Both General Motors and Ford tried to buy Jaguar at the start of the Nineties, but there could only be one winner. So, GM bought SAAB instead, starting an exciting era for the two companies. In 1998, both of them launched new executive cars. Words Craig Cheetham. Photography Paul Walton.
Born again – twin test
S-TYPE vs SAAB 9-5 – Ford and GM’s view of European executive cars. General Motors and Ford both tried to buy Jaguar at the start of the Nineties; the loser bought SAAB instead. In 1998, each company launched new executive saloons, the S-TYPE and 9-5. We drive them side-by-side to discover which is the best today.
In the early Eighties, Jaguar could have gone the way of Thomas Cook, MG Rover or Northern Rock – it was part of British Leyland and technically insolvent. But, back then, the car industry was seen as a crucial part of Britain’s future, so the Government bailed out the ‘national’ car company rather than watch it collapse.
With Jaguar under the stable leadership of Sir John Egan, the Government divested itself of what it saw as the most saleable of the BL brands, and by 1984 Jaguar Cars Ltd was fully privatised. Because it was a public sale by the Government, no investor could buy more than 15 percent of the company for at least six years, which meant that by the end of the decade, when the option was there to buy a greater percentage, there was suddenly huge interest in the prestigious British brand. It would be the two biggest American car companies that drew swords over who got to own it.
In October 1989, General Motors announced that it was planning to take a minority shareholding in Jaguar in exchange for access to its technology and shared powertrains. In return, it would allow Jaguar to use its V8 engines, rear-drive platforms and have access to the chassis engineers at Lotus, which the American giant had recently bought outright.
The synergies were seen as appealing by both sides, as it would allow GM the opportunity to sell its big V8 saloons in Europe, where its own upmarket brands – Buick and Cadillac – had never really gained any foothold. Plus, Jaguar’s expertise would help GM massively: quality engineering, decent handling and harmonious styling were conspicuous by their absence from Eighties Cadillacs, so the exquisite good taste that defined the British brand would, in theory, result in some great cars across the GM portfolio.
But, we never got to see what GM would have made of Jaguar, for just four weeks after ‘The General’ announced its intentions, on 2 November 1989, Ford came along and bought the company. It was a bombshell that wasn’t well received in the GM boardroom over the other side of Detroit.
Against the expectations of financial analysts who presumed GM would raise its game, a counter-offer to Ford’s US$2.39billion buyout of Jaguar never materialised. Instead, GM decided to look elsewhere for its means of breaking into the European executive car market. At the same time, over in Sweden, the SAAB-Scania group was being restructured to separate the loss-making car business from the profitable truck and bus company. The car side of the company became known as SAAB Automobile AB, and GM saw an opportunity to buy into another upmarket car brand that wasn’t dissimilar from Jaguar at all.
With great cars that were far better made than Jaguars of the same era, but struggling with aged technology and dwindling sales, the only way forward for SAAB was external investment to allow it to develop new cars.
GM came to the table with US$600million, and the chance to double its investment at a later date should it wish to buy the company in its entirety, an option that it exercised in 2000. But, before that, there was a product rejuvenation to crack on with. The first GM-SAAB was the 1994 900, replacing the Swedish firm’s 20-year-old stalwart, but that car was hastily developed on the platform of the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk 3. In the eyes of many of the Swedish brand’s enthusiasts, it wasn’t a ‘true’ SAAB. The acid test, then, would be if GM could develop a ‘proper’ SAAB: one that felt quirky, unique and idiosyncratic. And that car would be the replacement for the 9000, the 9-5, which appeared in 1998.
At the same time, Ford and Jaguar were busily readying the new S-TYPE for its public debut. And that’s what makes this comparison fascinating, as both the S-TYPE and 9-5 are the first examples of a new American parent’s interpretation of what each brand stood for. It could so easily have been the other way around – just as GM expressed first interest in Jaguar, it was Ford that made the initial approach to SAAB-Scania.
Had it gone the other way, would Jaguar now be defunct and SAAB the sister brand of Land Rover? We’ll never know. But, instead, let’s examine these cars in the context of both then and now.
Starting with the S-TYPE, which was revealed with huge pomp and ceremony at the 1998 British Motor Show, Jaguar went to great lengths to talk about how much of an input into the car’s engineering came from the UK engineers. It was, after all, co-developed with the Lincoln LS and powered by Ford-derived engines, the entry-level 3.0-litre S-TYPE having a powerplant developed directly from the Ford DURATEC unit. Not that that’s a bad thing, as anyone who has ever owned an S-TYPE will tell you it’s a cracking engine – flexible, responsive and surprisingly efficient.
Much was made of its ‘Jaguarness,’ with chassis engineering chief Mike Cross being one of the people most quoted by the media. His team had insisted that Lincoln followed Jaguar’s lead rather than vice-versa, as the S-TYPE needed to have great handling and an exceptional ride quality. And it very much did. BMW had benchmarked the BMW E39 5-Series as the dynamic highpoint in the executive class, and the S-TYPE did its best to better it. As cheap and accessible as S-TYPEs are these days, the way that a good one drives is beyond compare.
Then, there were the looks. Described by BBC Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson as looking like a, “Startled pufferfish,” the S-TYPE’s quad headlamps and ovoid grille were supposed to echo the look of the Mk 2. Indeed, a ‘ghost’ of its predecessor appeared in the original S-TYPE TV advertising. You can see what Jaguar was trying to achieve, but it didn’t help the S-TYPE’s cause; across the halls at the same motor show where the S-TYPE debuted, Rover was unveiling its new 75, a car that was as equally retro, but with far more delicate and harmonious styling. Nevertheless, the S-TYPE had its fans and, although it was never as pretty as the bigger XJ, it was certainly interesting.
It’s a shame then, that Ford’s accountants had got their teeth into other areas of the car. The interior was criticised from the outset, with the American influences all too obvious. The steering wheel looked like it was straight out of an Eighties Lincoln or Mercury, the switchgear was haphazard and the leather a bit too shiny. Such was the negative feedback from customers and critics, it took just three years for a facelifted cabin to come in, with a much more traditional Jaguar feel.
Another area where corners were cut didn’t become apparent until later in the S-TYPE’s life. The model, it transpired, had quite an alarming propensity to rust, with rampant underbody corrosion often hidden away behind plastic sill covers. So yes, the Ford influences are definitely there to see, but, in its character and comfort, the S-TYPE was a Jaguar in the traditional mould.
On the road, it is instantly familiar to anyone who has driven any Jaguar built since 1986, with the company’s trademark J-gate gear selector and low-slung driving position making it feel just like a scaled- down XJ – which, of course, was deliberate. But there are details that mark it out as a much more modern car than the X308 XJ it sat alongside in the range. Little touches, such as the electrically adjustable steering column, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers and self-dimming mirrors on the SE Premium example tested here, show that Jaguar was deadly serious about playing the Germans at their own game.
Of all the S-TYPEs at launch, it’s the 3.0 V6 that’s our favourite. The V8 sounds epic, of course, but the V6 is so versatile that there’s no real reason to go any bigger – it’s flexible, tractable and exceptionally smooth, with easily enough power to hustle it along. Its 235bhp was more than a match for its key rivals, yet was discreetly hidden beneath that curvy retro body. The S is a car that’s surprisingly quick partly because it looks quite twee and old fashioned.
It handles beautifully, too. Mike Cross was adamant that the S-TYPE would have the best ride and handling combination of any car in the executive class, and while it doesn’t steer as sharply as some of the German models, the chassis balance and ride quality are unsurpassed. In many ways, it’s very much a true Jaguar.
So could the same be said of the SAAB? After all, it was GM’s second attempt at developing a car for the Swedish brand and the first one hadn’t been universally loved.
SAAB’s heritage was substantially different to Jaguar’s. Whereas Jaguar excelled on racetracks, SAAB’s past was in rallying and aircraft. Indeed, the traditionally curved windscreen of the original 900 was a nod to its aero heritage. SAAB was also famous for its turbocharging, which flew in the face of GM’s mantra, “There ain’t no substitute for cubic inches.” There is, and it’s called forced induction.
At launch, the 9-5 range was made up entirely of petrol-engined, turbocharged cars. At the bottom of the range was a 150bhp 2.0-litre turbo unit, followed by a 185bhp 2.3 four-cylinder. At the top of the tree was a 200bhp 3.0 V6, which was impressively smooth and extremely rapid. But no 9-5 is a slouch – even the 2.0t is capable of exceeding 130mph.
The 9-5 was a beautifully executed car, too. While Ford was busy cost-cutting at Jaguar, the fact that GM didn’t wholly own SAAB until two years after the 9-5 appeared is reflected in the way it maintains certain SAAB attributes. Over-engineered switchgear, the weird placement of the ignition key beside the handbrake and a stubborn refusal to allow shared switches and column stalks into the cabin. Yes, it may have been developed off a GM platform, but the 9-5 was still very much a SAAB.
The same can be said of the bodywork. It is handsome, unusual and also resilient. Scandinavian cars are (or certainly used to be) designed for Scandinavian winters, so the 9-5 is a big, heavy and well-made machine. The 21-year-old example in our photographs wears barely a mark on top and has never seen the sparkly end of a welding torch – all the proof you need that it was a well-engineered and properly built car in the first place. Indeed, it was possibly the last SAAB to be so. After GM bought the company in its entirety in 2000, the rot started to set in – and in more ways than one.
Under the skin is where GM’s cost-savings came in, for beneath the unmistakably SAAB exterior is the chassis of a 1995 Vauxhall Vectra. In Vauxhall flavour, it was a car that took a bit of a bashing from the press, though some of this was unjustified as the Vectra turned out to be quite a decent midsize hatch. The front-wheel-drive platform is called the Epsilon 1 and was offered in different lengths, although the 9-5 was as big as it could go – hence why the 9-5 has unusually long front and rear overhangs. It is rumoured that GM wanted to create a rear-wheel-drive SAAB but that the Swedish firm refused, as front-wheel drive was an essential part of its DNA.
What that does mean, though, is that it handles like a much smaller car, and with SAAB’s perky engines and standard sports suspension it’s a surprisingly agile machine, as well as an extremely comfortable one. It’s just very, very different to what GM may have done had it bought Jaguar. Our test car is a 2.3. It lags behind the Jaguar in output terms by some 50bhp, but it’s in the power delivery that the differences are most apparent. The on-paper performance figures of these two cars aren’t far apart, the Saab riding on the boost of its turbo, the Jaguar on its indefatigable torque.
Like the Jaguar, the 9-5 has a really smooth ride despite its short wheelbase, while the supportive seats and excellent ventilation make it a relaxing car to drive. Vauxhall-Opel was well versed in making cars designed for comfortable long-distance travel because the fleet market was its bread and butter. The 9-5 benefits from those attributes, though it’s no engaging drivers’ car. The handling never feels anything less than safe, but, compared to the Jaguar, its steering is inert and the cabin noise a little more intrusive. It’s a brilliantly packaged vehicle, though, and the quality of the engineering shines through, right down to the intricate gas struts used to keep the boot lid aloft where the ‘posher’ Jaguar makes do with springs.
So, which of these two executive saloons is the better car? Well, at the premium end of the car market any comparison is and always has been subjective, as brand loyalty and styling play a much bigger part than they would if comparing mid-size hatchbacks. There are many SAAB fans who’d never go near a Jaguar and equally as many Jaguar enthusiasts who’d not consider a SAAB.
Compared to their obvious Teutonic rivals, seen by many contemporary testers as the class-leaders, each has flaws (the Jaguar has a cheap-feeling cabin and a very limited model range; the SAAB lacks the dynamic polish of the Germans’ or the perceived quality), though time has shown that there are more S-TYPEs and 9-5s left on our roads than the equivalent Mercedes or BMWs. Whether that’s down to better build quality or a more caring type of owner is difficult to establish, though it’s likely to be a combination of the two – both SAAB and Jaguar have a tradition of attracting enthusiastic owners, or those who keep their cars for a long time.
It was the Jaguar that caused the most excitement when new, partly because it moved the brand in a new direction and partly because it was British, but it was the SAAB that was the more versatile car and arguably easier to live with, especially as it was also offered as an estate. SAAB beat Jaguar to the diesel market, too, though the 9-5’s 2.2-litre TiD unit was a cheap shot to win fleet customers – it was GM’s awful direct-injection engine that was noisy, clattery and hardly suited to an executive car, unlike the S-TYPE’s silky 2.7 TDV6.
Back at the end of the Nineties, though, it was petrol-only for both manufacturers, and each of these cars had an appeal of its own. The SAAB was a rational, practical and still slightly left field choice – an intriguing and interesting marque that ultimately deserved so much more than the tragic end that befell it when GM ran into serious financial difficulties in 2008 and sold the brand to Spyker two years later, only for it to go bust. Whether it would have had the same effect on Jaguar is a question we’ll never know the answer to, but you’d hope the passion and enthusiasm for Jaguar’s amazing heritage meant it could have survived such a cull.
Under Ford, Jaguar found new direction, and it was the oft-maligned S-TYPE that started that reinvention, and has subsequently moved the company to new areas of the market and a rather bold-looking future.
While the SAAB may have been a better thought out and executed car than the S-TYPE, it’s the Jaguar that not only changed the company, but also had the stronger heart and soul. Indeed, it still does. On character alone, the S-TYPE wins.
At launch, the 9-5 range was made up entirely of petrol-engined turbocharged cars
As cheap and accessible as S-TYPEs are these days, the way a good one drives is beyond compare