The contrasting fortunes of Sweden’s two mainstream car manufacturers were thrown into fairly stark relief this month with the almost simultaneous release of brand new products from both of them, the Volvo S60 and Saab 9-5.
But what is almost as interesting as the relative merits of each of these new cars is how they came to be and where the companies that made them go from here. In many ways what lies beneath these cars says more about contrasting attitudes at Ford and General Motors, former owners of Volvo and Saab respectively, than they do about the marques themselves.
Consider the similarities. After struggling against the growing might of largely German rivals, both were sold to American giants – Saab in 1989, Volvo in ’98. But while GM demonstrated how little it understood what made a Saab a Saab, Ford showed a somewhat surer touch with Volvo, just as it had with other acquisitions such as Land Rover and Aston Martin. It recognised that the Volvo brand could be lengthened in both directions, adding cars at both ends of its range while simultaneously broadening Volvo’s appeal by improving quality and style without ever abandoning the safety-ﬁrst reputation upon which the brand was built. By contrast GM did next to nothing for Saab, and what little effort it did make in badge-engineering some unworthy product from elsewhere in its empire in the hope that somehow it might sell as a Saab did no credit to GM and huge damage to Saab.
Within the last year both Ford and GM have ofﬂoaded these loss-making subsidiaries, Volvo to Geely Holdings, the largest independent car company in China. Saab seemed set for oblivion until, at the last minute, a deal was done with the tiny Dutch Spyker concern, best known for a brief sortie into F1 in 2006-7 and some ultra-low volume, expensive and odd-looking Audi-powered supercars.
Which brings us to the new cars each has just launched, each one developed while the brands were American owned, which means both are underpinned by off-the-peg platforms designed for a wide range of products. Which is why the Volvo shares much of its structure with a Ford Mondeo, while under the skin the 9-5 is a close relative of the Vauxhall Insignia.
But drive the Volvo and you’d never know it. This is platform sharing at its best, where the economies of scale it brings to the manufacturer are effectively invisible to the customer. It not only looks like a Volvo inside and out, it drives like one too.
Even so, this will be good news only to some people. Volvo claims the S60 to be the most sporting car it has ever made, a claim made bad by the fact that it is rubbish and worse because it’ll deter people who’d actually be extremely well suited to it. It’s beautifully put together, has the best cabin in a class populated by BMWs, Mercs and Audis, and by compact saloon standards is an exceptionally pleasant long-distance companion. No, it’s not any fun to drive, but I don’t see that deterring too many people minded to put a Volvo on their shopping list. But it is quiet, comfortable, characterful, stylish and safe, which are likely to be much more persuasive talents. So it’s not the most sporting Volvo ever, merely one of the best: you’d have thought that’d be enough.
Sadly the 9-5 is far from one of Saab’s best products. While the S60 makes a real case for itself against the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class, the 9-5 has to do the same against the 5-series and E-class, a comparison from which it has no hope of emerging even with its head held high, let alone proving itself to be a convincing alternative.
Unlike the Volvo, which conceals its origins so completely, the 9-5 feels like a Vauxhall Insignia from the moment you climb aboard. That’s not saying Vauxhall’s ﬂagship is in any way a bad car, indeed it managed rather surprisingly to beat the exceptional Ford Fiesta to the 2008 European Car of the Year award. But for the money being asked for the 9-5 (prices start at £26,495), it’s not nearly good enough.
True, there’s not a lot actually wrong with the 9-5, but that would be a strange reason for recommending a car. I’ve always thought that every car on sale, be it fast or slow, cheap or expensive, should have something to point to which says, ‘this is why you should buy this car’. And it is this critical factor that the relentlessly unremarkable 9-5 lacks.
VOLVO S60 FACTFILE
ENGINE: 2953cc six-cylinder turbo
TOP SPEED: 155mph
POWER: 304bhp @ 5600rpm
FUEL/CO2: 28.5mpg, 231g/km
SAAB 9-5 FACTFILE
ENGINE: 1998cc four-cylinder
TOP SPEED: 149mph
POWER: 220bhp @ 5300rpm
FUEL/CO2: 22.8mpg, 194g/km