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Saab open for business with two new models

2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD

michael bettencourt The Globe and Mail

Overall Rating
Why Saab would decide to scrimp out on this most visible aspect of luxury car ownership confounds logic.
Looks Rating
Attractive in an aggressive yet dignified manner.
Interior Rating
Comfortable, but omnipresent black feels like a high-tech bat cave.
Ride Rating
More adept at taming bumps and noise than corners.
Safety Rating
Full complement of the latest safety gear, some optional, but nothing innovative.
Green Rating
First luxury sedan in this segment to offer a four-cylinder in North America.

While $74-million would have folks lined up around the block at their local lottery outlet, in the R&D-intensive auto business, you can barely reshape a decent set of LED taillights for that amount.

Yet that's all Spyker paid for Saab, not including a debt-heavy stock swap. That gave the Dutch boutique car maker extensive research and development facilities and a huge plant in Sweden capable of producing 190,000 luxury vehicles a year.

"That's basically like buying a wind tunnel, then getting a company and plant for free," says Saab Cars North America president Mike Colleran.

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2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD In Pictures: Merely competitive, not compelling (And what happened to the interior?)

The deal included a pledge of fresh funds from the European Investment Bank, backstopped by the Swedish government, as well as new agreements with Saab dealers in 50 countries (including Canada, as of mid-August), but its most important partner for the foreseeable future is General Motors, which cut Saab loose from its stable of brands in 2009.

A key aspect of the purchase was that Saab got the design and engineering plans for two all-new, ready-to-launch luxury vehicles, the 9-4X crossover coming late this year and the mid-size 2011 9-5 set to arrive in Canada by October.

"Our only claim to fame for this car is that we got production going on it: all the design work was done by GM," said Spyker CEO Victor Muller. "Now we will see the fruits of the work that GM put forward five years ago, starting with the Aero X (concept vehicle)."

This includes exterior detailing that reflects Saab's aeronautical history as a company born in the air, its first car hitting the road 12 years after its incorporation as a military aircraft producer in 1937. The wheels are designed to resemble turbine fans, while the blacked-out A and B pillars and the tops of the mirror housings are meant to highlight a floating canopy-type greenhouse. It's surprisingly aggressive overall for a segment known generally for conservatively styled four-doors.

Where the styling really falls on its face, and perhaps the car itself, is with its interior. The sombre austerity of this car's omnipresent black plastic may have been designed to resemble the seriousness of a fighter plane cockpit, but sitting inside the 9-5 feels like Saab ran out of money just as they were about to finish trimming out the interior properly. Thus the matte black finish up and down the centre console is only barely interrupted with metallic or black piano key finishes.

As Saab is very clear that the Audi A6 is its main target, why it (or GM) would decide to scrimp out on this most visible aspect of luxury car ownership confounds logic.

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It's also unfortunate, given that there are some nice touches inside, including a push-button start located at the base of the six-speed automatic's shifter, a nod to Saab's long history of placing its ignition interlock in between the front seats. An available military green head-up display reads out various speedometer, control and stereo readings, shift paddles nestle nicely behind the nicely sporty flat-bottom steering wheel, making it easier to overlook the familiar GM switchgear everywhere.

All engines are turbocharged in the new 9-5, with the top-line Aero Turbo6 all-wheel-drive model featuring a turbocharged 2.8-litre V-6, producing 300 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. These are very impressive figures for an engine of relatively small size, which is also the top-line engine in the Cadillac SRX. The U.S. government rates the 9-5's consumption at a thirsty 14.7 litres/100 km city and 8.7 highway, and that'll be premium fuel.

Starting this fall, the 9-5 will become what Saab calls the first in this segment to offer a four-cylinder engine, a 2.0-litre direct injection turbocharged unit producing 220 hp and a masterful 258 lb-ft of torque, all at 2,500 rpm. Buick may argue that claim, as its new mid-size Regal luxury sedan offers this impressive four-cylinder as its up-level engine, but then again, the Buick starts at about half the expected price of the Saab 9-5.

All Turbo4 (cylinder) models will come with front-wheel-drive; all-wheel drive is part of the package of the Turbo6 XWD (cross-wheel drive in Saab-speak). It's among the better all-wheel-drive systems out there. Like Acura's SH-AWD, the Saab's AWD system can distribute power to the left or right rear corner, depending on the direction of the turn and the car's cornering attitude.

At a private race track in Monticello, N.Y., the V-6 XWD combo proved to be more of a luxury setup than sport sedan, with notable body lean and tires that protested early in hard corners.

An independent front suspension and a DriveSense electronic system will also be standard on top models, offering Comfort, Intelligent and Sport modes, which adjusts torque response, gear shift points, suspension settings, and steering feel from mild to enthusiastic, but always with comfort as the priority.

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Safety gear is well taken care of in this Saab, with standard items such as rollover sensors, whiplash-reducing front seats, OnStar, side and side curtain airbags, breakaway foot pedals and anti-pinch windows all around, while more advanced options include an active cruise control system, a lane departure warning system and active bi-xenon headlights.

But as much of an improvement as the car offers over the last woefully outdated 9-5, it still is merely competitive, not compelling.

To mark the brand's return to true competitiveness, Saab must first convince not only Saab traditionalists but also a new group of well-heeled and financially astute customers that the company has a long term future, and is therefore worthy of consideration along with some of the most respected luxury brands in the business.

Muller argues that a small auto maker can now survive and thrive because larger auto companies are now willing to share technologies to help achieve vital cost reductions. Plus the tumultuous events of the past 18 months demonstrated the remarkable loyalty of Saab enthusiasts, he insists.

"The loyalty of the Saab buyer is number one in this industry," said Muller. "I didn't see anyone holding up 'Save Hummer' signs."

Secrets of the car showroom exposed High-pressure tactics and the 'let me take this to my manager' line still exist, but the old sales strategies are slowly changing, writes Peter Cheney

2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD

Type: Mid-size luxury sedan

Price: $50,000 (estimated) $50,000

Engine: 2.8-litre, turbocharged, DOHC, V-6

Horsepower/torque: 300 hp/295 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with paddle shifters

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): (estimated) 14.7 city/8.7 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Acura TL, Audi A6, Cadillac CTS, BMW 5 Series, Lincoln MKS, Volvo S60

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