Added June 3, 1999

 

A new breed of station wagon

Saab 9-5 Wagon

The new Saab 9-5 Wagon shares many of the features and styling of the popular 9-5 Sedan but, according to Saab engineers, it was conceived and designed from the ground up strictly as a wagon. Their goal was to build a good-looking vehicle that performs like a sport sedan, handles cargo like a sport-utility vehicle, pampers the driver like a luxury car, and is on the cutting edge of safety technology. I’ll start with the performance.

The Wagon comes with a turbocharged 2.3-liter four cylinder or a 3.0-liter V6. The 2.3-liter engine, available with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, pumps out 170 hp at 5,500 rpm and 207 lb-ft of torque from 1,800 to 3,400 rpm. It was more than enough power to cruise up and down the mountainous back roads outside of San Diego. The V6, which only comes with the automatic transmission, generates 200 hp at 5,000 rpm and 229 lb-ft of torque over the rpm band stretching from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm. Though I drove both versions, I couldn't really tell the difference between the two powerplants. But then I didn't have four adult passengers and a full load of cargo sitting behind me.

Handling on the southern California roads was crisp and confident thanks to isolated front and rear subframes. Up front, as on the 9-5 sedan, MacPherson struts handle the suspension chores while a multilink independent suspension does the job in back. The springs, roll bars, and shock absorbers, however, have been recalibrated for good handling over a range of possible vehicle weights and centers of gravity. And the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering rack is mounted on the back of the front subframe so that it can make use of shorter tie rods. This gives drivers a better, more precise, feel for the steering. The overall ride is smooth and it corners like a cat. ABS is standard and traction control comes with the V6.

On the outside, the 9-5 is unmistakably Saab, which lends itself rather well to the wagon concept. It also makes for an aerodynamically clean vehicle. Its drag coefficient is 0.31, placing it among the top in its class. Designers also concentrated on the rear edge of the roof. Airflow there effects both drag and lift. They used a small "lip" to separate airflow at the rear roof edge to reduce drag without adding lift. They also rounded the rear corners of the wagon for high-speed stability.

The 9-5 Wagon has 37 cu ft of cargo space with the rear seats up. And the cargo floor is flat, with no awkward corners to limit space. Folding the rear seats down opens up almost 73 cu ft of space. On the floor, Saab's new hardened-aluminum CargoTracks let owners tie down cargo and secure it with adjustable one-grip locks. In a demonstration, the tracks and locks were used to support the weight of the car. Specially designed covers keep the tracks clean and free of debris when not in use. The Wagon also has 11 other storage compartments as well as optional load-bearing roof racks that can accommodate everything from bicycles to kayaks to surfboards. And the glove compartment has a sliding switch that lets in chilled air, keeping sodas cold and chocolate from melting at 42°F.

My only complaint is that a wagon, in my mind, should have three rows of seats. The 9-5 has two and can carry five passengers, which is typical for midsized wagons today. Saab says it tried to get a third row of seats in but couldn't do it and meet its own internal safety standards. But if there's a call for that third row, they said they'd work on it some more. On the inside, heated and ventilated (optional) front seats keep the driver and passenger comfortable whether you're driving through the mountains or the dessert. The ergonomics are easy to get used to and there are enough features to keep the most gizmo-minded engineer fascinated. One of my favorites is the "Night panel" button. It blacks out all dials and controls for eye-strain-free night driving. The cupholder is another marvel of Swedish design, but they really could use two for the front seats. No one takes a back seat to Saab when it comes to safety. They conducted 40 crash tests on the Wagon, 29 more than required by law. Head and torso air bags mounted in the outside bolsters of the front seatbacks are activated by sudden changes in air pressure inside the door cavity. They inflate to protect the driver and passenger against side impacts. Antisubmarining ramps prevent all five occupants from sliding under their three-point inertial reel seat belts in case of severe head-on collisions. And the seat belts now carry a force-reducing device to prevent belt-induced injuries during collisions. Front-seat occupants also have Saab's Active Head Restraints to reduce the risk of whiplash. And the list goes on.

So does the list of standard features: separate climate controls for front-seat passengers, walnut-trimmed dashboard, 200-W Harmon Kardon stereo, powered front seats, mirrors, windows and locks, adjustable steering wheel, headlights with wipers that also wash, tinted glass, and wiring for a mobile phone, to name a few. About the only options are between the four cylinder ($31,850) and the V6 ($36,900) engines, and the heated and ventilated leather seats.

-Stephen J. Mraz