That same “I’m different; therefore, I’m worthy” mentality lives in the 2006 9-5. Traditionally quirky design cues are present and accounted for, such as the center-mounted ignition, the swivel vents, the tall dash, and the turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the hood. But in the world of premium sedans, this all equates to a student wearing his hat backwards for no apparent reason – none of it will register even a small blip on the “see-me” attention monitor. Fact is, there are so many stellar sedans on the market today, many boasting attractive designs enveloping ergonomically-superior interiors and powered by high-powered efficient powerplants, that the 2006 Saab 9-5 fails to make the justification case – it has a higher price than many competitors, it’s average in most every way, and it lacks an all-wheel-drive option. The result? A good 9-5 lost in a sea churning with better alternatives.
Whereas the 2005 Saab 9-5 drew momentum from a 220- or 250-horsepower engine, this year’s model offers only one powertrain option: a five-speed manual transmission or a manually-interactive five-speed automatic. Whichever the buyer chooses, it’ll be attached to a turbocharged, 16-valve, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with dual overhead cams, a cast-iron block, and aluminum heads. Output reaches 260 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 258 lb.-ft. of torque at only 1,900 rpm. Mileage is expected to range from the high teens to the high 20s; we achieved 23.4 mpg after a week of mixed driving.
The front-wheel-drive 2006 Saab 9-5 weighs in at about 3,500-lbs. (coincidentally, that’s also the 9-5’s tow rating) and rides on an independent suspension system featuring MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link setup out back, both enhanced by stabilizer bars. An antilock braking system includes ventilated discs on all four corners as well as electronic brake-force distribution, all of it controlling the movement of 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 235/45 Pirelli tires. Drivers are connected to the road via a variable-assisted rack-and-pinion steering assembly. There’s but one 9-5 sedan to choose for 2006, the 2.3T that sells for $34,820 including a $720 destination charge. Included with the base price is a free maintenance plan spanning three years or 36,000 miles, or 12 months and 14,000 miles less than the basic and powertrain warranties. Creature comforts come in the form of leather on the seats, steering wheel, and shift knob; a power moonroof; power heated front buckets; dual-zone climate control; heated mirrors with a memory function; a temperature-controlled glovebox; and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel with cruise control and audio functions. That last bit is tied to a standard 200-watt Harmon/Kardon sound system with a six-disc CD changer and XM satellite radio. Rounding out the goodies are headlight washers, traction and stability control systems, front-side airbags, and a trip computer. The options list is fairly short, consisting of the five-speed automatic transmission; a navigation system; OnStar; front cooled seats; a Sport Package consisting of metallic interior trim, sport seats, and sport-tuned suspension; and a Visibility Package featuring high-intensity discharge headlights, a rear parking aid, electrochromic mirrors, and rain-sensing wipers.
Thanks to the addition of the $1,095 Sport Package, the $1,350 automatic transmission, Fusion Blue paint that tacked on $550, and the $720 destination charge, our test car carried an as-tested price of $37,815.
Expectations are low when you know a car’s fundamental engineering and design date to the mid-1990s, so I don’t have much to complain about with regard to the 2006 Saab 9-5’s driving character. The 9-5 2.3T shudders when you crank the anachronistic console-mounted ignition, and grumbles at idle. Commendably, when accelerating or cruising, the usual vibration and noise of a four-banger doesn’t intrude much on the cabin. Acceleration is adequate. Turbo lag seems to be more an issue when the transmission is left in Normal mode; switch over to Sport, and the 9-5 is more responsive, if less smooth. Our test car also had a manual mode with buttons on the steering wheel, but it’s a gimmick rather than something actually useful. Mid-range punch is where a turbo’s benefits are most noticeable, and that’s true of this Saab. Fuel economy is also a strong point.
Torque steer isn’t much of an issue. I drove on rain-slicked streets during the morning commute, and aside from the inside wheel breaking loose when accelerating out of turns, the 9-5 tracked straight and true. I liked the steering, which communicates decently with the road surface, is responsive, and offers just-right levels of steering assist. I did not, however, like the brakes. First, my foot landed too high on the brake pedal every time. Second, to get maximum braking power you really need to push hard on the pedal. Ride and handling are agreeable, if you don’t mind the hobby-horsing caused by the stiff suspension and the short wheelbase. Saabs used to have compliant rides coupled with significant body roll. It seems the opposite in this latest Swedish attempt at a luxury sports sedan.
Mandy Ison’s 2006 Saab 9-5 Driving Impressions:
Let me say from the outset that having the ignition placed in the center console takes some getting used to. We all have habitual moves when getting in or out of a car and this definitely took me out of my comfort zone. Once I got the 9-5 fired up and started my drive, I decided that I’m not in love with how the 2006 Saab 9-5 accelerates thanks to its significant turbo lag. It often felt sluggish off the line, and I had a difficult time gauging how much pressure to apply when keeping pace with stop-and-go traffic. I would suddenly find myself not only catching up to traffic too quickly, but having to apply the brakes in order not to tailgate. On a positive note, I merged into freeway traffic without drama.
The Saab 9-5 braked adequately; however, on one occasion my foot hung up on the back of the brake pedal while switching from the gas pedal. I was able to disentangle my foot quickly, but the catch certainly caused my heart to jump. The steering was responsive without being touchy and I was comfortable with driving one-handed during long highway stretches. On two-lane roads the Saab feels rock steady and glued to the road through twists and turns. Though I don’t tend to drive through turns with the intention of pushing limits, I felt no undue body lean or any alarming loss of control when taking turns sharply. In short, it felt like a solid piece of machinery. However, the ride is stiff through cracks, grades or bumps at highway speeds, amplifying road defects. The ride was also surprisingly noisy for what is supposed to be a luxury car. I didn’t feel cocooned in peaceful silence but aware of grating imperfections in the highway.
Ron Perry’s 2006 Saab 9-5 Driving Impressions:
Torque steer is the name of the game when it comes to the Saab 9-5. From a stop there really isn’t much in the way of power or torque until enough throttle is applied and then the turbo changes all of that. Once spooled, the turbo pulls the 9-5 forward with surprising force but torque steer quickly becomes an issue. Rapidly accelerate from a stop or get on the gas too hard while turning and the steering wheel oscillates wildly, becoming the center of your focus. To the unaware this could be a scary episode. Steering and brake feel are good, as is the ride quality. The Saab 9-5 leans hard when pushed into corners but remains trackable and transfers what is happening at all times to the driver. Never did I feel unsure of what was happening or feel like I might get surprised at any second. In normal traffic the Saab 9-5 is a delight to drive and outward vision is good but the distortion from the optically enhanced passenger’s side mirror is distracting. Once I got used to the torque steer, I found the Saab 9-5 an enjoyable car and one that I would choose for both short and long trips.
Thom Blackett’s 2006 Saab 9-5 Driving Impressions:
It returned 23.4 mpg after being flogged by a number of drivers. That’s the best thing I can say about our 2006 Saab 9-5 test car. My other thoughts relative to the car’s driving character are a blend of positive and negative, ultimately leading me to wonder why someone would opt for this $37,000 ride over more memorable competitors from the likes of Mazda, Infiniti, and BMW, to name just a few.
With 260 horsepower on tap, the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine provides plenty of oomph, provided one is OK with the lag. The last 2006 VW GTI I drove, a turbo model running in the low $20s, was almost lag-free. Interesting. Around town at slow speeds, the 9-5 is as responsive as any other pedestrian sedan. Once the turbo is spooled up, the Saab reaches high speeds quickly, but Perry is right – torque steer becomes evident when you’re really on it. Hampering the engine of our tester was an optional five-speed automatic transmission. In regular mode, the shifts are smooth but frequent as the transmission bogs the engine in a high gear then gets the rpms racing as it suddenly opts for a lower gear. A sport mode keeps the revs up higher by delaying shifts, making the 9-5 pull harder on spirited runs. However, the system disengages every time the driver shifts, so using reverse in a quick turn-around means you’ve got to reselect sport mode after returning to D for drive. A minor point, but still a pain. Engineers have also added paddle shifters that are an utter bore to use, especially since the driver can’t downshift if the computer deems the action inappropriate, despite it being obvious that a downshift wouldn’t put the engine near redline.
Handling and braking were much more straightforward. The latter was simply excellent, virtually fade-free after a battery of high-speed panic stops and offering consistent pedal feel. Mixed among the morning commuters, the 9-5 provided a comfortable, quiet ride with responsive steering and plenty of road feel. Out of the city and on the twisties drivers will discover too much body roll. Despite this, the squealing Pirelli tires hang on tight and make the Saab 9-5 a fun car to toss around in the corners.
If there’s a bright side to the Saab 9-5 2.3T, a major selling point aside from fuel economy and a deeply discounted price tag, it’s comfort. The Swedes have always designed superb seats, and the front chairs in the 9-5 are no exception to the rule. You sit tall in a sculpted bucket that is plush yet supportive. The driving position is perfect with an excellent forward view. The upper door panels are flat on top with a gentle radius at the edge, softly padded and a great place to rest your arm. A tilt and telescopic steering wheel helps the driver get comfortable, too, and the head restraints are right behind your noggin, ready to make every attempt at preventing whiplash should someone ram you from behind. The center console bin has a soft armrest on top that slides forward to accommodate shorter drivers. The steering wheel is thick, wrapped in leather, and offers thumb rests at the 10 and 2 positions. The spots where you rest your legs on the driver’s door panel and the dashboard are designed for comfort, as well. Indeed, you get the distinct impression that you could drive this car all day without suffering fatigue.
The rear seats aren’t as hospitable, but they don’t represent a penalty box, either. Leg room is snug but adequate, as is toe room. The seat is a bit too low to the floor, but offers decent thigh support. There’s a big head restraint for safety’s sake, and a fold-down center armrest. Our test car also featured a rear heated seat, a nice touch appreciated most by the Saab faithful in the Northeastern U.S.
Loading cargo into the trunk is a breeze. The opening is huge despite the use of gas struts to support the lid, and the liftover height is remarkably low. If you’ve got a bad back, or lack muscle tone, the 2006 Saab 9-5 is your friend. Plus, the trunk is absolutely huge inside.
Mandy Ison’s Opinion of the 2006 Saab 9-5’s Comfort:
The 2006 Saab 9-5’s front seats wrap around the driver with padded bolsters. The seats are deep and I felt sunken into leather luxury, though a bit confined. There are no arm rests and the windowsill was situated too high for me to comfortably prop an elbow. The center console storage lid is padded and the perfect height, though the jutting side bolster of the driver’s seat dug into the back of my arm when I tried resting my elbow there. The 9-5’s rear seats are spacious and cushy, though a real test would require a long road trip as a back seat passenger. The driving position itself is low, though my view through the windshield was blessedly unhindered. Being of average height, I found the turn signal and wiper stalks hard to see behind the steering wheel. Accessing the center console storage bin by flipping the top was awkward and I literally felt my right shoulder pop. No rummaging for an ear bud while driving for me!
Ron Perry’s Opinion of the 2006 Saab 9-5’s Comfort:
The first thing I noticed after sliding into the front driver’s seat was the nice, snug fit. I am of medium build and the seats really formed to me nicely. I do wonder, however, whether drivers of larger size would be comfortable. Saab uses soft touch surfaces on every part of the interior except for the center console, which not only looks nice but also adds comfort to areas where knees and elbows make contact. The Saab 9-5 offers up lots of headroom front and back but knee and foot room are tight in the backseat. The big drawback to the foot room is that the metal seat slide rails protrude into the foot well and are always getting kicked. Assist handles are available for all occupants but will likely only see use by those needing extra assistance because the openings are large and offer plenty of room for entry and exit.
Thom Blackett’s Opinion of the 2006 Saab 9-5’s Comfort:
Get past the issues with the erratic transmission, and the 2006 Saab 9-5 would be a great long-distance runner for the avid roadtripper looking for a comfy ride. Front passengers are afforded plenty of room and well-cushioned bucket seats with long bottom sections and adequate bolsters, though the seatback is a bit narrow. Large, adjustable headrests come in handy after hours behind the wheel; door armrests are padded, as is the sliding center armrest. A tilting and telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel allows for an ideal driving position.
Like the front seat passengers, riders in back are treated to an inviting environment. A comfortable heated bench features slightly bucketed outboard seats, a useful padded center fold-down armrest, and lots of room. Long-legged riders might rub their knees, but the front seatbacks are soft so there shouldn’t be any need for Band-Aids.
Check out the most recent autos edition of Consumer Reports and you’ll find that Saabs aren’t known for reliability and durability. Compound this lack of a recommendation from the bible of dependability with the numerous cheap looking and feeling parts inside the 9-5, and it’s easy to see another reason why this car has never sold in big numbers. On the plus side, the seat leather, the headliner, and the dashboard are all constructed of quality materials. The surrounds for the stereo, the climate control, the vents, and the door grips have a rubbery texture applied to them to reduce gloss and add refinement. The door handles are real metal, and even the silver plastic dash bezel is convincing enough. And check out that leather covering the hand brake. But the devil is in the details. The leather wrapping the steering wheel feels dry and thin, many switches and buttons feel cheap, the stalks make a rubbery snapping sound when used, and several bits and pieces exhibit too much gloss. I didn’t perform a detailed examination of build quality, but when you drive over rough pavement, the interior is filled with several creaks, rattles, and other aural annoyances, which doesn’t bode well over time.
Mandy Ison’s Opinion of the 2006 Saab 9-5’s Quality:
I’m no expert on the quality of plastics or leather. My overall impression was that Saab did not skimp on the interior or exterior appointments for the Saab 9-5. The interior is crammed with special touches that, though a little overwhelming, are placed subtly. Personally, I’m not going to test for crooked hoods or misaligned headlights when buying a car. If the car has a good-looking exterior with pieces that don’t look cheap and parts that don’t clash, I’m a happy and blissfully ignorant owner. I think I’d look good in a Saab if I were aiming for quiet affluence.
Ron Perry’s Opinion of the 2006 Saab 9-5’s Quality:
The Saab 9-5’s quality level is acceptable with only a couple of small deficiencies. Inside, the plastic used detracts from the quality feel of the leather and soft-touch surfaces. It is the only aspect of the interior that feels cheap. Saab also needs to move its traditional center ignition placement because the plastic surround gets scratched and beat up due to use.
Outside, the Saab 9-5’s body panels are tight, displaying consistent seams on our test sample with the exception of the trunk. The lid was shifted to the right, throwing the seam gaps off. It was a small problem that could be easily corrected. Another small visual mistake is the add-on trunk pull handle that looks like a poorly executed afterthought.
Thom Blackett’s Opinion of the 2006 Saab 9-5’s Quality:
Wow, what a difference a few digits and an X make. We recently had the Saab 9-7X in the shop, finding it to be one of the poorest examples of build quality we’ve seen in some time. The 9-5 sedan, however, was a huge improvement. Inside and out, gaps were generally consistent, parts were tightly affixed, and panels lined up correctly. Exceptions included a loose flap of carpet by the rear seat, a few rattles from the sunroof, and gaps that were a smidge too wide around the taillights. Overall, that’s pretty good.
Materials used throughout the 9-5’s cabin were also praiseworthy, for the most part. Soft leather covered the seats and door panels while a padded matte plastic was used on the dash, doors, and outer instrument panel; hard plastic found its way to the center console, sunroof frame, and instrument panel. Mesh material would’ve been a nice replacement for the fuzzy stuff used on the pillars and headliner.
From the front wheels rearward, I like the way the 2006 Saab 9-5 2.3T looks – even if the design is a decade old. This blue paint color on our test car is terrific, I like the design of the wheels, and the new rear end is much better than the original 9-5. Forward of the front wheels, the 9-5 looks like it just went 10 rounds with Lennox Lewis. On concept cars, this emerging Saab face looks great. On the 9-5, it looks contrived. Plus, there’s way too much front overhang for the nose to look proportionally balanced.
Inside, I like the cockpit theme, the tri-tone décor, the lack of wood trim in favor of high-tech metallic accents. The Saab 9-5’s cabin definitely looks upscale, but the control layout is a mess. Many buttons and controls are obscured by the steering wheel, the speedometer is hopelessly optimistic at the expense of larger markings, and there’s a distinct lack of storage space. The cupholders are terrible – if you love a latte in the morning, better make sure that trick flip-out holder in the dash is going to work for you. One significant upgrade that I immediately noticed is the addition of a GM parts bin stereo and steering wheel controls. This arrangement is so much easier and intuitive than the old Saab-style stereo and trip computer. Climate controls, too, are simplistic and clearly marked. And I really like the swiveling overhead map light, the design of the air vents, and the parabolic right outside mirror.
Mandy Ison’s Opinion of the 2006 Saab 9-5’s Design:
The 2006 Saab 9-5 is a study in understatement and subtlety. The exterior is elegant, though unexciting. The interior is plush with muted details. Dials are often unlabeled and openings merely recessed on one edge to provide a simple finger hold. Finding what you want is a treasure hunt of poking and twisting until the right effect is attained. When I turned on the car for the first time, the radio blasted me for a good minute before I figured out that the unlabeled silver dial in the center stack was the volume control. I twisted, pushed, and tugged on several likely dials and buttons before I hit the jackpot. It was only later that I noticed the clearly labeled volume controls on the steering wheel. D’oh!
The automatic window controls are situated immediately above the ignition in the center console. A woman with anything dangling from her keychain, like pepper spray, a family photo, or other trinket, will find herself blocking these controls. I’m no fan of the center console design for the window controls on any car. I’m right-handed with small hands, and having to switch to my left hand for the steering wheel, then use my right hand to manipulate the window controls is a hassle. The steering wheel also has uncomfortable bumps just at the level I like to grip when I use both hands to drive. My fingers could not comfortably wrap around them and I was forced to position my hands above or below the bumps to obtain a firm grip. Of course, that could have been the point, but an uncomfortable one nevertheless.
Ron Perry’s Opinion of the 2006 Saab 9-5’s Design:
Kudos to Saab for continuing to create cars that carry the distinguished design for which the company has been noted throughout its history. Saabs are instantly recognizable and in today’s auto environment, individuality is a real plus. The Saab 9-5 doesn’t bowl me over as being beautiful, but it is a design that is pleasing to the eye and carries a lot of tradition. The designers did a great job on the interior as well. The use of contrasting leather on the seats and door panels really make the interior feel spacious. The attention paid to the small details is nice also, like the gray stitching on the seats, the rotating map light, and the shape of the steering wheel with its built-in thumb supports and perforated leather. Buyers that need cupholders to secure their morning java will be disappointed with the two provided in the Saab 9-5. One is located inside the center console compartment and the other is a flimsy flip-out located near the radio.
Thom Blackett’s Opinion of the 2006 Saab 9-5’s Design:
A center-mounted ignition switch does not a Saab make. Nice try, but other than a few Saabophiles clinging to the unrealistic notion that this is the Real McCoy, most buyers can see past the trickery and may prefer some added storage and cupholders mounted between the front seats. Forward of where those items should be is a traditional Saab dash – tall with swivel air vent controls – sitting below a short, close windshield. Silver and faux alloy accents are used on the gauges, control knobs, door handles and panels, and dashboard, while attractive two-tone leather upholstery covers the seats. The 9-5’s exterior styling carries a few cues that fans of the brand will recognize, like the low-slung hood that sits atop the fenders rather than inside them, and the tall side glass.
This car is old. It has significant flaws. It is not refined. It cannot hope to compete with even B-list entry-luxury sedans. Selling luxury cars with four-cylinder engines ain’t easy, and keeping a model on the market long past its expiration date doesn’t help. The main selling points for the Saab 9-5 are comfort, fuel economy, safety, and, I can only assume, heavily discounted price tags or subsidized leases. Sure, the few Saab faithful that continue to exist will love this upgrade to the 9-5, if for no other reason than the ignition is still between the seats, taking up valuable space that could be used for storage slots or proper cupholders. But that pool of buyers isn’t large enough to sustain the brand. Clearly, if you review the company’s recent concept cars, Saab has tremendous potential. But right now, given what is sitting on showroom floors, that potential is not being realized.
Mandy Ison’s Advice about the 2006 Saab 9-5:
The 2006 Saab 9-5 takes understated design to the level of invisibility and sacrifices ease of use for quirkiness. Though the Saab provided a solid ride, overall, its “rebellious” control layout was off-putting. I’d recommend the Saab to those car shoppers looking to buy into the cachet of an unusual car. Though I found features like the trunk release button in the driver’s side door panel and the plastic clip on the inside of the windshield for parking stubs “neat,” overall, I had very mixed feelings about a car so hard to figure out and ungainly to drive in stop-and-go traffic. My primary goal when purchasing a car is to find a solid commuter vehicle that will provide great handling, comfort, and no-brainer controls. Certain design features of the Saab 9-5 seem to exist not for the comfort of the driver but a commitment to making a statement, if an annoying one. Despite this, I might forgive the eccentric layout if not for the difficulty I had managing crowded city streets. If I had $34,000 to spend on a luxury sedan, I’d save my money for a car that will get me from A to B without hassle or mystery.
Ron Perry’s Advice about the 2006 Saab 9-5:
You have to love the quirkiness of Saab cars to appreciate them. I found the 2006 Saab 9-5 to be a bit underpowered but very comfortable, so depending on your priorities the Saab may or may not be a car for you. If you like the look of the Saab 9-5 and want something that will set you apart from the masses, definitely give this some consideration before your next automotive purchase.
Thom Blackett’s Advice about the 2006 Saab 9-5:
Over the past couple of years, our staff has had countless conversations about the woes of Saab's parent company, GM. I don’t want to speak for the entire staff, but the general consensus seems to be that there’s no point in pouring cash into Saab, and a drive in the 9-5 sedan serves to solidify that view. It’s a fine car – comfortable, efficient, and depending on the road traveled and what mode the transmission is in, a decent driver. But it’s a $37,000 ride (as tested) that lacks the finesse, value, style, superior ergonomic design, and cachet of its numerous competitors.
Price of Test Vehicle: $37,815 (including a $720 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: Turbocharged 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder
Engine Horsepower: 260 at 5,300 rpm
Engine Torque: 258 lb.-ft. at 1,900 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Curb weight, lbs.: 3,530
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 18/28 mpg
Observed Fuel Economy: 23.4 mpg
Length: 190.4 inches
Width: 70.5 inches
Wheelbase: 106.4 inches
Height: 57.2 inches
Leg room (front/rear): 42.4/36.6 inches
Head room (front/rear): 37.1/37.0 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: Five
Max. Cargo Volume: 15.9 cubic feet
Competitors: Acura TL, Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Buick Lucerne, Cadillac CTS, Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Ford Five Hundred, Honda Accord, Hyundai Azera, Infiniti G35, Lexus ES 350, Lincoln Zephyr, Mazda Mazdaspeed 6, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Mercury Montego, Nissan Maxima, Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT spec.B, Toyota Avalon, Volkswagen Passat 3.6L, Volvo S60
Photos by Ron Perry