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Pre-production drive of early Saab 9-5 estate shows it's a car with real promise

This is a pre-production variant of the Saab 9-5 SportWagon, which will go on sale in September. Examples are being tuned in the UK now; Saab intends to tune chassis of all its future models in Britain in future – something it used to do before GM canned the practice.

We've driven three SportWagons, with three different chassis settings. Spring, damper and roll bar rates are all re-tuned from current saloons, and there are new top mounts for the front suspension.

The changes to the chassis have the potential to turn the 9-5 from an also-ran into a competitive car in this sector

The cars we drove were made from early production tooling, so a lot of the moulds weren’t yet grained. Materials were good enough, though, to make you realise that the 9-5 wagon will get a capacious (527 litre) and well-finished luggage area, with a deep under-floor storage well. There's ample room in the back seats, too, though you'd expect nothing less of a car over 5m long.

To drive? The Wagon is promising. An entry point 'comfort' chassis setting is in its early tuning stages, which has the potential to be satisfyingly engaging if a jiggly secondary ride can be sorted.

A passively-damped Sports chassis is more or less finished, and it proves pretty good. It controls body movements very well and is pleasingly agile, though it too could use its low speed ride being smoothed; it's harsh below around 40mph.

For me, best was the optional DriveSense chassis, which brings with it magnetically-controlled dampers. These sort out the ride while retaining the sport chassis' body control, at the expense of occasionally being caught out by sudden changes in suspension loading, such as mid-corner bumps. The passive 'Sports' chassis is more honest and more consistent, but until its ride is improved, the DriveSense chassis is superior.

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All three steer pleasingly; more so than any front-drive rivals - consistent, accurate, responsive and linear.

These chassis set-ups will make their way onto 9-5 saloons, too - Saab's intention is that you won't be able to tell the difference unless you look over your shoulder.

The Wagon's front cockpit, then, is the same as the saloon's: a mix of interesting Saab-esque touches and a few GM hangovers that prevent the 9-5 feeling as premium as a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

Ditto the diesel powertrains. There's nothing wrong with the delivery, but while Saab has done what it can with the NVH, and it's miles ahead of a Vauxhall Insignia, noise levels are below class average.

Maybe. We predict there’ll still be a couple of rough edges, especially if you’re looking for a diesel drivetrain that has the same finesse as a BMW or a Mercedes.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Saab 9-5 2010-2011 First drives