ATLANTA — The new upgrades tossed at the '02 Saab 9-5 might be compared to an appetizer: Wonderful, maybe, but pushed aside when the main course arrives.
With a major overhaul coming to Saab's higher-volume 9-3 this summer — which should catapult the auto maker from niche status into serious sales competition with other European luxury makes — the minor improvements bestowed upon the '02 9-5 may seem like little more than light snack for Saab fans. But it still continues a Saab tradition by quenching (if only temporarily) a hunger for invigorating driving experiences.
That's confirmed by a day of driving that begins downtown here and includes swings through Stone Mountain state park and along the banks of Lake Lanier.
(Before we go any further, know that Saab has changed 9-5's model designation. Each '02 version now is obtusely named after its “architectural” form: Linear, Arc and Aero.)
Of the enhancements given to the 9-5 model range, the chassis upgrades demand attention. The '02 9-5 features Saab's first Electronic Stability Program and updates to the traction control system. The TCS is a dual-mode system that operates on the front brakes individually — transferring torque to the wheel with the most traction. The new equipment and chassis refinement help, especially reducing pitch and roll for level cornering. But, curiously, the traction control and ESP fiddling don't conspire to eliminate longstanding complaints about turbocharged Saabs, such as heavy wheelspin at the driven front wheels and madcap torque steer. The suspension also is a bit harsh on less-than-perfect road surfaces. Perhaps the recent recall of some '02 9-5s for a faulty front suspension may solve this matter.
The 9-5 range offers three turbocharged engine choices: Linear's 2.3L inline 4-cyl. (185 hp), Arc's 3L V-6 (200 hp) and Aero's 2.3L 4-cyl. turbo, which receives a 10% power boost to 250 hp. Here's a shocker: The new GM-made 5-speed automatic transmission, which replaces a 4-speed unit, may be more fun to drive than the manual gearbox. The automatic's shorter overall gearing reduces turbo lag. However, the action on the 5-speed manual is light and enjoyable.
The 9-5's interior is gorgeous and considerably more user-friendly than most European competitors. But our rain-sensing wipers didn't work, and the gas and brake pedals were too closely spaced. And will Saab ever let us take the key out of the ignition without placing the manual shifter in reverse?