The Saab 9-5 comes as a sedan and station wagon. It was revised for 2002 and offers plenty of utility, safety and comfortably fast driving over all sorts of roads. However, the 9-5 has Saab’s oldest design and is not as refined as some competitors. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel especially dated. It looks sleek and is very fast.
The Saab 9-5 Aero is well-equipped with items such as automatic climate control, a power sunroof, power front heated seats, leather upholstery and cruise control. However, a 5-speed manual gearbox with a rather rubbery shifter is standard. A 5-speed automatic transmission is optional, plus you also get ventilated leather upholstery, heated rear seats and an upscale sound system.
The Aero has the hottest engine, stronger brakes, special suspension with ultra-wide high-performance tires on light alloy wheels and bolstered front sport seats. Newly available for the Aero are the ventilated front seats, which make hot weather driving more comfortable. They have electric fans that draw cooling air in through perforations in the leather.
There is plenty of room for four tall adults who sit upright in the quiet, upscale interior. Gauges can be quickly read. There are lots of controls, but they are decently sized and can be sorted our fairly easily. However, the console-mounted power window switches would be more convenient if placed on the front doors. Saab has always designed cars with good utility, although it’s still surprising that the 9-5 wagon’s cargo area tops those in most compact sport-utility vehicles.
The Saab 9-5 is a wonderful car for working through freeway traffic. It’s as stable as a rock at elevated velocities and feels supremely confident in sweeping turns, taking high-speed turns like it’s on rails. Handling and steering response are terrific. It’s fun to accelerate at the apex of a turn and feel the car pull you around the rest of the way, as the chassis and suspension hug the road. Saab extensively reworked the chassis and suspension of all three models last year for sharper handling and steering response. As a result, the 9-5 offers a great degree of control and driver confidence while still providing excellent feedback.
For its part, the Aero feels firm over quick, light bumps. The chassis jounces up and down a noticeable amount. It’s not sharp, nor uncomfortable, but if you peek out the corners of your eyes to the edges of the windshield, you can see the bouncing. The steering remains very steady through this, although less so when the power is on. Torque steer is minimal but it does exist. We noticed a slight amount of road vibration coming through the steering wheel of the Aero at low speeds, but this allows the driver to better read changing road surfaces. The Michelin Pilot tires on our 9-5 Aero were superb, quiet, yet responsive for handling and threshold braking.
We found the five-speed automatic transmission very responsive, downshifting smoothly to the appropriate gear without wasting time. Five gears keep the engine revving in the ideal power band for better response. For 2003, the Sentronic manual-shifting feature comes standard with all automatics. In the Normal mode, the transmission works like a normal automatic transmission. Choosing the manual model allows the driver to change gears by pressing a pair of buttons on the steering wheel. There’s also a Sport mode that works like an automatic with sportier shift mapping. We found it made the shifting abrupt and less willing, however. There’s also a Winter mode for stable traction off line in icy conditions. We prefer the Normal mode, letting the responsive five-speed automatic do its thing.
Manual transmissions shift smoothly, especially when shifting between third and fourth gears. The clutch is hydraulically actuated and feels spring. Heel-and-toe downshifting is enjoyable. Saabs with manual transmissions have to be shifted into reverse before you can pull the key out.
Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is standard on all 9-5 models for 2003. It helps drivers maintain control by selectively applying the brakes to individual wheels to correct a skid. The system also works when a slippery road causes the car to understeer. Saab worked closely with Bosch, the German company that supplies the system, to achieve optimum tuning. Saab tested the system extensively in the slippery Scandinavian Arctic and at very high speeds at the Hockenheim racing circuit in Germany. Saab claims its stability program is one of the best in the world.
The 9-5 is equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), and an electronic traction control system (TCS). ESP works with the rest of this alphabet soup, helping the driver to maintain control in all sorts of conditions. It allows the driver to maintain steering control when jamming on the brakes, while stopping the car in the shortest possible distance.
Brakes on the Aero were upgraded in 2002. The rear discs were made larger and were vented for improved cooling during hard braking. We didn’t try threshold braking repeatedly; but several hard, ABS stops from 70 mph showed that the brakes are extremely effective, bringing the Aero to a rapid, but uneventful halt.