Saab's new 2.2-litre TiD Vector diesel is intended to appeal to company car drivers who want to be 'individualistic'.
In other words, they do not want to drive a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, believing it gives them the wrong image and makes the world judge them in an unflattering light. And that's exactly the same tack taken by Audi over the past few years with the A6, and recently by Renault with the new Vel Satis.
So for those Merc and Beemerphobes, these three cars could do the job. All have great diesel engines, plenty of style and good specification levels.
The Saab has had a number of minor revisions: the nose has been smoothed slightly and the grille has been chromed up a little, but the exterior changes are so minute as to make virtually no difference.
There is no argument that the car that stands out the most of the three is the Vel Satis, with its staccato sharp lines and funky detailing. The other two are much more low-key, mainly because they have been around a while, but are still handsome without being head-turning.
The Audi is a long way ahead when it comes to fuel consumption. It averages 48.7mpg on the combined cycle, followed by the Saab with 42.8mpg and the Vel Satis some way off at 39.8mpg.
If a driver does 20,000 miles with diesel averaging 75p a litre, they would be paying more than £300 a year less to fuel it up than for the Vel Satis, and nearly £200 less than for the Saab. That's quite a saving, especially over a number of vehicles.
As for residuals, the 9-5 stands up well, at £7,900/36% three-years/ 60,000-miles against the Audi at £7,750/34%, according to CAP Monitor. The Vel Satis suffers in this company, and despite being the cheapest loses the largest percentage of its value, returning £6,750/32%. It is not miles behind the other two though, and despite the legendary struggles of the 'volume' manufacturers in the premium sector, and its contentious styling, it manages to hang onto the others' coat-tails – just.
But concern about its residual value by cautious leasing companies means the Vel Satis cannot compete in monthly rentals with the other two. HSBC Vehicle Finance reckons on the Saab and Audi holding firm at £7,685 and £8,116 respectively after three- years/60,000-miles while the Renault wallows at a measly £5,421 over the same period.
As a result, despite very good maintenance costs, the Vel Satis is £50 a month more expensive to lease than the other two, which is a serious blow to its ability to compete. When it comes to reliability, the Saab and the Audi are well proven. Although the 9-5 has more than 1,200 changes in its latest incarnation, it is a pretty safe bet that most of the componentry is still the tried and trusted kit that has been serving the car well for the last few years.
The Vel Satis uses a lot of the technology first seen on the Laguna, such as the keycard, and it would be reasonable to expect that the electronic glitches suffered by early Lagunas have been ironed out now. Time will tell.
If options and equipment are a driver's main concern, then the Vel Satis is streets ahead. At its launch it was obvious Renault had ensured it was more loaded than an A6, and with automatic parking brake, headlights and windscreen wipers, tyre pressure monitors, ABS, ESP, traction control, cruise control, CD player, climate control and trip computer, it also beats the well-specced 9-5. The Vel Satis also has the most space of the three, both in the back and in the boot, although none of them would struggle with the day-to-day travails of family and business life.
If drivers are keen to avoid giving the Treasury money, the Audi is the winner. With a spectacularly low CO2 rating of 154 g/km, it will reside in the lowest 18% band for the next two years, and then only rise to 19% in 2004/2005.
A 40% tax-payer will fork out £1,618 next year and the year after, followed by the 9-5 (175g/km) at £1,762 this year, and the Vel Satis (188g/km), at £1,866. Be warned though, the real hit on the Saab and Renault will come in the second and third years as the bands get tougher. By the third year, the Vel Satis will be charged at 26%, costing £2,205 a year in tax.
As much as it pains me to say this, because I like the car and respect the boldness of its approach, the Vel Satis just cannot cut it in this company.
Doubts about its residual value and the resulting high monthly rentals hamper it. It is also much thirstier than the other two and more expensive in tax. The Vel Satis is destined for those who want to be different, but ignoring the economic downsides would take a lot of stubborness.
Which leaves the A6 and 9-5. The 9-5 has plenty of character and in Vector form looks very good – particularly the dash and those hacked alloy wheels. But it doesn't have the same quality feel of plastics inside as the A6, nor as good a seating position, and tends to fall just behind its German competition in most of the monetary areas that count: fuel economy, tax, residuals, and rental rates.
The two are both very well sorted cars, and it would be easy to choose the Saab and be well happy with it, but from a fleet standpoint, the A6 squeaks into the top spot. Just.
Behind the wheel
The faux aluminium in the Vector models certainly spruces up the ageing dash of the 9-5 and manages to tread the right side of the fine line between looking swanky and looking naff.
However, despite a number of changes to the car, nothing has been done about the poor seating position and lack of flexibility of the steering column, which means taller drivers sit high with their arms outstretched.
With cars in this sector being the size they are, there should be no reason why all human forms cannot be accommodated in the ideal position. Comfortable seats go some way to helping this unfortunate set-up though.
The steering has definitely improved and now talks back to the driver more than it did in the old car. I drove this car on a trip to the Yorkshire Dales. As I swept past assorted flat capped types sat on dry stone walls dreaming of Nora Batty lookalikes I found myself really enjoying the car's sportier suspension and steering.
Apparently the front springs and subframe have been stiffened, the anti-roll bar has been beefed up and the steering rack is now lower geared to cope with the extra rigidity at the front end.
The light, spongy feel of the gearbox has never been a strong Saab value and nothing has changed with this model. The brakes are poor for this class of car, but overall the 9-5 is much more fun to drive than it was.
The 125bhp engine is not fiercely powerful but it has enough torque (206lb-ft at 1,500rpm) to ensure that a driver can hustle the 9-5 along when needed, and make overtaking safe.
Having driven the 3.0-litre V6 diesel, which has a rather manic edge to the way it bullies the power through the front wheels, the 2.2 feels more composed, suffering from less torque steer and is much, much less demanding of the traction control system.
Up at motorway speeds, the 2.2 TiD performs like all good quality diesels and is quiet and flexible. It sits comfortably at high speed and low revs.
The new 9-5 is a big improvement over the last version, despite the fact that from the outside it is nigh-on impossible to tell. Get behind the wheel and you soon find the 9-5 is equally at home as a dasher and a cruiser. It has finally become the car it always should have been.