And we thought it was enough to keep the 9-5 fresh until its replacement a couple of years down the line.
But at the Frankfurt Motor Show Saab unveiled the 2004 version of the 9-5 with revisions so subtle you almost need a microscope to see them.
From the outside it amounts to new front foglamps and new design alloy wheels for Aero models. Keen-eyed observers will also spot different front and rear bumpers and re-profiled sill extensions on the Aero.
Inside the differences are also difficult to spot. There is a new optional carbon fibre trim insert for the dashboard of the top model, while the rest of the range benefits from the 9-3-style Saab Information Display.
There are a few other cosmetic changes inside but you would be hard-pressed to point them out to colleagues, friends and family. However, perhaps most importantly, the new 9-5 comes with the 9-3's seatbelt reminder function, with separate visible and audible warnings for driver and front seat passenger.
This feature enabled the 9-5 to score five stars for occupant protection when it was re-tested earlier this year.
Previously the 9-5 had been the first car to achieve a four-star rating, but taking lessons learnt from the 9-3, Saab was able to improve its performance and join the elite group of five-star cars.
Also new for 2004 is a four-cylinder turbocharged engine to replace the auto-only 3.0-litre V6, offering business users a high-performance (but not the highest) version with respectable carbon dioxide emissions for modest benefit-in-kind tax liability.
One factor that scuppered the old 3.0-litre V6 model's low tax liability was that it came with an automatic transmission only, a recipe for high emissions in the majority of cars throughout the industry.
However, the new 217bhp 2.3T, which slots between the 2.3t and Aero, is available as both a five-speed manual and five-speed auto, the former offering benefit-in-kind tax in the 26% bracket for the saloon. Not bad for a large petrol car with moderately sporty intentions.
The rest of the engine range remains the same, with the all-turbo line-up of four cylinder petrol models plus a four-cylinder turbodiesel and a potent Isuzu-sourced V6 turbodiesel with common rail injection.
So this is probably the final incarnation of the current Saab 9-5, with insiders indicating there will be no all-new model until at least 2005, with the company keen to complete the line-up of the smaller 9-3 with a Sport Hatch to complement the saloon due next year.
There are more interesting things afoot for Saab in the United States with a Subaru-based compact model called the 9-2 on the way next year, plus a large sports utility vehicle called the 9-7 to follow, sharing a production line in the US with sister GM SUV models.
There is talk of a smaller SUV model for Europe further down the line which should help boost Saab's role as General Motors' premium brand.
Behind the wheel
THE chiselled features of the Saab 9-5 have long been admired by drivers who prefer something different from the usual posh badges in the company car park.
Choosing a Saab over other premium cars is not really seen as taking a consolation prize if a BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi or perhaps Jaguar was not available. Perhaps it has something to do with the connection with military aircraft, or the fact that more 'educated' (those with university degrees) people choose Saabs than any other premium brand.
The 9-5 appears to be ageing well, but perhaps this is because the only key rivals with more modern faces at the moment are the BMW 5-series and Mercedes-Benz E-class.
However, it is still a handsome shape and although the 2004 update is difficult to tell apart, the overall design is one of its strongest assets.
Little has changed inside, too. Displays are more in keeping with the new 9-3 and the carbon-fibre trim (optional in the Aero) is a nice touch and looks far better than the fake plastic efforts in some cars.
It has a fine driving position and the interior has always been roomy enough for five to travel in comfort.
The 9-5's chassis has always disguised its humble origins rather well. It is based on the last Vauxhall Vectra, a car that held little appeal for the driver at least until its chassis was given a thorough going over for its 1998 mid-term facelift.
The 9-5 was probably the best of the front-wheel drive executive cars for driver enjoyment, although it was always rather easy for the front wheels to squirm under hard acceleration in the more powerful models.
Changes introduced to the 9-5 two years ago included an excellent electronic stability control programme which gently intervenes to bring the car back into line in sudden high-speed swerves.
All of this is still present, and while there is a little body roll when taking bends at higher speeds, the ride quality is supple and only corrupted on the more powerful variants with larger wheels fitted as standard.
Trading in two cylinders for a few extra horsepower on the new 2.3T seems a fair swap, as it is also significantly cheaper on list price than the 3.0-litre petrol, starting at £22,500 on-the- road. The four-cylinder engine does become rather raucous above about 5,000rpm but there is rarely any need to rev so high as it offers plenty of pulling power low down.
Maximum torque on all petrol 9-5s is available from 1,800rpm, while the mighty Aero offers an overboost facility for maximum acceleration.
This 247bhp beast is still one of the best bargains for balancing performance with low company car tax in the UK. The only real criticism from driving the car is the new five-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddles for manual changes. The time it takes to change up feels too long, particularly in a car so keen to gain speed.
THERE is life in the old Saab yet, with the new 2.3T engine offering a combination of strong performance, modest carbon dioxide emissions and a low entry price. However, the Aero remains a high-performance BIK tax champion. P>
|9-5 fact file|
|Engine (cc):||1,985||2,290||2,290||2,290||2,171||2,958||Max power (bhp/rpm):||148/5,500||182/5,500||217/5,500||247/5,300||118/4,000||174/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||177/1,800||207/1,800||229/1,800||258/1,900||207/1,500||258/1,800|
|Max speed (mph sal/est):||134/134 (131/127)||143/140 (140/137)||146/143 (143/140)||155/152 (155/152)||124/122 (122/118)||133/131|
|0-60mph (sec):||9.0/9.6 (11.0/11.7)||7.9/8.4 (9.0/9.4)||7.5/8.0 (8.4/8.7)||6.5/6.9 (7.8/8.1)||10.4/11.3 (12.5/13.0)||8.9/9.3|
|Comb fuel economy (mpg):||32.8/31.4 (27.4/26.6)||31.7/31.0 (28.2/27.4)||31.7/29.4 (27.4/27.4)||32.1/31.4 (28.8/28.0)||42.8/40.1 (38.2/37.2)||38.7/37.2|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||204/214 (244/251)||212/217 (238/246)||213/229 (247/247)||209/214 (232/240)||175/178 (197/202)||191/202|
|Transmission:||5-sp man,||optional-5sp auto||(not 3.0TiD)|
|Service intervals (miles):||12,000||or according to||dash warning|