Ten Years Of The Saab 9-5, A Comparison

Posted on 24. Feb, 2008 by in 2000-2009, 9-5


Photo Credits: Carl Levine

This is a great writeup on the comparison between the 1998 Saab 9-5 and the current 2008 Saab 9-5, by Carl Levine of Granite-Embedded Systems, the inventor of the Audio Troll device that seamlessly integrates the Ipod and the Saab.

I find this writeup a great addition to my recent writeup of the 2007 Saab 9-5 Anniversary Edition done this past October.

Enjoy this piece in his own words:

Ten Years Of The Saab 9-5, A Comparison 1998-2008

Tonight we’re gonna party like its MY99 and take a look at the evolution of Saab’s flagship model in its ten years on the American market. The premium segment in 1998 was quite fresh with a brand new Audi A6, one-year-old BMW 5-Series, fairly recent E-Class Mercedes-Benz, a beautiful new Volvo that looked unlike anything Gothenburg had made before called an S80, a myriad of leather-clad Camry and Accord badged as Lexus and Acura… and then there was the Saab 9000. The venerable Saab 9000 had been a staple of the premium car segment for twelve years before it faded away into the hallowed halls of the Saab Bilmusem and the worldwide used car market, and by the end of its run, sales were at their all time lowest. I contend that the 9000 grew old gracefully, but I also had faith that Saab would start being a bit competitive on the market so that its replacement would be a short-lived car lasting four or five years before a complete overhaul.

At the 1997 Saab Owners Convention in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, Saab introduced the 9-5 to the American market; a 4-door notchback sedan replacement for the versatile and cavernous 9000. The Saab faithful had mixed feelings about the new car which abandoned the innovative hatchback design that had become the most popular body style for Saab since its introduction on the 1974 Saab 99. Light pressure turbo engines carried over from the then-discontinued 9000CS variant with a few internal changes to reduce friction and increase efficiency, along with an all new version of Trionic to make that motor do its thing. The Saab faithful had their feelings, but its impact on the market was never fully realized in the wake of customer perceptions of the brand and ineffective marketing.

The 9-5 went on sale in April of 1998 with a base price of $29,995. Two months later, the car I’m driving today rolled off of Trollhättan’s assembly line headed for its new home in Wilder, Vermont. And much to the contrary of my assertion that Saab would have replaced the vehicle with something more advanced and competitive within 4 years, brand new 2008 9-5s are still rolling out of Trollhättan with no structural differences. In this article, I will be discussing the 9-5 from the viewpoint as an owner, technician, and former Saab sales associate in an effort to show that despite its advanced age, there is no reason why these cars shouldn’t be flying off the lots of Saab dealers around the world.

Let’s meet the contestants:

nines292_7_300.jpgIn the Scarabe Green corner, we have my 1999 Saab 9-5 SE. 2.3 liters of Swedish fury tied to a 5-speed manual transmission. Trionic box has been upgraded to the Saab Performance ECU, yielding an apparent 200hp and 229 ft/lb of torque. Original engine, original turbo. As an SE model, this car is equipped with Sand Beige classic leather upholstery, heated front and rear seats, 9-speaker Harman/Kardon audio system, sunroof, and that nifty passenger side mirror that dips down when you stick it in reverse. This car stickered for approximately $38k in the spring of 1998. This car has towed my life across New Hampshire on its Class-II hitch, chased bad guys with unrestrained cargo in their pickup truck at 120+ mph (after one of his pallets hit and exploded on the front of my car, no less), made me abandon my pursuit of becoming an educator to design an iPod adapter for it and otherwise provided me with 75k miles of unsurpassed reliability and performance. Best Saab I’ve ever owned from a practicality and reliability standpoint. Oh, and did I mention it has (as of this writing) 228,000 miles? Yeah. Awesome.

nines292_3_300.jpgIn the Jet Black corner, we have my local, friendly Saab dealer’s brand new 2008 Saab 9-5 2.3T. Still 2.3 liters of Swedish fury tied to a 5-speed Sentronic automatic transmission. In this tune of Trionic 7 in concert with a Mitsubishi TD-04 turbocharger, this 9-5 makes 260hp and 258ft/lb of torque. The 2.3T trim is what we would used to call a base model, but there is nothing base about it. “Aero” seats, all the stuff from my SE (except the rear heated seats) and some nifty available stuff like Xenon headlights, folding side mirrors and rear park assist.


The fundamental differences are merely skin deep. The 9-5’s exterior was redesigned for M02 and M06. At that time, the front and rear facades were revamped and the suspension got a little tighter each time. I’ve had the pleasure of driving every model year of 9-5 since its introduction, and the improvement in the past 10 years has been phenomenal. Of course, all of these changes are bolted onto the car. Saab has not had to change the presses for anything structural in any significant way since 1997.

The 2006 redesign has been an issue of great contention from the moment it was revealed in 2005. I’d even go so far as to call it divisive — it alienated a customer base that was perhaps in the market for something a bit more conservative in design. As a long-time Saab owner and enthusiast, I’d be remise if I didn’t say that the design has grown on me over time and that if I were in the market for another car of that size, I’d totally get one. The improvements that began in 2006 and have carried forward into this model year are what the car should have been 10 years ago, but Saab never had the foresight to realize how important a really tight suspension, painted door handle and trim, an expandable audio system and big bolstered seats could have had in the initial public offering.

Back-to-Back road test:

In the interest of empiricism, I’ve selected a road test course that involves highway driving as well as intricate driving along tight, twisty New England roads. Driving the same course in both cars will give a pretty good indicator of not only how amazing the changes have beento the 9-5 over the past ten years, but also how a 10 year old 9-5 with
nearly a quarter of a million miles still gets on!

nines292_2-1_300.jpgSlipping behind the wheel of the 2008 car, the first obvious difference is the height of the seat cushion. For 2008, Saab made the Aero-style bolstering standard equipment across the 9-5 range with varying qualities of leather depending on the variant. In this humble 2.3T model, the leather was the same quality of previous years Linear or Arc models with a rough, well-wearing pebble-like texture. The instruments have carried forward from the 2006 redesign and are more consistent with the rest of the product range. Performance from a cold start was consistent with other Trionic-7 equipped cars, and the Sentronic manual shifting was subject to a bit of lag. With this in mind, I kept the automatic gearbox in drive and let sport mode pick my battles. The first leg of the course involved normal, suburban driving. This 9-5 cruised along quietly and comfortably as the heating system and seat heaters started to come into effect. XM radio is standard across the Saab range for 2008, and the sweet sounds of XM9 provided me with a good soundtrack to remind me of this car’s roots… in the 1990s. Enter part two of our little 10-mile-loop, a quick blast two exits west on a 4-lane arterial highway. At this time, I switched into Manual mode and let my fingers do the talkin’. A safe cruising speed was attained quickly, without excessive noise, vibration or harshness. The B235 under the hood is the last of a legendary line of Saab (and Saab-Scania for that matter) built engines and I will still argue that it is quieter than the L850-based aluminum block B207 series in the 9-3. Direct lockup in 4th and 5th gears provided the same smooth acceleration and impressive performance as a manual transmission equipped car as the gearbox was not constantly hunting for the right gear under acceleration. In the third and final stage, the 9-5 handled the twisty roads heading to the back entrance of the dealership like a champ.

nines292_6_300.jpgUpon leaving the dealership, after driving the 9-7x Aero of course, I found myself at the helm of the beast of a car that was once as nice as the 2008 I had just driven. Approximately ten-thousand times the mileage of the test car, my 9-5 felt more like an old 9000 than anything else. The steering, for instance, was really tight and responsive on the brand new car as one would expect. Back in 1999, when I worked with these cars and drove them every day, the steering was nice but never as heavy feeling as the 2008. The five speed manual gearbox, still crisp and
somewhat quiet at its old age put the power to the pavement as I replicated the test circuit. Clearly Saab was doing something right with the very early 9-5 models, because the reliability and build quality is still superior between the 1999 variant and the 2008. Some materials have changed, some for worse such as the dash pad or the seat upholstery and some for better like the carpets. Early 9-5 models had issues with the plastic rivet ripping the carpet by the A-Pillar and having the carpet essentially “shrink” in place. Changes over time as a whole have improved the car, but it was never consistent with the amount of marketing the company could have been doing to move the cars off the lot. In its prime, the 9-5 was quite the volume seller and dealers had no problem moving ones in popular colors such as Scarabe Green, Midnight Blue, Sun Green (Dime for every one of those I sold in 2001…), Silver, Steel Gray and of course, Black. Companies like Johnson and Johnson used the 9-5 as a company car, issuing them to many of their regional employees and introducing many of them to the brand for the first time.

In Closing:

nines292_5_300.jpgTo bring it all together, the 9-5 has been an amazing car for Saab around the world. In America, it gave buyers a more conventional car to aspire to in the Saab range and spurred a number of conquest sales in the first 3 years on the market. The 9-5 was the victim of a number of really ineffective marketing campaigns (or lack thereof for a number of years) and even Born From Jets can’t seem to bring the masses in like it does for the 9-3 series. Of course, the story is much sweeter across the pond where the 9-5 is not only a popular car among individuals but also in fleet sales and public service. While some argue that the 9-5 has grown long-in-tooth, and perhaps uglier over time, we can be thankful that it will never see its awkward teen years like the 9000 did. But we cannot discount the 9000 because a lot of the same endearing qualities that manifested themselves with age in that car also hold true in well-cosseted 9-5s. Wear items such as front lower control arm bushings are very similar in design between the 9000 and 9-5, and wear out in the exact same fashion for instance. The 9-5, however, is significantly more reliable and predictable in its failure trends as it ages than the 9000 ever was. Repair costs are significantly less, and used parts availability for those trying to keep older ones running is quite plentiful with all these misinformed customers changing their oil once a year.

nines292_1_300.jpgThe Saab 9-5 is the last vestige of what I would refer to as an old-school Saab. Saab engineers were given a somewhat more modern GM platform to work with in 1993 and spent 5 years making it feel like a Saab. Compare this to the NG900/C9-3 series which was running on a 1989 platform from 1993 till 2002, and four years of development. Most of those development years were spent increasing the efficiency of vehicle assembly, whereas the 9-5 development was clearly more product-based and signaled the start of what was at that time a very comprehensive plan to turn things around with GM as half owner of the company. GM’s full ownership of Saab was questioned when the purchase of the other half took place in 2000, but having seen how GM can leverage international resources to build a Saab 9-3 that is finally competitive, I am confident that when the 9-5 reaches the end of its run it will have a very worthy replacement.

The 9-5 is rumored to be up for replacement at some point in CY2009, with a new Anniversary variant due out this fall.

This article can be downloaded as a podcast at http://www.ipodmysaab.com/nines292.m4a (requires iTunes).

/Carl Levine is the owner of Granite Embedded Systems in New Hampshire, dedicated enthusiast and former Saab salesman./

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7 Responses to “Ten Years Of The Saab 9-5, A Comparison”

  1. AndrewNoNumbers

    29. Dec, 2009

    Good write-up. But it’s very sad that the 2nd generation 9-5 is dead only months after it was revealed.

    Reply to this comment
  2. clean up my mac

    14. Jul, 2010

    A great car from the time when SAAB was not associated with GM problems and Russian Mafia coming after the company, but rather with the safety and middleclass- intellectuals carrying their kids to school…

    Reply to this comment
  3. clean up my mac

    14. Jul, 2010

    It was a great car associated with best SAAB times – a nice example of innovation and safety introduces by Swedish producer.

    Reply to this comment
  4. AndrewNoNumbers

    15. Jul, 2010


    What are you talking about? Both 9-5s are from the GM era.

    Reply to this comment
  5. clean up my mac

    15. Jul, 2010

    Yes, they are, but in fact that was the time when GM itself was stronger and didn’t have need to sell everything out to Russian gangsters.

    Reply to this comment
  6. www.credito-prestamos.es

    08. Oct, 2018

    En unos 10 minutos tendrás el dinero en la cuenta.

    Reply to this comment
  7. Todo eso lo tendré para el que viene, igual al otro.

    Reply to this comment

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