Diesel is the only area of the premium car sector showing strong growth, and Saab joined the fray in September with a new diesel engine for its facelifted 9-5 range. It is the first time the 9-5 has been available as a diesel.
The new 3.0 V6 diesel will be followed by the 2.2TiD already powering the 9-3 range and needs to be good if it is to compete with the likes of Audi, Mercedes, BMW and soon Volvo.
Revisions to the range, from the outside at least, seem slightly less subtle than the recent Audi A6 facelift. Although Saab says there are 1,265 changes altogether, the exterior revisions amount to new lights front and rear, and a front bumper 20mm further forward to give the nose a sleeker profile, while the radiator grille is now integrated into the bumper.
It's all very discreet and understated - typical of Saab and essential in this sector of the market. We can't have people driving round in £25,000 cars bought only three months ago which now look obsolete.
But there are numerous chassis tweaks to endow the 9-5 with a more spirited performance and there are three interior trim choices to replace the current S and SE specifications. They have an 'architectural' theme. The entry-level is 'Linear'; a warm, wood and leather interior called 'Arc'; while a sporty cloth/leather and aluminium design is called 'Vector'. The Aero will only be available in one trim level based on Vector.
Despite the changes, the cabin is still similar to the current 9-5. The seats are still superb, the dashboard layout is virtually identical, and there are still the neat features like the multi-layered directional vents and cupholder with its satisfying damped movement - both works of art.
As well as a new diesel, the high-performance 9-5 Aero has had another 20bhp liberated from its engine, while maximum torque is now 258lb-ft, with an extra boost which comes in under full throttle taking the peak to 273lb-ft for short bursts. Remarkably, both fuel economy and carbon dioxide emissions are improved over its previous incarnation.
The new 3.0 V6 TiD is an Isuzu unit which has been built to Saab's specifications. A version of the engine will be used by Renault in the Vel Satis next year, and as a result of the General Motors and Fiat link, there is a strong possibility we could see diesel Alfas using the engine in future.
It seems many manufacturers have faith in the unit as a capable performer for an executive contender and in the 9-5 matches the peak torque figure for the Aero.
There will be no automatic version of the 3.0TiD, however. The five-speed gearbox will not fit and with only a limited life left in the model (probably little more than two years) it was not worth the re-engineering work needed to accommodate it.
However, the 2.2TiD will be available as an automatic when it goes on sale next year.
Saab forecasts that a quarter of 9-5 sales in the UK will be the new diesel models when the range is completed with the 2.2TiD early in 2002.
In the UK all models will have a hands-free telephone facility and 16-inch alloy wheels as standard, while the Aero will have a full-leather interior. Prices will be announced early in August.
My first stint in the new 9-5 was in the TiD which was finished in the sporty 'Vector' trim. It's a shame more executive manufacturers can't seem to grasp that not everyone wants slices of tree around the car's interior. The aluminium effect works well while the dashboard layout is clear and logical - a calm and relaxing environment.
The TiD starts with the usual diesel 'clatter', but settles down to a deep six-cylinder warble. There is no problem with the volume of noise from the engine, but it does have a unique quality. From idle to around 2,000rpm it sounds like a truck engine - not loud, but sharing the same sort of character.
I don't want anyone reading this to think the TiD has an agricultural engine because it hasn't. It just doesn't sound like the diesels from BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Volvo. However, above the 2,000rpm mark the engine note is more muted and in terms of refinement it beats Audi's 2.5 V6 TDI.
With the same torque as the Aero, the TiD certainly isn't lacking in punch. In 'real-world' acceleration the TiD does the job almost as well as the Aero. Accelerating from 50 - 70mph in fifth gear, the TiD does the job in 8.8 seconds - just 1.5 seconds behind the Aero, and 1.5 seconds quicker than the 185bhp 2.3t.
The only area where the TiD falls down is its fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, the figures are the best in the 9-5 range, but they aren't quite as good as some of its rivals. The Saab's fuel consumption figure of 38.2mpg and emissions rating of 197g/km do not compare favourably against the BMW 5-Series diesel. The 163bhp 525d has figures of 42.2mpg and 179g/km, while the 184bhp 330d returns 39.8mpg and 189g/km. Similarly the new 155bhp Audi A6 2.5 V6 TDI records 40.9mpg on the combined cycle and has CO2 emissions of 186g/km.
However, the Saab is superior to the 180bhp four-wheel drive 2.5 V6 TDI quattro. The latest 9-5 certainly feels sharper than before, with less body roll and more communicative steering. Ride quality isn't quite as cosseting as the current model, but I am not complaining. The 9-5 is now as dynamic as its clean lines suggest.
During a break in our route I tested the 9-5's electronic stability programme within the confines of a military airfield. Traction control is available as an option on Arc and Vector models, while the Aero has the ESP version.
The first challenge was a double lane change at 45mph, followed by a lane change at 70mph. Both the manoeuvres were carried out on a trailing throttle without using the brakes - the perfect recipe for lift-off oversteer and made more exciting by light rain falling on the track.
The first attempt with ESP off sent cones flying all over as well as under the car, although by manhandling the steering wheel the 9-5 remained facing the direction of travel.
Doing the same manoeuvres 5mph faster with the ESP on made quite a difference, requiring much less effort to keep within the cones and it was possible to feel the braking pressure being applied to individual wheels to ensure the back end was kept in line.
For the return leg of the test route I chose the Aero estate with the five-speed automatic gearbox. The wagon is an attractive load lugger and is second only to the Volvo V70 in UK sales for premium estates, while the automatic gearbox seems the perfect companion. It won't downchange for the sake of it when you squeeze the throttle, instead swiftly building up speed through the readily available torque.
The only worry is that the quality of the plastic on the gearstick and the selector was of the same grade as found in a Vauxhall Astra. While it does its job, it needs to be better.
Despite subtle styling changes the latest 9-5 has been given a more thorough transformation under the skin. The chassis tweaks make the 9-5 more of a driver's car than before, while the new diesel performs well enough to tackle Saab's key opposition.