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Motornet: Saab's country Estate

People tend to buy wagons for lifestyle reasons, not because they look better than their sedan cousins... but in the case of the Saab 9-5, many would argue the wagon wins the style war.

Firing up the ignition is usually not a big deal, even in new or unfamiliar cars, but the Saab 9-5 is not your usual wagon. After fumbling around with the steering column for a while, only to discover that the ignition switch is not in the usual place, it takes me a few seconds to find it on the transmission tunnel and light up the engine.

Putting the ignition between the seats is kind of quirky, but in a good way and it says Saab. It certainly gets the message across that this car is not your everyday run of the mill Japanese sedan.

But how quirky is too quirky? After all, at $82,000 the Saab 9-5 Estate SE 2.3 turbo weighs into a pretty competitive price market competing with the likes of Alfa's 166 and Peugeot's 607 not to mention Volvo’s V70 and S60. Developing a car to meet the tastes of conservative middle age buyers that still retains a point of difference is no easy task.

Fortunately, the 9-5 pretty much hits the mark. It has a genteel quality to it – combining both modern and traditional elements to create an all-round impressive package.

But how does it stack up for most drivers? Styling is traditional Saab. The wedge shape nose and distinctive scoop grille combined with wide square headlights makes the 9-5 instantly recognisable. The ‘Aero’ look is continued to the tapered rear end, creating a surprisingly attractive design for a wagon. Its worth keeping in mind too that the basic sedan shape has been around since late 1997 so, from a visual point, the car is aging very well indeed.

Under the bonnet, the 9-5 has a 2.3 litre four-cylinder engine plus Saab's unique Light Pressure Turbo (LPT) producing 136 kW at 5500rpm and 280Nm at 1800 rpm. Even though the engine has a reasonable weight to haul around, the Estate never feels underpowered and the low-down torque combined with the boost from the turbo makes for an excellent power plant. For all that, there are occasions where a bit of extra grunt wouldn’t go amiss, especially when overtaking, but whether the additional cost of going to an Aero model can be justified is marginal. Neither is it as quick, for example, as Subaru's marginally less expensive H6 Outback wagon which slices a second or two from the 9-5's 0-100 km/h time of 9.9 seconds.

But in fairness to the power plant, the problem lies more with the transmission than with what lies under the bonnet. Once upon a time a four-speed transmission would have been enough to satisfy the requirements of most punters * but not any longer. Combined with a lethargic kick down, the failure of the transmission to perform is enough to get most driver’s teeth grinding in frustration. Fortunately, what could be a true Achilles’ heel for the car is narrowly avoided by the inclusion of one small function – the sport button. More than just decorative, it proves the transmission has a Jeckyll and Hide personality. Where before lethargy reigned, it suddenly gets a new lease of life and suddenly things in the world are right again.

More than that, 2002 models (popping up in showrooms as this review is published) now come equipped with a five-speed transmission as part of a major mid-life upgrade which includes several thousand changes and improvements to the current model. Couldn’t have come soon enough for the tranny, I reckon…

Road holding and handling proves reassuring. To put the car through its paces, we headed for Wellington’s Ohariu Valley. Known for its lifestyle sections and its horse riding, not to mention the twisting and narrow access road that travels through it to Makara Beach, it seemed the perfect route to see how the wagon would stack up.

And generally speaking, it stacked up well. Overcooking the corner can result in some tyre squeal, not to mention understeer, but it was pretty good. The steering proved sharp and responsive and aiming the car for the apex * and expecting a good outcome * proved not to be a problem. Body roll is also minimal. Front wheel drive has its drawbacks, but in this case, the 9-5 would certainly meet the expectations of 95 percent of drivers, and in some cases may exceed them. The standard traction control (when needed) appears to work pretty well.

For all that, it is the interior that really shines. Everything from the trademark one-piece dash, the quality wood inserts, the tactile feel of the plastics and the clear ergonomic instruments, all adds up to significant points in my book. The equipment levels are excellent * leather upholstery, climate air, CD player and cassette, airbags, electrics, cruise control; you name it, it's standard.

The seats too are simply superb. I didn’t do any extended driving, but believe me when I say these pews would prove faultless to even the most pernickety of passengers and drivers alike. All in all, the interior space leaves a truly lasting impression and proves to be a very comfortable place at all times.

And practical too. The load cover in the back is removable, but is a solid partition that can fold back, rather than the retractable blind approach that many wagon makers resort to. As photographer Neil pointed out, with this type of load cover, he would be happy to leave expensive camera equipment in a wagon * not so with the plastic cover.

Ultimately, it's not just the convincing overall package that is most impressive about the 9-5, but more the little things (like the load cover) and attention to detail that makes the car so memorable. Yes, it may be getting a little long in the tooth by today's standards, and there may be other cars that come out as better load carriers than the 9-5 Estate, but in the end, it's simply not an issue. This is a good car, a lasting car and a memorable car... and with the new model, it just got better. Sometimes, putting a dollar value on a feeling can be hard.

Specifications

Price - $82,000 (approx)

Engine - 2300cc four-cylinder turbo engine developing 136 kW at 5500rpm and 280 Nm of torque at 1800rpm

Weight - 1590kg to 1740 kg (spec dependant)

Performance - 0-100km/ph in 9.9seconds

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