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On test: Saab 9-5 2.3T estate review (2004 onwards model)
Bodystyle:EstateEngine:2.3-litre turbocharged in-line 4-cylinderFuel type:PetrolTransmission:5-speed manualDate of test:October 2003
What is it?
Saab's 9-5 has been around since 1997, so a round of revisions have been deemed necessary to freshen it for the 2004 model year. You'll be hard-pushed to spot them, mind; changes are limited to restyled bumpers, new colours, different alloy wheel options and a darker finish for the distinctive dashboard. Hardly revolutionary, but then the well-proportioned 9-5 didn't really need any major changes following the last round in 2001. Styling remains neat and modern, leaving the biggest change to occur beneath the clamshell bonnet. Out goes the thirsty 3.0-litre V6, in comes a fresh 220bhp 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo unit, dubbed 2.3T. Not, note, 2.3t - that engine, which remains on sale too, 'only' packs 185bhp.
Where does it fit?
The 9-5 is particularly satisfying in estate form, which mirrors the model line-up of the four-door saloon. The capacious load bay has a total volume of 1490 cubic metres, plus clever details such as an optional sliding boot floor which can hold over 200kg, and cargo hooks to lash down bulky loads; they work on the same principal as aircraft seats. Such practicality places the Saab in competition with the Audi A6 Avant, Mercedes E-Class Estate and Volvo V70, though the entry-level models may tempt drivers of high-line Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord and Vauxhall Vectra estates.
Is it for you?
The Saab image is one of refined understatement. It isn't brash or 'in your face', doesn't feel the need to shout to get its point across. This seems to have increasing appeal for UK buyers - sales are rising after a couple of years in the wilderness - suggesting that Saab knows exactly what its customers want. In addition, the estate is the most practical Saab of all, with a roomy cabin and practical load bay proffering tremendous versatility to those, say unconvinced by an MPV. All this, coupled with surprisingly affordable list prices, endows the Saab with showroom appeal.
What does it do well?
The 2.3T engine is very impressive indeed. In estate form, it reaches 60mph in 8.0 seconds and a maximum of 143mph, produced smoothly and effortlessly. The V6 engine note is missing but this engine could well be smoother than the unit it replaces, with high-rev work being masked by the responsive turbo unit. Certainly, turbo lag - the delay between pressing the throttle and the engine responding - is barely detectable. The cabin is an aircraft-inspired treat too, with a high, imposing dash looking good and featuring faultless ergonomics. Nothing is tricky to operate. The high-backed seats are naturally fantastic, borderline brilliant, while the soft ride feels relaxing at speed and, when worked hard, the 9-5 will cover ground at an impressive lick without disturbing passengers. It's a sophisticated act which should have no-one yearning for the old V6.
What doesn't it do well?
Handling is not BMW-sharp, the soft chassis restricting feedback somewhat through corners. It's acceptable, but those after a car which feels like a hot hatch should look elsewhere; arguably, that's not the remit of Saab anyway. More concerning is wind rustle from the A-pillars at higher speeds, disturbing the hushed cabin, and a gearchange which, though slick and easy, is perhaps too long-winded given the responsiveness of the engine. Surprising road roar was also detected on one of the cars using 17-inch wheels; these are standard only on range-topping trim though, and as it was only on one of the (European-spec) cars we drove, we'll reserve judgement. Worth assessing on a test drive?
What's it like to live with?
This Saab's biggest gold star is reserved for its costs performance. Average economy, given the performance, looks good at 29.6mpg, but the low (for an estate car) CO2 figure of 229g/km is the clincher. Combined with keen list prices, company car drivers will find themselves with a most attractive BIK tax bill if they choose this variant - with unhampered pace as well. 'Private' drivers, meanwhile, will appreciate the strong residuals, sleek dealers and promise of affordable servicing costs due to the four-cylinder engine's efficiency. A five-star Euro-NCAP rating is also welcome; it really is one of the safest cars you can buy. And, naturally, the 9-5 is built to a very high standard indeed, suggesting mega-mileage ability. It withstands Swedish winters, so should have no trouble with UK ones.
Would we buy it?
We have a lot of enthusiasm for the new 2.3T Saab 9-5 estate. The smooth, punchy new engine is a far better proposition than the thirsty old V6, and is far more in keeping with the traditional Saab character. This is a marque synonymous with turbocharging, and shows the art off well here. There are plenty of other reasons for choosing the 9-5 though, not least an ultra-comfortable cabin, smooth ride and tremendous long-distance ability. It lacks a BMW 5 Series' precision and incisiveness, but for many buyers this won't matter. Instead they'll warm to the Saab's many other attributes, which come at a price significantly below some rivals. Coupled with the extra practicality (and good looks) of the estate body, the overall package is a strong one. We'd consider it, and would have no qualms if the company brought us one, either.
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