Botched : 2008 Saab 9.5

Shooting fish in a barrel? 

(c) saabworld

Historically, long production runs had been something of a holy writ at Trollhätten. As an independent company, Saab’s engineering integrity, coupled with well-judged updates and their slightly left of centre appeal meant the frequently cash-strapped carmaker could eke out model lines long after rival offerings had succumbed to the inevitable.

General Motors’ 50% equity acquisition of Saab in 1989 inevitably precipitated a shared platform strategy, one which spawned both the NG-series 900/ 9-3 and the larger 9-5 models. The latter arrived in 1998 as a replacement for the then long-in-the-tooth 9000 series which had debuted a good fourteen years previously. [A mere stripling in traditional Trollhätten terms].

Like its immediate predecessor, the 9-5 was to some extent a well-regarded wallflower of a car. Broadly competent in most significant areas and not unattractive, especially in more elegantly wrought Sportwagon versions. However, it never really set anyone’s heart a’ flutter, or significantly aided Saab’s push further upmarket, in line with General Motors’ ambitions for the marque.

The 9-5 received two significant facelifts over its lifespan, the second and most controversial occurring eight years into its career in 2006. This saw, amongst other alterations, significant stylistic revisions to both nose and tail, much, it has to said, to the car’s detriment.

What tended to receive the lion’s share of critical opprobrium was confined to the treatment of the revised headlamp units, which by themselves were perfectly acceptable. However, the chromed surrounds with which Saab stylists saw fit to garnish them were quite understandably vilified. It’s difficult to rationalise what creative thinking might have sat behind this move, but while this feature remains the most frequently cited visual affront, it wasn’t in fact the worst.


For this we must travel aft, to the rear of the car, where Saab’s designers altered the bootlid pressing, tail lamps and rear bumper clip. All to the good in theory perhaps, but close examination suggests that each element appears to have been designed in a hermetically sealed vacuum.

Now I’m all for well executed asymmetry, (which may have been the intention here), but in this instance nothing quite gels. The tail-lamp lenses not only have the appearance of being misaligned (a consequence of their curiously ill-defined shapes), but either due to an optical illusion or a production engineering fault, both elements also sit slightly askew of one another.

In addition, a crease was added to the lower portion of the bootlid pressing – we assume to lessen the visual sheerness of the tail treatment. However it fails to harmonise with anything, least of all the revised bumper/ valance panel, a matter which suggests a cheapskate carry-over, whereas it was a new pressing. The combined effect suggests a boot lid off a different car entirely.

Such a ham-fisted example of automotive styling and production engineering places the much-criticised efforts of Centro Stile Fiat into perspective. That it was signed off by Trollhätten management and their GM masters speaks volumes about the level to which the Swedish carmaker had dropped off General Motors’ priority list and how straitened Saab’s fortunes had by then become.

Because buried within this derisory facelift was a thoroughly decent reworking of a thoroughly decent motor car. The fact that it arrived a good four years too late and was fudged so spectacularly illustrates better than any flowchart or company spreadsheet why by mid-decade, Saab’s fate was sealed.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

35 thoughts on “Botched : 2008 Saab 9.5”

  1. Good morning, Eoin. While the “Dame Edna” headlamps attracted most of the criticism, they were, I guess, an attempt to give the car a much more distinctive and recognisable face. But how do you explain the thinking behind the tail lights? As you say, they were an indeterminate shape and the decision not to align the lower edges of both parts is truly inexplicable. The best explanation I can come up with is that they were aping BMW’s similarly awkward treatment on the E92 generation 3 Series Coupé:

    The E90 post-facelift saloon had a similar misalignment, but at the upper edge instead. Likewise, the F10 generation 5 Series:

    In all cases, the effect was to suggest that the two parts of the tail lights came from different cars, which was hardly the designers’ intention.

    1. The deliberate misalignment continued on the F30 generation 3 Series, but has been corrected on the latest G20:

      Likewise, on the current G30 generation 5 Series, the two parts, although still different depths, are rather better alligned:

    2. Is that an optical illusion, or does the G20 still have a little kink in the upper rear light edge? It seems so between the red and the black part, not coinciding with the boot shutline this time.

    3. The E92’s rear lights offended me sufficiently to make me want to improve them. Here’s my first attempt:

      A bit too large? How about this instead:

    4. Ditto the F10. Here’s my first attempt:

      I don’t like the “pointy” junction along the top edge, so tried this instead:

      Actually, the alterations on both cars put me in mind of Honda designs from around the turn of the millennium. That probably says quite a lot about my taste.

  2. The attraction of the stepped lamp outline is that it makes it less apparent when the parts are assembled near the limits of the tolerance. If they profile is continuous across the shut line then it means the boot has to be fitted exactly right 100% of the time. Time is money. In essence, the stepped outline is design for easy assembly. It might also be due to the need to do something, anything, that looks different from the predecessor or competitors.

    1. Hi Richard. Wouldn’t the ease of assembly argument only apply if both top and bottom edges were deliberately “misaligned” or, should we say, stepped? I’m not sure that, in the case of the examples above, the stepped top or bottom edge doesn’t focus even more attention on the alignment or otherwise of the other edge. Anyway, these are all supposedly “premium” cars, so the ease of assembly argument should, one would think, be subordinated to aesthetics. More plausible is your “do something, anything different” hypothesis, which is responsible for many botched facelifts as well.

    2. My father’s Audi A8 (D3) fell prey to its own precision in this regard.

      Its rear needed mending at some point, after which the boot lid and rear wings wouldn’t be perfectly alined anymore. This became most obvious where the two parts of the rear lights didn’t seamlessly join.

    3. The ‘misaligned’ rear lights has become a BMW trope as early as 1986 with the E32 7 series. Interestingly, there it was a one-part light unit with something like an L-shape. You could read it as the bootlid biting into the light cluster or also as the indicator set separately above all the red parts. It looked rather more convincing than most of the examples above, but I remember that I found it a bit strange at that time.

      I wonder if it was done just for difference’s sake or to emphasize the indicator (a safety feature?).

    4. Daniel: one stepped junction is a bit easier than none and a bit harder than two. Perhaps the part can be nudged up or down a bit more easily.
      Simon´s BMW example doesn´t offend me, possibly because it is open to so many interpretations.

    5. This is indeed a long standing BMW design trope. When introduced in the 1980s, it was a somewhat discordant detail but signified change, and since became a recognisable detail all by itself.

      As with all aspects of BMW design at the moment, the current team don’t seem to know what to do with it.

    6. I liked the earlier iteration of stepped rear lamps on the E46 generation 3 Series, E34 generation 5 Series and E32 generation 7 Series. The red elements are connected by strong horizontal lines including the bodyside crease and, in the case of the E34 and E32, the bottom edge of the boot lid. As Simon points out, the indicators sit separately atop the red elements and above the bodyside crease, so still look cohesive.

      The E92 generation 3Series coupé might have worked better if the dropped section on the wing had been deeper and not edged in red, to emphasise that it should be read as separate and subordinate to the red section.

      Jacomo’s conclusion about current BMW design sums up the situation nicely.

    7. The way the L-Shaped rear lights “speaks” with the Hofmeister Knick on that E32 is beyond words… A work of art!

  3. Was never that much of a fan of the 9-5 in any of its iterations – somehow it reminded me of an early generation Vauxhall Carlton, which was nice enough in itself, but, not very SAAB.

    I much preferred its predecessor, in fact I now realise that I am a bit obsessed with the Type 4 cars, of which the 9000 and the Thema were nice examples, possibly edged by the Alfa 164 in the desirability stakes. I recall the 9000 coming tops in the inaugural Car Giant Test featuring the Rover 800, and I think it lodged in my head as having to be a bit special because it saw off the very aerodynamic Audi 100 (as well as the 800 and the Granada).

    The 9-5 was replaced by the ill-fated and under-developed second generation model of 2010, and that’s a car I really liked, at least from a design perspective. It looked suitably solid, strong and with not a little grace – as such it edges out the Rover 75 as the biggest ‘what might have been’ car of the last 20 years in my book.

    1. Nice to find another Type 4 fan. I liked the 9000’s original iteration as well as the later CS type. The CD was too conservative for my taste. Thema and 164 are cars I could imagine to own. And even the humble Croma, always a bit overshadowed by its upscale siblings, is not without appeal for me. I cycle past one example almost every day, and it’s always brightening up my early morning routine.

      The last of the 9-5s in estate guise is something I like for its scarcity. Compared to that, even my C6 seems like an ordinary mass-production appliance.

    2. I never understood the thinking behind Saab expensively reworking the rear end of the hatchback 9000. Here’s the original 9000:

      Here’s the CS:

      Was the CS considered more elegant, with its simpler glazing pattern? I seem to recall vaguely something about increasing body torsional stiffness, but I might be imagining that. Does anyone have any better explanation? I actually really liked The CD saloon, thinking it handsome, if quite conservative.

    3. The Saab 9000 was the first new car I remember noticing as a school-kid. We were standing on a street corner and one rolled by; one of my class-mates declared “best car in the world”. That stuck with me, even if it´s not 100% true. That said, it actually is a damn good car, faults and all.

    4. The original 9000 looks more static and rectilineal, whereas the CS has rather flowing lines. This is emphasized by the better integrated, horizontal rear lights. The original lights look rather basic and grafted on to my eyes. By the way I can also see som traces of the 99’s and 900’s fastback in the bent line of the CS. But maybe I’m all wrong, and they just saved two windows for cost reasons. And I can still see why one might like the original, purer lines better.

    5. Yes, I also had time for the Croma, which was the ‘everyman’ Type 4, offering great value, space and practicality, like a modern day Superb or Insignia. The joy of the Type 4s was that they each managed to be embued with the essence of their respective brands, whilst sharing the same basic platform. The 9000 had a terrific dash and huge interior, as I recall.

    6. Giugiaro did an excellent job here and managed to give the Lancia and Saab distinct personalities despite of the identical looking (but not interchangable) doors.
      Other Saabs were not so easy to identify – look at this one with an astonishing similarity to an Italian vehicle:

    7. Good morning, Gooddog and Dave and thanks both. Dave, I am amazed that the 9000 and Thema doors aren’t interchangeable. Do you have any idea why that is the case? Gooddog’s linked piece says that the 9000 and Croma doors are interchangeable, but the former are heavier because of side-impact reinforcement absent from the latter.

    1. John: “That´d be a gestalt matter,” as Simon Kearne blurts out from his sherry-soaked heap of car magazines and take-away cartons. I could not call those steppped but bent. The chrome edge keeps them firmly outside the boot shuline, wouldn´t you say?

    2. I really like the way the Avenger’s tail lights carry the wing-top crease down and around the boot lid, to continue across the rear panel. It’s a really nice piece of (literally) joined-up thinking and design. I think the lights were often referred to as “hockey stick shaped” back in the day. They survived until the Avenger became a Chrysler, when someone thought this would be an improvement:

      Note the crude capping to minimise the alterations required to the rear quarter panel.

    3. Daniel, didn’t MB do the same thing to the rear lamps to the facelift of that hatchback C Class they made a few years back? Plus ça change, and all that!

    4. Hi S.V. Well remembered. The W203 generation C-Class had a three-door hatchback variant called the CL203 SportCoupé. Here it is, with its unusual rear hatch glazing and tail lights:

      When the W203 was replaced by the W204, thd SportCoupé was facelifted to become the CLC it was given the W204 front end and a much more conventional rear end, complete with triangular fillers to cover the upper corners of the rear quarter panels:

      Not Mercedes-Benz’s finest hour. It was built in Brazil and only survived three years in production.

    5. SV and Daniel: I´d not noticed that revision of the Mercedes. It´s an unusually cheap and awful solution – I am not sure which other car company I´d expect it from, maybe GM N America or Fiat perhaps. Even then it would be something of a long-term record holder for badness.

    1. Yes, the 90s BMW´s are stepped – as Simon S says you can imagine a bit of lamp is “hidden” or “missing” or it looks as if that is the case. In the case of the Avenger it looks “as if” a vertical lamp has been bent sideways or a horizontal lamp has been bent upwards. On reflection, it looks “as if” the bootlid has pressed down into horizontal lamps. I call this interpetation mode “looking as if”. It depends on having an understanding of physical transformations like cutting, bending, twisitng, chopping etc and applying that intuition to solid, static objects.
      The peaks on the lamps slightly defeats the deformation-by-downward-force interpretation. And the lamps don´t look extended either. It´s ambiguous but not, in my way of looking, stepped.
      I hope this sounds reasonable – you could view it other way, I am only saying how I´d interpret that form.

    1. The “bent” interpretation is certainly the most rational. It certainly looks like what the designer (Roy Axe?) had in mind:

      The centre line running through the lens which carries the crease from the wing top to rear panel is more obvious in this early sketch than in reality.

    2. S. V., I talked to people who worked with/for Roy Axe, who unanimously stated that he was very much an ‘American’ designer. For that reason, I wouldn’t rule out his direct involvement in the Hillman’s design.

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