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The SeriousSAAB Buyer's guide: Buying a SAAB 9-5

For many years, the author has been known as 'the mad 9000 enthusiast', due, some would say, to an irrational fondness for that model. Inevitably, NG900s, 9-3s and of course, 9-5s were to follow and hundreds of thousands of miles have been covered in a number of cars that will remain a closely guarded secret lest the men in white coats beat a path to my door.

This guide aims to cover the history of the 9-5 range from its introduction in 1998 through its evolutionary stages right up to date. By sharing experiences with a variety of petrol and diesel powered saloons and estate models, the author intends to point out the benefits and pitfalls of 9-5 ownership. It is hoped that the guide will assist buyers and potential buyers in making the correct decisions when choosing a car for themselves.

1.0: Introduction and origins

The last SAAB 9000 rolled off the production line in 1997, although a number of unsold models lingered at UK dealerships into the second half of 1998.  Trollhattan’s best efforts with the 9000 had resulted in a model that looked and felt rather different from the first models released to the public gaze in 1985 but despite all the improvements, a replacement was overdue. 

Work had started in earnest on a successor to the 9000 series in the late 1980s. In an effort to reduce production and development costs by the use of shared components for the 9000 series, SAAB, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia had collaborated to build variants of a common base platform.  The logic was sound enough but engineers from each company had very different ideas and disagreements led to just 4 components being shared!  Undeterred, SAAB needed to reduce tooling up costs for production another way and ultimately, the solution lay in an alliance with General Motors that would give the Swedish maker cost-effective access to existing technology as well as pressings and castings like suspension and brake components.

Initial work on the project appeared promising but it became apparent that a bigger car than the 9000 was not going to appeal to a market that was becoming more interested in energy conservation and efficiency. Inevitably, the project was cancelled but in February 1993, the team for Project 640 met for the first time. Starting over was a big step and time was limited but the 7 man design team led by Tony Catignani rose to the challenge. The design brief was to to build a car that was strong, aerodynamic, safe and appealing to customers but which carried over certain styling traits and characteristics inherited from the 9000 range.  In the past, buyers have been less than enthusiastic when makers kick over the traces with a radical makeover, as Ford discovered when they introduced the Sierra range.

Ironically, SAAB had dropped the 9000 4 door saloon from the last year of production but the new replacement was to be offered in 4 door form only, in response to a shift in buying trends within the sector away from hatchback styling. Another change was the announcement (later) of a 5 door estate version, which with the benefit of hindsight, was a very shrewd move in light of Ford's decision not to replace the Ford Granada Scorpio range with a new model.

1.1: Production history: 1998-2001

Production of the 9-5 (pronounced nine five rather than ninety five) began in 1997 and the first cars on sale in the UK reached dealers' showrooms in August. The range comprised an entry model that would appeal to fleet buyers and an SE variant with rather more equipment as standard. For the first time, all models within the range came with a turbo-charged engine, abs brakes, heat absorbing glass and climate control as standard. Initially, the 9-5 was available as a four door saloon only.

The body shape, although based on a mid size GM platform -in essence just the actual floor pressings- incorporated a number of instantly recognisable SAAB traits. A 'clam shell' style bonnet and curving C post helped the new car look right from the outset.

The SAAB 9-5 looked right from all angles

Engine options offered to buyers in the first year of production may have appeared unexciting, with an air of 'business as usual' but this was not the case. Although the 4-cylinder engines retained the same displacement, there was no normally aspirated option and although the units looked near identical to the B204 and B234 engines that had powered the 9000 range, the new B205 and B235 were very different to their predecessors. Those casting a casual glance over the newcomers might have noted that the colour of the direct ignition cassettes (in the middle of the cam box cover) had changed from red to black but this was symptomatic of a much more radical makeover to the engine management system. A new family of turbo chargers, in the form of the Garrett GT17 replaced the familiar T25 of old but for the first time, the turbo was hidden beneath a heat-shield. SAAB engineers had totally redesigned the engine mounting arrangement too, opting for the shear-off type at the rear, that had first been seen on the NG900 while at the side, the torsion arm that had been susceptible to worn bushes had been replaced by a much more convincing alloy yoke.

The real differences between the 9000 and 9-5 4-cylinder engines only became apparent to technicians and parts staff who would have spotted at once that pistons, connecting rods, timing case, cylinder head (with new valves and guides) together with new inlet and exhaust manifolds were all new, along with a breather system that was to cause endless trouble as the cars grew older.

Gearboxes, flywheels and clutches too were different. The 5-speed manual transmission was standard fitment in 4-cylinder 9-5 models, retaining hydraulic actuation for the clutch but with revised and improved pipe work in a bid to eliminate a weakness that had proved something of a problem on the 9000, as the cars had grown older. At last, the old ZF HP18 automatic transmission was replaced by a new 4-speed, electronically controlled Warner-Aisin unit (designation AF30). The new gearbox featured normal, sport and winter mode programs and direct mechanical drive in third and fourth ratios.

1.2 Safety: a SAAB forte

The SAAB 9-5 SE cabin is both comfortable and safe

Safety has always been high on the agenda at SAAB. Accordingly, much development time was expended on making the new model meet and exceed legislative requirements for any market in which the range was intended to be sold. Even so, SAAB have been collecting real accident data for many years because engineers appreciate that benchmark tests are contrived simulations that may not fully reflect actual accident scenarios in real life.

Predictably, the 9-5 bristles with safety features, the least obvious of which is probably the body shell itself, which, has been designed around the cabin as a safety cell. Impact beams reinforce the doors, while the front seat frames have SAAB Active Head Restraints, an innovative feature designed to restrain a passenger's head in the event of impact forces in a rear end collision exceeding a critical amount. Driver and passenger airbags within steering wheel and dashboard respectively are backed up with seat side bags, offering ample protection. Backrests in the rear of the 9-5 are specially reinforced to prevent shifting loads in the luggage boot from penetrating the cabin in the event of a crash and ALL rear seat passengers are provided with proper 3-point seat belt restraints.

In view of these efforts, readers will hardly be surprised to learn that the 9-5 acquitted itself very well in Euro NCAP crash performance tests.

1.3: Security

The author has seen a number of 9000s that have come to premature ends due to the unwelcome attentions of society's less salubrious elements. Smash and grab merchants often prised door locks and smashed alloy steering columns to make their getaway and catching a stolen car with the performance potential of a 9000 turbo presented law enforcement agencies with a headache.

A 'double DIN' audio system was specified that simply would not fit ordinary cars but if the deterrent effect of the unusual appearance didn't work, engineers resolved to frustrate the crude tactics of thieves further by 'marrying' the head unit to individual cars. This negated the need for a radio code if for any reason the car's battery was to be disconnected but required a visit with the car to a dealer if the head unit was to be used in a different car so it could be 'divorced'. Ill informed dismantlers and breakers sometimes assume that 9-5 audio systems can be decoded by radio specialists but this is a fallacy! Only a dealer or independent specialist with an AD 400 Tech2 scan tool can divorce an audio system and only if it is still attached to the original car to which it was fitted - a unit on its own cannot be decoded or divorced and is useless.

In order to make life tougher for thieves trying to gain access to cars in the first place, engineers fitted a raft of measures under the umbrella of TWICE - an acronym for Theft Warning Integrated Central Electronics. Some of these features included anti-tilt, ultra sound and glass break sensors plus deadlocks to all doors. In addition, the door handles were, in effect, armoured so attempts to break the lock are futile - all that will result is the lock will spin uselessly in the housing.

Keys too were coded so that the chip transponders would operate on a system of rolling codes stop thieves in their tracks who tried the old tactic of smashing the ignition barrels. Similar measures have been adopted by other makers but if thefts of vehicles by those using brute force have fallen, owners need to be aware of so-called millennium thefts, whereby thieves using rods and wire poked through letter boxes to hook keys from inside properties have risen.

On the 9-5, the position of the ignition key reverted to what would be the transmission tunnel on more conventional cars. This wasn't so much paying lip-service to traditional SAAB practice or quirkiness, so much as a response to analysis of real life accident data which revealed a disturbingly high incidence of knee injuries. An advertisement of the time says it all: "We moved the ignition key so surgeons won't find it where they used to". If this is true, it surely begs the question why no other maker has followed suit.

1.4: The 3 litre V6 engine option appears

The 24-valve 3.0 V6 unit appeared as an option in February 1998. It was not the same as the old unit fitted to the 9000. As pioneers of turbo-charging, SAAB engineers achieved a world first by introducing an asymmetrical turbo charger on a V6 engine configuration whereby the turbo is powered by 3 cylinders yet boosts all six. Those familiar with the NG900 2.5 V6 would be aware that somehow, the old 3 litre unit never really delivered the expected punchy performance but turbo-charging the unit resulted in greater low-end power and more efficient combustion. Higher rates of fuel tax in Europe meant that from the outset, the V6 option was aimed fair and square at the American market.

1.5: The 9-5 Griffin

The 9000 Griffin had been the range flagship and the new 9-5 Griffin followed in much the same style, with every conceivable option available including sunroof, SAAB Parking Assistance (SPA) and auto-dipping rear view mirror included as standard. Long spoke 16" wheels (ALU 27) unique to the model made the Griffin instantly recognisable on the road. Automatic transmission allied to the 3 litre V6 engine was the only choice available.

Inside the cabin the luxury theme continued with, somewhat predictably, the ventilated leather as standard but the special leather steering wheel with wood inserts that harked back to the 9000 Anniversary was unique to the Griffin. Owners of lesser 9-5s could purchase the steering wheel from the SAAB Accessories range... at a wallet-bending £337 +VAT!

Overall, the package was attractive and designers achieved their objective of building a refined and understated car capable of rapid progress with minimum fuss. The turbo-charged engine developed considerable low end torque but was best suited to long distance work, with which it coped with ease.

1.6: The SAAB 9-5 estate

The five door estate version of the 9-5 did not appear until November 1998 but was well received by family buyers and those who travel habitually with lots of goods. As with the saloon, there was a choice of 2 litre, 2.3 litre 4 cylinder or 3 litre V6 turbo-charged petrol engines. Four cylinder engined cars could be had with standard manual transmission or optional automatic but there was no manual 5 speed option on the V6, with a self-changing automatic gearbox being standard.

The SAAB 9-5 estate is an excellent family holdall

Well designed, easy to load and with plenty of space even with the seats up or split 60/40, the estate certainly looked the part. With the seats folded, the 9-5 estate could more than hold its own with products from rival makers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.

1.7: The 9-5 Aero

Performance enthusiasts had to wait until 2000 before the Aero version finally appeared. With the B235R engine, owners benefited from an uprated 2.3 engine producing 230 bhp and 250 Nm of torque. With 60 bhp more than the standard turbo charged engine, performance was stirring. Traction control (TCS) was standard to prevent wheel spin and the package included bigger front brake calipers and discs to help handle the extra performance.

Externally, the Aero could be distinguished by its lower stance, achieved by stiffer and lower springs, 17" 'hammer head' alloy wheels and colour coded body kit that comprised sill skirts and spoilers for both front and rear bumpers.

The cabin featured leather seats as standard and a special, sports leather steering wheel with ventilated hand grips. As with the 9000 CS Aero, no wooden fascia was fitted but drivers did get a boost gauge instead.

On the road, the stiffer suspension and lower stance made for superb roadholding and handling. The bigger front brakes also reassured drivers exploiting all the extra power available. Unlike the 9000, there was no power penalty for choosing automatic transmission (manual 9000 Aero models were rated at 225bhp but the automatic Aero 9000 was fitted with the full pressure 200bhp engine).

Subtle changes, ranging from those obvious even to the casual observer through to modifications to the running gear that might only be detected by technicians or parts staff, were carried out during the production run. Cars ordered with SE specification received leather upholstery as standard from late 1999 and a year or so later, the SE specification was further enhanced by the addition of Traction Control, an auto-dipping rear view mirror and leather door cards, which had, of course, been standard on the Griffin since the outset. Buyers who loved the purposeful look of the Aero but didn't need the power were catered for with the availability of a new trim level - the Airflow. This was basically a standard 9-5 equipped with 17" Aero 'hammer head' wheels and wearing the Aero bodykit of side skirts and bumper spoilers. At about this time, the SAAB emblem was simplified with the words SAAB-Scania being omitted on the new logo, which was a slightly larger Griffon's head.

2.0 9-5 Production history: 2001-2006 Second generation

The second generation 9-5 had sharper looks but under the surface there were a lot of changes

The 2002 model year brought a raft of revisions starting with a sharper external appearance and new trim levels designated Linear, Arc and Vector, together with some new engine options.  Across the board, automatic gearboxes gained an extra ratio (now 5 speed) but while the familiar 4 cylinder petrol engines continued, diesel engine options appeared for the first time. The former flagship Griffin model was quietly dropped, ostensibly because too few cars had found buyers.

Although to the untutored eye, there appeared to be few changes on the surface, under the skin development continued.  Specifications changed subtly so that Aero models gained Xenon headlamps, different front bumpers and heated front and rear seats as standard equipment (Lux pack) and the occasional new wheel design and colour appeared too. 

For the 2004 model year, the cylinder block and breatehr system was redesigned.

More significantly, a long standing potential problem with the design of the engine’s crankcase breather system was addressed for the 2004 model year, with the introduction of a revised cylinder block.  These engines may be readily identified by their silver, rather than black cam box covers. 

Readers should note that there was a changeover period and some of the last of the original engines appeared with unpainted cambox covers too - the critical identifier is the hose connector (circled) in the phoptograph.

A Vector Sport 2.3 model was also offered, which slotted in between the standard Vector and the Aero for those who felt the urge for a little more power but didn’t need ‘the whole hog’.  At 220 bhp, this was a sensible compromise but the author believes that the model is a very rare bird apparently made for one year after 2004 and has never owned one!

2.1: Linear, Arc and Vector in detail

All the new models featured subtle exterior changes and a smoother, better rounded look.  At the front, changes to the nose centred on a new front bumper with integral 3 piece grille, as opposed to separate one piece, chrome grille.  Indicator units changed in appearance but there was a switch from headlamps with glass lenses and separate wipers to plastic lenses with high pressure washers.  At the rear, the separate panel beneath the rear lamps became integrated with the bumper cover and the lights themselves were new, as were boot lids and tailgates (on estate cars).  The opportunity was also seized to offer some fresh alloy wheels designs across the range.

The Linear superseded the old entry model and gained cast alloy wheels as standard equipment.  Inside the cabin, there was still no wooden fascia or leather seat facings as standard but somehow, the package seemed more complete than the old 9-5 base.  Further up the pecking order, the Arc could be identified as being most similar to the out going SE, with leather trim, light wood fascia and new slim line (16”) five spoke alloys while the Vector was, in essence, a high specification SE with the Aero body kit, Aero steering wheel and 17” alloy wheels but without the high performance engine, larger front brakes and stiff suspension.  Many Aeros had been retro fitted with wood fascias by their owners and SAAB recognized the need for a new fascia trim, choosing a matt silver alloy instead of wood.  This alloy effect fascia was also fitted to the Vector.  The Aero continued as before but with the engine output uprated from 230 to 260bhp.  The 2.3 B235 engine was uprated from 170 to 185 bhp and gained the boost gauge in the instrument pod that had previously only been fitted to Aero models.  At the same time, the petrol 3.0 turbo petrol V6 was phased out for the UK market.

2.2: Diesel dawn-2.2 & 3.0TiD variants in detail

Following the success of the 9-3 diesel, two diesel options appeared for the first time in the 9-5 range: the familiar GM 2.2 Turbo Diesel was offered together with an all new, turbo-charged 24 valve common rail high pressure V6.  This new all alloy engine delivered a stream of torque at very low revs and a blend of sparkling performance with impressive frugality impressed motoring journalists no end at the time.

Offering the 2.2TiD in a 9-5 body was a shrewd move: rival makers could not offer anything similar for the same price

In fact, the engine (SAAB designation D308L) was sourced from Isuzu (itself part of the GM empire) and was the basically the same unit that also featured in the Renault Vel Satis and the Vauxhall Vectra.  Curiously, SAAB never offered an automatic option for the 3.0 diesel engine – although both Renault and Vauxhall did! 

Four cylinder petrol SAAB 9-5s were fitted with the Garrett GT17 –except the Aero -which was fitted with a Mitsubishi TD04- but the D308L came with a larger GT24 unit with an electronic boost control capsule. An Eberspacher heater appears to have been fitted as standard: this diesel fired unit allows the coolant to be heated  prior to start up in winter.  This can be set on a timer from the SID (SAAB Information Display) so that the heater starts up automatically at a given time set by the owner. The first time the author's brother took advantage of this feature in bitterly cold weather, a bemused neighbour informed him that while he'd been scraping ice from his own car, the SAAB had apparently 'started making a funny noise' and proceeded to defrost itself, whilst still locked up! The advantage of this is that not only is engine wear reduced but also on cold frosty mornings the car can be started easily and there is heat available to clear the screen and warm the cabin from the outset.

3.0: 9-5 Production history: 2006-2008 Third generation

The SAAB mantra 'Evolution, not revolution' works very well in so far as a continuous programme of product development results in a superior car that is the sum total of countless improvements but in a very competitive market in which rivals with bigger budgets release newer models, buyers sometimes seek something that looks different.

The 3rd generation 9-5 not only looked different but boasted a raft of improvements.

When the third generation 9-5 appeared (for model year 2006), reactions were mixed. Perhaps SAAB could have been forgiven for carrying out a quick, cosmetic makeover in view of the expectation of an entirely new 9-5 within a couple of years more but this was no quick fix so much as a major and radical revision. If the second generation cars were beginning to look a little dated, the 3rd generation cars were a shock to the system for diehard SAAB buyers and some critics dubbed the new car the 'Dame Edna' model. This rather unkind, negative view masked the inescapable conclusion reached by those who really knew their SAABs that this latest 9-5 was a very competent machine indeed.

Changes to the external appearance had incurred considerable expense: the last styling revision for 2002 model year cars used the same bonnet and front wings as the original 9-5 of 1998. Now, the new model had a new bumper cover design, grilles, all new lights, a new bonnet and different front wings, to say nothing of a new slam panel. At the rear, the boot lid changed, along with the back lights and bumper covers on both saloon and estate variants. These changes are easy to spot but there was also a less obvious change to the rear suspension because the track was increased by 5mm.

The third generation 9-5 featured an entirely new fascia design

Inside the cabin, though, there had been a design revolution with press releases speaking of 'the black room' concept. SAAB dashboard and fascia layout traditionally emulates a flight deck, with all controls and instruments laid out in easy reach and the new dashboard continued in the same vein.

A revised steering wheel and new seat fabrics and different leather options completed a transformation that was better received than the new external styling.

Engine and transmission options changed slightly too, with the 182 bhp V6 3.0 diesel being dropped along with the venerable 120 bhp 2.2 TiD. Both were replaced with a new 4 cylinder turbo charged and intercooled diesel 1.9 (1910cc) TiD rated at 150bhp (the same output as the petrol 2 litre but boasting more torque).

As well as entirely predictable petrol and diesel options, the 9-5 was also offered as with Bio Power fuel option Later, a Biopower option (using E185 Bio Ethanol) became available in the UK but sales were slow, due to the lack of availability of the new fuel, despite interest from high profile individuals such as Sir Richard Branson. Even so, the Biopower was able to run on conventional petrol, should the need arise. Although there was a cost penalty, those choosing the green option, were rewarded with a power gain (the 2.0 was rated at 180 bhp, rather than 150 for the standard fuel car) but it should be noted that cars returned slightly higher fuel consumption. In the event, this was irrelevant given the substantially lower cost of the fuel. More information about SAAB Bio Fuel (including locations stocking the fuel in the UK) is available here: http://www.saabbiopower.co.uk/







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