling, comfort, and fuel efficiency.

All 9-5 sedans and wagons are front-wheel drive, like all Saabs since the beginning, and are offered with a choice of three engines, two different 2.3-liter four-cylinders and a V6. Like most engines made today, they are dual overhead cam, four-valve designs. Unlike most engines made today, all Saab engines are turbocharged, featuring Saab's "Ecopower" engine technology not just for increased power but for increased efficiency and decreased emissions as well. The base model is the 2.3t, with a 185-hp low- pressure turbo four. The high-performance Aero uses a high-boost version of that engine, with 230 horsepower. In the middle is the 200-hp SE, which has an unusual asymmetrically-turbocharged V6, in which the low-pressure turbo is driven only by exhaust from one bank of cylinders for maximum efficiency.

I've just spent a week with a 9-5 2.3t wagon. "Base model" is not a correct description, as it is fully a luxury automobile, with the appointments expected in the interior, and the comfort expected of a European luxury automobile. Its relaxed manner and useable power make it a fine tool for covering distance quickly, quietly, and efficiently.

APPEARANCE: The 9-5 wagon is one of the most mainstream Saabs ever in style, but there is no doubt that it is a Saab. The wide, curved hood, five-port chrome grille, and wraparound headlights are evolutionary developments of Saab styling cues that date to the 99 of the mid-1970s, and give the 9-5 continuity with the 9000, which it replaced. A wedge-like profile due to a high rear fender line and helped by "coke-bottle" shaped rocker panels gives it a sporty look. The C-pillar is the same shape as that of the 9-5 sedan, but the wagon stands as an integrated design, not just a "sedan with a backpack." Chrome trim is absent, except on the grille, with black used for the door handles and window trim. A black plastic protective strip surrounds the car's perimeter. Mudflaps, once a Saab hallmark, are absent.

COMFORT: The 9-5 wagon's interior is undeniably that of a Saab - the ignition key goes into the center console (not the floor as is sometimes thought). Like most other Saab quirks, it is eminently logical - in an accident, or just during normal operation, the driver won't get kneecapped by the key. And Saabs with manual transmissions still require that the car be in reverse in order for the key to be put into or removed from the ignition, a simple and effective theft deterrent (and impromptu intelligence test for valets). The walnut-trimmed instrument panel is pure Saab, too, with one slightly curved pod aiming everything at the driver, cockpit-style, but allowing the front passenger access to audio and climate controls. Instruments and controls are placed and designed for ease of use, and the Saab "night panel" feature, which allows illumination of only the most critical instruments at night, continues. The seats offer comfort and support, with optional front and rear seat heaters. And, for customers in warmer climates, a front-seat cooling system is available. Dual-zone climate control keeps the 9- 5's interior at the right temperature. The rear seat is first-class, and floor and console vents keep passengers comfortable. It is split 60/40, and flips and folds to make a large, flat cargo area when needed. The standard "CargoTracks" (tm) rear cargo mounting system is versatile, secure, and convenient.

SAFETY: "Real-Life Safety" (tm) is more than a slogan, it is the philosophy behind the construction of every Saab. The safety cage chassis, front and side airbags, active head restraints, safety belts, antilock brakes, and traction control are all engineered to work together. The "OnStar" telematics system is standard equipment in all 2001 Saabs.

ROADABILITY: At heart, the 9-5 2.3t Wagon is more luxury than sport-oriented, as it is basically a European luxury car. This is not a problem, as the Aero covers the sport end of the handling spectrum very well, indeed. The 9-5 2.3t's fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension is compliant and very well- damped, for good comfort on all road surfaces. It handles well, and its softer nature will appeal to more people than the more narrowly- focused Aero. The 2.3t is a quiet, long-legged touring machine.

PERFORMANCE: Only the boost gauge and fuel gauge know that the 9-5 2.3t's engine is a 2.3-liter light-pressure turbocharged four- cylinder and not a 3.0-liter naturally-aspirated V6. Saab's turbo expertise gives it excellent response for instant gratification with no lag whenever the accelerator pedal is pressed, and its 185 horsepower at 5500 rpm (up from the previous 170) and 207 lb-ft "torque plateau" from 1800 to 3500 rpm are competitive with larger, thirstier engines. On a 250-mile trip at elevations from sea level to 4000 feet, I averaged over 24 mpg, not bad at all for a 3700-lb vehicle. Acceleration comes with turbine-like smoothness, and is never overpowering. It's friskier than the average wagon, and better than any equivalent SUV. The turbocharger prevents power loss at altitude. Because of the engine's broad torque curve, the four-speed automatic works very well. Performance-minded wagon enthusiasts are reminded that the 230-hp Aero Wagon, a wonderful combination of sports car and family hauler, is available.

CONCLUSIONS: If it is closer to the mainstream than previous Saabs, the 9-5 Wagon is still undeniably a Saab, and combines luxury with power, performance, and efficiency.

2001 Saab 9-5 2.3t Wagon

Base Price              $ 34,695
Price As Tested         $ 39,060
Engine Type             dual overhead cam 16-valve 
                          turbocharged inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size             2.3 liters / 140 cu. in.
Horsepower              185 @ 5500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          207 @ 1800-3500 rpm
Transmission            4-speed automatic (5M standard)
Wheelbase / Length      106.4 in. / 189.3 in.
Curb Weight             3,620 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   19.6
Fuel Capacity           18.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded regular or premium 
                          gasoline, 87-93 octane
Tires                   P215/55 VR16 Michelin MXV4 Energy
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear  independent MacPherson strut / 
                          independent multilink
Drivetrain              front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      19 / 26 / 22
0 to 60 mph                 8.5  sec (est)
Coefficient of Drag (cd)    0.31

Automatic Transmission          $ 1,200
Premium Package                 $ 1,995
Front and rear heated seats     $   595
Destination charge              $   575