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2003 SAAB 9-5 Review - Base Price $33,995

Fast, stable and comfortable.


2003 saab 9-5 Review

The Saab 9-5 line of sedans and wagons are comfortable, convenient and enjoyable to drive around town and on the open road. Precise steering and excellent high-speed stability make the 9-5 a great companion for covering distances in a hurry. The seats are supportive and the interior is well designed. Clever ergonomic solutions, like seats with fans, an aircraft-style map light, and Saab's Night Panel remind you this is a Scandinavian car.

The roomy rear seat makes the 9-5 comfortable for four adults. 9-5 SportWagons come with a roomy cargo area with a perfectly flat floor, making them eminently useful for moving furniture or for taking Fido along.

With its high-output turbocharged engine, the Aero model puts a lot of power under the pedal for quick throttle response at highway speeds. The Saab 9-5 Aero is an absolute delight for working through fast traffic. The luxurious 9-5 Arc is no slouch either, offering brisk acceleration performance.

The Saab 9-5 benefited from suspension, steering and styling changes last year that sharpen its handling and its looks. For 2003, the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is now standard on all models, a real benefit.


The Saab 9-5 is a roomy, comfortable car with supportive leather seats. Interior materials are high quality.

The seats in the Aero wagon offer sufficient side bolstering for hard cornering, yet sliding into and out of them was easy. There were plenty of adjustments, yet it wasn't critical to adjust them just so in order to get comfortable.

The Arc we drove also had a nice leather interior, with perforated center inserts on the seats. The Arc's seats are particularly nice when it's very hot or very cold outside. We loved the Arc's seat fans. Two fans are located in each of the front seats, one in the seatback and one in the seat bottom, that draw air in through perforations in the leather. Almost to show them off, the fans are noisy, so there's no question when they're on and you can vary the noise by switching among three speeds. But they do a good job of keeping things aired out down under on those sultry days. When it's cold, the seat heaters can be turned on, and feature adjustable temperature settings, useful as the car warms up. Seat heaters in the rear are appreciated by rear-seat passengers who generally have to wait longer for the car to warm up than front-seat passengers.

Brushed aluminum panels on the Aero's dash give it a sporty look. The Aero has a nice leather-wrapped four-spoke wheel with the rim the correct diameter. It's pocked for better grip, between 2 and 4 o'clock on the right side and 8 and 10 on the left.

Arc features an attractive center dash, though the burled walnut wood trim looked like plastic. The black upper dash helps reduce glare and nicely set off the light-colored interior in our Arc. The doors are trimmed very well.

The instrument panel is curved at the top in the same shape as the steering wheel, affording an unobstructed view of the speedometer, tachometer, fuel, temperature and turbo boost gauges. It's fun to watch the boost gauge, as the power responds more to boost than to revs.

Big buttons for the sound and climate systems are located in a large rectangle in the center console and are easy to understand. The audio controls for the Harmon/Kardon stereo are great. Redundant audio controls on the steering wheel reduce distraction from the road. The radio is wired hot so it can be turned on without the key, useful when parked. Vents are attractive and designed well for aiming.

The leather-stitched shifter knob on automatic models has a good feel and is easy and pleasant to operate. The gearshift knob for the manual transmission is also leather-stitched and pear-shaped and likewise has a good feel. Manual models have a light on the dash indicating when it's time to upshift to conserve fuel, a feature we could live without.

Saab comes up with unorthodox, but effective solutions to interior needs. In the 9-5, these solutions are clever and very successful. A cup holder pops out of the dash from a vertical slot the size of a CD and pivots around to hold cans of soda or that grande cappuccino. A fixed cup holder in the center console is a bit less convenient, especially if there's already lots of stuff in there.

The far end of the right side-view mirror bends outward, which provides a wider view of the right lanes. It requires familiarization to determine the location of an approaching car at a quick glance. We found it didn't work well in the rain. When moving from the left lane to the right lane, it could sometimes make an approaching car look like it was changing lanes and moving toward us.

Interior lighting is excellent, including one map light in a rotating directional ball, like the reading lights in airliners. The placement of the gauges, the cup holder, radio switches and the map light indicate real thought went into the Saab 9-5 interior. Instrument lights can be switched off by pressing the Night Panel button for improved nighttime visibility.

Split visors allow shielding the sun when it's in the corner of the windshield or when changing directions frequently. The glove box is small, however, and the cruise control switch, located on the end of the turn signal stalk and hidden by the steering wheel, is inconvenient. In accordance with Saab tradition, the ignition slot is down on the center console, but this turns out to be a convenient location on the 9-5.

SportWagons feature a large, flat cargo space. Simply flip the rear seat bottoms up and fold the rear seat backs down. Smooth black painted metal covers the bottoms of the rear seats, making a nice clean surface that won't dirty or damage cargo. Saab says the 9-5 offers significantly more cargo capacity than the BMW 5 Series, and is similar in cargo space to the Audi A6. We were able to fit an antique dry sink and four tall ladderback dining chairs back there. Loading heavy objects into the 9-5 is easy as it has a much lower load height than an SUV. Add a dog fence, and the 9-5 SportWagon is a great car for a dog.


Saab revised the styling of the 9-5 last year to give it a sportier look. That look remains unchanged for 2003.

Up front, smooth bumpers, an integrated grille, and clear-lens headlamps emphasize performance. Those clear headlight lenses show off the optional bi-xenon projector headlamps, which give the 9-5 a high-tech, night-fighter look. Glance in the rear-view mirror, and that 9-5 behind you presents a focused look that says, "Get out of the way!"

Tail lamps have clear lenses on the sedans. On the wagons, a rear decor panel visually unites the tail lamps for a tighter, more solid appearance. Aero models sport an Aero badge. Badges on the trunk lids identify the engines on the Linear (2.3t) and Arc (3.0t) models.

Exclusive wheels differentiate Linear, Arc, and Aero. Linear rides on 16-inch, ten-spoke alloy wheels, while Arc runs five-spoke 16-inch alloys. Sporty 17-inch alloy wheels with ten spokes come on the Aero model, with low-profile 225/45WR-17 all-season radials, a tip-off that this is a high-performance car.

Overall, the Saab 9-5 has a sculpted, Scandinavian appearance. Its aerodynamic lines are tautly drawn. Yet it's also practical in that Scandinavian way. The traditional Saab clamshell hood remains. Outside door handles are the easy-to-grasp kind that let you slip your hand through, and they lever upward for convenient opening.


The Saab 9-5 is a wonderful car for working through freeway traffic. It's as stable as a rock at elevated velocities and feels supremely confident in sweeping turns, taking high-speed turns like it's on rails.

Handling and steering response are terrific. It's fun to accelerate at the apex of a turn and feel the car pull you around the rest of the way, as the chassis and suspension hug the road. Saab extensively reworked the chassis and suspension of all three models last year for sharper handling and steering response. As a result, the 9-5 offers a great degree of control and driver confidence while still providing excellent feedback.

Some of the changes were particularly beneficial for the Arc model with its heavier V6 engine. There's less suspension pitching or other movements in the rear. The ride is firmer, but we found the Arc handles bumps well, damping and softening big bumps. We found the Arc offered good grip in corners, though, there is some traditional Saab body lean. Steering was slow, but precise.

For its part, the Aero feels firm over quick, light bumps. The chassis jounces up and down a noticeable amount. It's not sharp, nor uncomfortable, but if you peek out the corners of your eyes to the edges of the windshield, you can see the bouncing. The steering remains very steady through this, although less so when the power is on. Torque steer, that tugging sensation on the steering wheel when accelerating hard in a powerful front-wheel-drive car, is minimal in the 9-5, even in the 250-horsepower Aero, but it does exist. We noticed a slight amount of road vibration coming through the steering wheel of the Aero at low speeds, but this allows the driver to better read changing road surfaces. The Michelin Pilot tires on our 9-5 Aero were superb, quiet, yet responsive for handling and threshold braking.

The 9-5 is very quiet on the freeway. We noticed only the slightest hiss of wind noise, which went away when we closed the interior panel under the sunroof.

The Aero offers quick, responsive performance with its 250-horsepower turbocharged engine. It can generate impressive acceleration from a standing start. But the Aero's engine is best appreciated on the open highway. Squeeze down on the throttle while cruising at 70 mph, and you are instantly past that string of cars clunking along. It's easy to modulate the throttle, to get just as much thrust as you need. Squeeze gently on the gas and more power sends the car smoothly ahead. Push down harder and this is one quick ride.

The Arc offers up plenty of power from its V6 engine and the five-speed automatic is smooth and responsive. The Arc's V6 isn't as smooth as, say, an Audi engine, however.

We found the five-speed automatic transmission very responsive, downshifting smoothly to the appropriate gear without wasting time. Five gears (instead of four) keep the engine revving in the ideal power band for better response. For 2003, the Sentronic manual-shifting feature comes standard with all automatics. In the Normal mode, the transmission works like a normal automatic transmission. Choosing the manual model allows the driver to change gears by pressing a pair of buttons on the steering wheel. There's also a Sport mode that works like an automatic with sportier shift mapping. We found it made the shifting abrupt and less willing, however, at least on the V6-powered Arc. There's also a Winter mode for stable traction off line in icy conditions. We prefer the Normal mode, letting the responsive five-speed automatic do its thing.

Manual transmissions shift smoothly, especially when shifting between third and fourth gears. The clutch is hydraulically actuated and feels spring. Heel-and-toe downshifting is enjoyable. Saabs with manual transmissions have to be shifted into reverse before you can pull the key out.

The Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is standard on all 9-5 models for 2003. It helps drivers maintain control by selectively applying the brakes to individual wheels to correct a skid. If the driver goes into a corner too fast for the conditions the system can correct for oversteer (when the rear tires skid) by applying the brakes to the outer wheels to gently bring the car back into line. The system also works when a slippery road causes the car to understeer (when the nose of the car starts to push wide instead of following its intended course). Saab worked closely with Bosch, the German company that supplies the system, to achieve optimum tuning. Saab tested the system extensively in the slippery Scandinavian Arctic and at very high speeds at the Hockenheim racing circuit in Germany. Saab claims its stability program is one of the best in the world.

The 9-5 is equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), and an electronic traction control system (TCS). ESP works with the rest of this alphabet soup, helping the driver to maintain control in all sorts of conditions. It allows the driver to maintain steering control when jamming on the brakes, while stopping the car in the shortest possible distance.

Brakes on the Arc and Aero models were upgraded last year (2002). The rear discs were made larger and were vented for improved cooling during hard braking. We didn't try threshold braking repeatedly; but several hard, ABS stops from 70 mph showed that the brakes are extremely effective, bringing both the Aero and the Arc to a rapid, but uneventful halt. Whether used for a panic-stop or high-performance applications, the Saab 9-5's brakes are up to the task.

Optional bi-xenon lights are a huge improvement over even regular composite halogens, though the high beams seem to flare a bit.


The Saab 9-5 doesn't look like other cars. The 9-5 is fast and luxurious. It feels very stable on the highway and has a comfortable, well-designed interior. SportWagon models add a flat, spacious cargo bay.

The Saab 9-5 Aero is a great car: stylish, comfortable, luxurious, fast, a joy to drive. If you like the feel of a turbocharged engine, the 9-5 Aero is a real winner.

Aero and Arc models seem best paired with the optional automatic transmission. Smooth and responsive, the five-speed automatic works well with the Saab turbocharged engines. It also eliminates some of the legendary Saab quirkiness. Loyal Saab owners, however, may prefer the five-speed manual.

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