Blind dates can be scary, especially when a friend orchestrates the meeting. So, when Editor Brown suggested I drive a new Saab 9-5 Aero wagon across the country, from the southern tip of Florida to our offices in SoCal, the warning bells went off. I'd never spent more than a few hours in a Saab, let alone 3,800 miles. What if it didn't work out? What if it was a dog? "You'll love it, man..." said Brown. "It's got a really great personality."
I met up with my date at Saab North America's headquarters in Norcross, Ga., where PR guy Kevin Smith and product specialist/engineer James Uhl were on hand to make the introduction. Somehow we got sidetracked and ended up in Kevin's garage, where I ogled his gorgeous Sunbeam Tiger. Under another sheet lay an Auto Union Wanderer he'd been restoring for the last 30 years. James, on the other hand, had been busy modifying a Saab 900 SE and wanted my opinion on aftermarket suspension suppliers. So far this was turning out very well--I was hanging out with real car enthusiasts, guys who could talk about things other than market psychographics, focus groups and fastener technology.
Late in the afternoon, our car, a 9-5 Aero wagon, the sport-minded version, showed up dressed to the nines. And it was love at first sight.
Although the sedan version of the 9-5 looks good, the wagon looks even better. There's something about the "weight" of the Saab wagon that looks very right. The Aero treatment includes a lower, sport-tuned suspension and aggressive sports wear (front spoiler and side skirts), and check out the running gear: BBS two-piece rims with 225/45ZR-17 Michelin Pilot HX rubber. Who would believe those sedate Swedes could design such a sexy piece of kit?
We shook hands, I grabbed a few pics and headed south toward Miami. Getting on the freeway was the first taste of the 9-5's impressive, turbocharged power. I was doing 85 mph by the end of the ramp and, inadvertently, passed a cop who was trying to merge right. Great; after a mere 15 seconds of driving, I was going to get my first ticket. The officer sidled alongside, shook his head and left the freeway--his shift was over or something.
The 9-5 Aero is powered by a four-pot 2.3-liter intercooled turbo. The 16-valve motor features a watercooled compressor and is good for 230 bhp at 5500 rpm and 243 lb-ft of twist at 1900 rpm (258 lb-ft for the manual transmission). We had ordered up Saab's four-speed automatic transmission, a pretty decent slushbox featuring three shift modes: normal, winter and sport. The 9-5 Aero is plenty fast, but, as I quickly learned, it's not above a bit of torque steer--still, Saab's electronic traction control helps keep the 9-5 pointed straight ahead during hard launches.
The 700 miles to Miami was beautiful--sunny, warm and I averaged 85 mph, a pace so leisurely for the Saab it never broke a sweat. The Aero cuts through the air with almost unreal stealth. There is virtually no wind noise, not around the door seals, the rearview mirrors or the roof rack. Nothing.
The 700 miles was enough to realize the cockpit was designed by people who love to drive. It is very intuitive, very simple. Unique to Saab is the "black panel," a feature that switches off extraneous instrumentation during night driving--all you see is the speedometer. Although I understand the theory behind the black panel, it takes time to be fully comfortable with it--I bet aircraft pilots love it, though.
Business finished in Miami, I pointed the Saab north and headed for home. The plan was to get out of Florida in one day, sleep in Alabama and make it to New Orleans just in time for Fat Tuesday. Some 14 hours later, I watched crab fishermen work the flats in Mobile Bay, a sixer of Dixie beer at my side.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans resembled a Hieronymous Bosch painting, a party for the apocalypse. I would have bypassed the whole thing except for something my wife said as I left L.A.
"Bring back some Mardi Gras beads, and I'll show you what they're for..." she whispered.
I was a man on a mission; I would get a trunkful of these damn beads come hell or high water. As it turned out, "hell" came first. Instead of catching beads, I caught a beer bottle across the windshield--it was anarchy in the streets. I watched as 20 cops on horseback, nightsticks unsheathed, raced through town to regain order. Some party.
A few miles west of the city, I bought some beads from a cross-dressed house painter from Abbeville, La. The wife will never know the difference.
The temperature rose to a balmy 82*F, and despite the Saab's excellent air conditioning, I was uncomfortable. Fortunately, our 9-5 came with the optional ventilated seats ($995), and despite the jokes they are quite brilliant. Driving 14 hours straight is entirely possible with these seats--I know because I did it.
Perhaps the most daunting element of this trip was crossing the Lone Star State, a place that brooks no love for this writer. I would do Texas non-stop in an effort to spend as little time there as possible. It was not to be. The moment I left Louisiana, the temperature dropped 30*F and greeted the 9-5 to a lightning storm so intense I had to pull over. The Saab's sonically brilliant Harmann/Kardon stereo (radio/cd/cassette, 240w, eight speakers) is equipped with a separate button (WB) for the National Weather Service. An ominous, computerized voice told me a severe storm warning was in effect for eastern Texas with possible tornadoes and flash flooding.
If I was going to die, it would not be here, not in Texas. I continued through a rainstorm that reduced speeds to 30 mph. Six hours later I was in Swan, where the Saab's temperature gauge read 28*F. Rain became freezing rain, and before long the road was coated in a half inch of ice. I passed dozens of accidents, mostly on the bridges where the ice was thickest. I came across a family whose trailer had flipped and offered to take them to the Flying J up the road. Seven grateful people plus a baby filled the Aero and made good use of the front and rear heated seats.
I enjoyed the company, though it was short-lived. I passed through Dallas, and midway to Abilene the radio reception began to fade, so I listened to the computerized voice on the WB till I teetered on the brink of madness. At some point, the reception got better and I was all set to hear some good ole country music. Instead, I was treated to a Molly Hatchet marathon. It was official...I was in hell.
I drove for so long it felt as if the car were caught in a temporal loop--I kept repeating the same 300 miles. At one point, I pushed OnStar, Saab's electronic link to the world, just to hear a real voice.
"Hello, this is OnStar, how can I help you?" asked a friendly voice.
"Uh....hi...how's it going?"
"Very well. sir. How can I help you today?"
"Are you alive?"
"Yes, sir. How can I help you today?"
"Can you tell me where I am?"
"Certainly. You're heading west, coming up on Odessa. Would you like me to help you find something in Odessa, sir?"
"No, that's okay."
"Thank you for calling OnStar."
OnStar utilizes a GPS and wireless communication to link the driver and vehicle to the 24/7 OnStar Center where advisors provide real-time, personalized help. Expanded OnStar services include voice-activated hands-free personalized calling, Internet access, stock quotes. GM, er, Saab figures it's safer to keep both hands on the road rather than fiddle with a keyboard or touch screen. And should the airbags ever go off, OnStar automatically calls the police; if the car is reported stolen, OnStar will track its movement.
Despite Texas' sinister forces trying to keep me within its borders, I conquered it after 32 hours of non-stop driving. I got a hotel in Las Cruces, N. Mex., and slept an entire day.
The weather warmed up to 58* and I detoured north to Socorro, home of a great fossil shop. I found a brilliant plate covered with assorted trilobites and colorful geodes, the largest of which weighed 95 lb. Fortunately, the 9-5 is equipped with Saab's Cargo Tracks loading system, a sliding floor in the trunk capable of carrying 400 lb. Cargo Tracks comes out like a tongue, utilizing a pair of aluminum tracks, lets you load whatever, and then slides back in place. It also features assorted nets and tie-downs (all over the entire car) to secure the loads. It's a very thoughtful bit of engineering.
I spent the night in Globe, Ariz., where a severe bout of homesickness set in. I was watching a family have breakfast, the kids laughing and playing with Matchbox cars while mom and dad smooched. Misty-eyed, I watched as the 3-year-old conked his little brother with Thomas the Train, drawing a nasty gash across the forehead. Meanwhile, the little girl had thrown up her Kool-Aid-colored Cheerios into mom's lap and everyone was screaming. Suddenly, 500 miles seemed terribly, terribly close.
The 9-5 Aero has so far averaged 29 mpg and will hit 130 mph with no problem. The sport-tuned suspension is perfect for long-range touring, and the automatic transmission is a good match for the motor. Despite my initial reluctance, the 9-5 Aero has proven to be a wonderful companion, the marrying-type, if you will.
Priced at $40,875, this car ain't cheap, but it is very, very good. Right now, I'm taking it to Mammoth for a few days of snowboarding. Saab literature states the 9-5 Aero is the ultimate sport utility for active people. Looks like we picked the right car.