2009 Saab 9-3 Expert Review:Autoblog
Turbocharging has been as much a part of Saab's DNA for the last three decades as jets. Saab didn't invent turbocharging, but the Swedish brand has probably embraced it more completely than other carmaker. With 2008 marking the 30th birthday of the first production Saab 99 Turbo, the gang in Trollhattan decided to celebrate with their meanest and fastest iteration yet. As we close out the 2008 model year, our Swedish friends are now starting to deliver the direct descendant of that first turbo, the 9-3 Turbo X.
Saab Turbos have come a long way over those three decades. The original 99 Turbo extracted 143 horsepower from its 2.0L four-cylinder engine to twist the front wheels. Most Saabs today are still powered by turbo four-cylinder engines driving those same front wheels. The Turbo X, however, adds two more cylinders and two more drive wheels. It also has nearly double the power and torque of that first effort. Fellow Autoblogger Dan Roth spent the day thrashing the Turbo X at a media preview a couple of weeks ago. We've now had the chance to spend a full week with Saab's newest baby in everyday use.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
When press vehicles get shuffled off from one journalist to the next, occasionally things get bent or broken. Transmissions get destroyed, cars slide off on-ramps, and sometimes engines need repair. That means that the cars that we're scheduled to drive sometimes have to be canceled. Such was the case last week when the Audi TT we were expecting failed to arrive, leaving us trying to find a replacement for an upcoming weekend road trip. Fortunately, the GM press fleet manager called up less than 24 hours later to let me know the Turbo X had just arrived in the fleet. Barely 24 hours after that call I was signing for the keys to the sinister looking black Saab.
The Turbo X is the newest derivative of Saab's mainstream 9-3 lineup. The 9-3 is built on the same global Epsilon platform used for most of GM's mid-sized models. In addition to the 9-3, Epsilon is used for the Chevy Malibu, Saturn Aura, Opel Vectra and others. Although the next generation Epsilon II debuts this summer with the Opel Insignia, The Epsilon I used for the Turbo-X is still a fine architecture.
For 2008 the 9-3 got a major visual refresh, primarily in the front. The new face draws a lot from recent Saab concepts like the Aero X. The three port grille now looks much more aggressive and has more visual distinction than the previous edition.
Anyone familiar with Saabs of yore will feel instantly at home in the Turbo X. Like almost all Saabs, the key goes in the center console aft of the shift lever. By my fourth day with the Turbo X, I was almost consistently remembering not to reach behind the steering wheel. Unfortunately, the car that GM sent over was saddled with the six-speed automatic rather than the three-pedal shift-for-yourself gearbox. Saab does provide manual shift switches on the steering wheel, however, so you don't have to use the gear shift.
The air vents at the outboard of the dash and top of the center stack feature a little joystick in the middle that allow you guide the air where you want it to go. The temperature of the air coming out of those vents can be individually managed and automatically regulated for each of the front seats via the knobs lower down on the stack. Unlike many other current the GM products, the On-Star buttons are located just above the climate control knobs instead of on the rear view mirror. Front and center in the top of the stack is the same standard issue double-Din radio used on most other mainstream GM models like the Malibu and Aura.
At a starting price of nearly $42K you might think a head unit with a nav system should be a standard offering, but as is so often the case, that's a $2,145 extra. Regardless of its feature set, the standard radio sounds decent and is straightforward to use. As in all other applications of this unit, it also has the standard 1/8" plug on the front allowing you toplug in your iPod or other audio player (for the four of you out there using some other brand).
Aside from the odd-ball location of the key, the only other quibble we had with the interior layout was the location of the release for the steering wheel adjustment. The wheel is adjustable for both reach and rake. Unfortunately, the release is so far down the column, that after making an adjustment and trying the re-lock it, the steering wheel usually ends up moving again.
One button unique to Saabs is the Night Panel switch. Pressing the button at night switches off all the dash lighting except for the speedometer and even switches off the tachometer. Another thoughtful feature of the interior is the ribbed rubber inserts in the bottom of the storage cubbies in the center console. Cell phones and iPods placed in these compartments no longer slide around when cornering.
One element that certainly can't be faulted on the 9-3 is the seats. They were extremely comfortable over a three and a half hour drive from Ann Arbor to Yellow Springs, OH. Up to three combinations of seat and mirror positions could be stored in memory, which was handy as the test unit had an odd quirk that was likely a software bug. Every time I got out of the car and closed the door, the driver side mirror dipped down to look at the ground. Being able to just press the memory button restored it back to it's previous position. Once correctly positioned though, the Saab seats do a great job of keeping the driver correctly oriented during hard cornering allowing full mental effort to focused on positioning the car instead of the posterior.
Mechanically, the main thing that distinguishes the Turbo X from its lesser 9-3 siblings is the higher output 2.8L turbocharged V6. Compared to the Aero, the X picks up an extra 25 hp and 32 lb-ft of torque (now at 280hp and 295lb-ft). This engine is a smaller displacement variant of the 3.6L high feature V6 used in a range of GM products worldwide and, as always, it's smooth running and in this form has plenty of torque in the meat of the rpm range.
Unfortunately, if you're cruising along with the revs at around 2 grand, a quick stab at the throttle incites a momentary pause as the turbo spins up to generate some boost. Once that happens though, the Turbo X just leaps forward and takes no prisoners. The single turbo layout and lack of direct injection are probably to blame for the lag here. Getting more power typically requires a bigger turbo to generate more boost, and the resulting increase in inertia usually brings with it lag.
Hopefully next time around GM will see fit to use two smaller turbos that spin up faster and still generate the same or more combined boost. Migrating the direct injection system from the bigger 3.6L in the Cadillac CTS would also help as the engine could then run higher compression without risking knock. That would further fatten the bottom of the torque curve and improve overall responsiveness.
That responsiveness wasn't helped by the automatic transmission, at least in its default mode. The programming obviously was optimized to get the utmost out of the EPA driving cycle and wanted to keep the engine revs down. When pulling out to pass it wasn't particularly inclined to downshift and launches were less than thrilling.
Conveniently, Saab actually builds in a very simple solution to this behavior. Next to the radio is a button labeled with an 'S' and a little gear shift icon. A quick press of the button switches the transmission shift logic to Sport Mode and makes it behave the way a performance-oriented driver would row a manual box. Shifts are sharper and happen NOW. The other thing it does is downshift during decceleration inducing some engine braking. The result is that on corners the transmission is now in something closer to the optimum gear for accelerating out the other side. If someone could just figure out which bit to flip in the powertrain control so that sport mode was the default when starting the car, it would be much more in keeping with the character of the car.
Easily the most annoying aspect of the Turbo-X is the exhaust note. It's not annoying all the time, just in the range from about 2,000- 2,400 RPM. Like far too many "sporty" cars today, the exhaust has a droning sound in that range. Above and below that range the tone is fine, but in that region it has a constant low frequency sound that is just plain awful. It's not like a rumble or roar that implies power, but more like the coffee can mufflers you find on so many tuner cars.
This might not be a problem were it not for the fact that 70 MPH in 6th gear equates to about 2,100 RPM. That means that cruising at the legal speed limit on most American highways subjects occupants of the car to this sound. I did find a work around, though. Popping the shifter into manual mode and downshifting to 5th brings the speed up to 2,500 RPM and the sound magically disappears along with some extra gas.
While I didn't have the opportunity to really thrash the Turbo X on a track or push it too hard on the road, the cross-wheel-drive system demonstrated its worth every time the car accelerated. Even with all that power, the Turbo X never exhibited even the slightest hint of torque steer. Like Acura's Super Handling-All Wheel Drive and BMW's xDrive, the Haldex system vectors torque to the wheels not only with the most grip, but also to help the car go in the direction that the driver is requesting. Signals from the stability control system are fed to the drive control, which helps reduce the need for braking the wheels and also cutting engine torque.
Accelerating through corners or on-ramps, the Turbo X always felt neutral and went directly where it was pointed. For a sporting car like this, the Turbo X has a good ride for everyday commuting without pounding the occupants. During my driving, the car averaged 22 mpg, which probably would have been 1-2 mpg more if I had left the transmission in 6th on the highway. Saab claims a 16.2-gallon fuel tank, but before I filled the tank the gauge was reading empty and the cluster showed a distance to empty of 10 miles. However, the tank would only take 13.7 gallons. Since I wasn't inclined to drive the car until it died, I'm not sure if the gauge was just being really conservative or there is an error somewhere.
Overall, the Saab Turbo X is a fun car to drive and, aside from the exhaust note, is a great long distance cruiser. The only option missing from this car was the nav system, while the automatic transmission, Touring and Cold Weather packages bring the bottom line to $45,305 including destination charges. You can get the Turbo X in Jet Black Metallic, Jet Black Metallic, Jet Black Metallic, or Jet Black Metallic. Is it worth $45K? Only the buyer can decide, but for Saab-o-philes or anyone looking for a fun sport sedan, it's certainly an eminently viable option.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
click above image to view more high-res shots of the 2008 Saab 9-3
The 9-3 received a mid-cycle enhancement for 2008 that's comprised mostly of tweaks to its exterior styling. The front end now wears a grille inspired by the Aero X concept that debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in 2006. It's a handsome face for Saab, which in deference to tradition must always incorporate a three-part grille evoking the brand's heritage in aviation.
Read on as we report on our brief time spent behind the wheel of the new 9-3 at GM's Milford Proving Grounds last week.
All photos ©2007 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.
The inside of our 9-3 tester was exhibited the stark contrast of light sandy beige leather set against the black dash. The shape of the instrument panel carries over, while we encountered a simpler interface with less buttons than recent Saabs we remember.
The 9-3 is still based on GM's Epsilon platform, which it shares with other cares like the Opel Vectra and Cadillac BLS in Europe. The Saturn Aura and upcoming Chevy Malibu are based on a stretched version of the same platform. As such, we weren't expecting anything exciting when we started off on the prepared four-mile test course that GM had set up for us. And we didn't encounter anything exciting. The 2008 Saab 9-3 handles predominantly like it did before, which is to say predictably and without much fuss.
The test course provided many different types of surfaces, including simulated pot hole-riddled roads and low- to high-frequency sin waves. The 9-3 felt solid over most surfaces, exhibiting no squeaks or rattles despite its suspension being tasked to the limit.
The 9-3 is, of course, driven by its front wheels, so understeer was predictably present. We don't imagine many 9-3 owners floor the accelerator when exiting turns around town, but if they did, they'd find their intended line would widen a bit. The car's brakes, as well, were adequate for their intended duties, and the pedal feel felt good.
Our particular tester was powered by Saab's 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder, which was mated to a 5-speed "Sentronic" automatic. This engine mated to this transmission makes for an unexciting pair. The 2.0L feels too small for the 3,230 lb. car before the turbo kicks in, which makes a full-on acceleration run feel lazy at best. Even when the turbo spools up, the power delivered isn't impressive. As for the 5-speed automatic, we found the manual shifting capability to be as disappointing as every other we've tested. It's slow to shift when asked, and will often make up its own mind near redline before you have the chance. Keep this one in auto mode and forget about it.
We're sure the Aero model's 2.8L turbocharged V6 goes a long way in alleviating the lethargy felt in our 9-3 tester, but with mid-size family sedans from Honda, Toyota and others offering over 260 HP from larger 3.5L V6 engines, what's the point in buying a more expensive Saab? We imagine there are many happy Saab owners out there who can answer that question for you. Nevertheless, we found the 9-3 on hand at Milford excelled in its ability to be average at everything.
All photos ©2007 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.
Expansive blue skies set the scene for a perfect spring day in New England as an enthusiastic team from Saab greeted us journalist types and eagerly showed off the Swedish brand's newest top-level sedan, the TurboX. After a quick Powerpoint chat with Saab USA GM Steve Shannon and a stroll under a TurboX that was hoisted on a lift, we were making use of the Big Dig highway improvements on our way to several hours of blissful thrashing. Federal dollars never sounded so good as we held the turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 in first gear, happily snarling along in the upper reaches of the tachometer and turning the underground portions of the highway into a gigantic reverberator.
Photos: Zane Merva/AutoInsane
The biggest news about the Turbo X is the fitment of the Haldex 4.0 all-wheel-drive system to its existing Epsilon architecture. Saab has named it XWD, pronounced "Cross Wheel Drive," as a nod to the system's torque vectoring capabilities across the rear axle. According to engineering overlord Tommy Sundin, the challenge was putting new hardware into an old car and making the new parts play nice with all the other systems. The all-wheel-drive fitment will propagate to other GM models on the same platform, Aura and Malibu for example, but Saab gets to launch the configuration as a reward for its hard work on development. Initially available in the Turbo X and 9-3 Aero, all Saabs will eventually have XWD as an option.
Sundin and team worked hard to not only add the new hardware with an absolute minimum of bodyshell changes, but make the driving experience befitting of the fastest Saab ever. Only six small brackets were necessary to add the lightweight Haldex setup to the body structure, though an entirely new rear suspension bolts in place of the front-wheel-drive car's rear axle. The rear suspension incorporates a fat anti-roll bar, Boge Nivomat self-leveling shock absorbers, and in the TurboX, an electronic limited-slip differential that marshals thrust between the two rear wheels.
Saab's variant of General Motors' high-feature LP9 V6 carries a turbocharger and delivers a table-flat torque curve with 295 lb-ft on tap from 1,900 rpm. 2.8 responsive liters produce 280 horsepower, and Saab says the trip to 60 mph takes 5.4 seconds for a sedan with a manual transmission. On our highway run to the event location, we were impressed with the solid way the Turbo X tracks. The steering is well weighted and informative without being busy. Expansion gaps are mostly heard and not felt, as the suspension swallowed sharp transient impacts with aplomb, and we had a hard time restraining the right foot. Out on the road, the secure ride and tossable handling make the Turbo X a traffic Sabre Jet, and the turbocharged V6 is punchy with minimal lag, making a sound nearly as heavenly as what emanates from BMW's twin turbo three-liter.
Once at the demonstration track, engineer Sundin encouraged flattening the go pedal through the slalom, saying, "if you're a good driver, you'll be able to keep the pedal down until the last set of cones." Gauntlet thrown, off we went. First up was an automatic-equipped sedan. A few seconds putting the transmission in sport mode and disabling the stability control, and we were off. Sundin was right, we didn't have any trouble zipping through the slalom, though at one point overcooking the entry to a sweeper delivered a firsthand lesson in how easy the TurboX is to recover from understeer. The stability control would have saved us from nearly nosing off the course, but we were doing our hairy-chested "auto-journo" bit, so we had to regain composure the old way – waiting. Even without electronic assistance, the TurboX is eminently recoverable if you get it out of shape, an excellent trait for a vehicle that will likely be pressed into some family hauling duties. The chassis setup is lively, even willing to rotate and be steered with the throttle.
Sand had been laid down at the apex of a corner to demonstrate the XWD's low-traction prowess. While the Turbo X will slide around a little on the loose surface, the fast reacting Haldex hardware copes well with the reduced traction. All out spins had to be intentionally provoked, either by massive application of the throttle, or a yank on the parking brake lever.
A manual transmission SportKombi was next, making us forget the automatic entirely. While the auto is generally good, it's slow-witted compared to the standard, even when shifted by the thumb triggers on the steering wheel. It's a lot easier to dance the standard-transmission TurboX around the track at 9/10s, its shifter offers smooth throws and pedals facilitate heel-toe shifting. Where the manual shines, the automatic is slightly dopey – left in normal mode, the automatic has an affinity for getting into high gear; not great when you're exiting a sweeping turn and it needs to perform a time-consuming downshift. Shifting the automatic manually mitigates most of the complaints, though it still requires anticipatory button presses – you have to ask for the shift before you actually need it. The manual transmission allows fast gearchanges, letting you be in the right ratio to lay down the power exiting a turn. Out on the open road, however, either transmission proves fully satisfactory.
Only 600 of the 2,000 total Turbo X models are headed to the United States, and about half are already spoken for. That exclusivity is conveyed by the exterior of the sparkly-black sedans that get 18-inch wheels shod in Pirelli P-Zero Neros, a deeper spoiler, titanium-finished trim, and rhomboid exhaust tips. Inside, the comfortable and supportive seats are wrapped in soft leather, and there's a "heritage" boost gauge marked off in three colors as a nod to the 1978 Saab 99 Turbo that started it all. The ergonomics inside are well-considered, as playing up the "Born From Jets" theme has actually made the driver's work area easy to operate.
Saab's TurboX is a vehicle you can mention in the same breath as the BMW 3-series without any shame, and with prices in the low $40,000 range, that's the company this car will be keeping. While it may give up some absolute numbers to other vehicles, especially in the dry, there's a much smaller dropoff in performance when conditions turn nasty. The demeanor is easy to live with, while the performance envelope is elevated beyond anything else Saab makes. Tommy Sundin and his engineering team deserve kudos for the fantastic way they've tuned the Epsilon platform and seamlessly integrated the quick-witted Haldex hardware. The TurboX is an all-weather performance sedan that's able to run with the segment's big dogs, and even pull them out of the ditch on the way to the ski resort. Saab's calling it a future classic in the vein of the SPG and "Black Turbo" before it; time will tell, but we think the potential is there.
Photos: Zane Merva/AutoInsane
New Car Test Drive
All-wheel drive, more power highlight full-range line.
The 9-3 is the bread-and-butter line-up of the Saab brand, with three body styles and multiple drivetrains to mix and match. The Saab 9-3 received major restyling for 2008. For 2009, the 9-3 gets detail improvements and a broader range.
Saab is actually an acronym derived from a Swedish aircraft building partnership created in 1937 that, in addition to cars, builds military fighter aircraft (with jet engines from a partnership between GE and Volvo, that other Swedish car company). From its two-stroke roots Saab has always focused on safety and rally-winning performance, and developed unique vehicle traits and features and a loyal group of owners. It was absorbed under the GM umbrella but has for the most part kept the Saab quirkiness.
2009 Saab 9-3 Aero models get more powerful 280-hp engines, all-wheel drive (XWD) is available with either engine on every model except the convertible, and Aero XWD units get a sophisticated rear-drive system. Remaining upgrades are primarily cosmetic, ranging from sleeker roof rails on the SportCombi (wagon) to an added gray top choice for the convertible. Other upgrades to entice buyers include XM radio with three month subscription, OnStar 8.0 with turn-by-turn navigation and Bluetooth for a year, and no-charge scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles.
The 9-3 is not a big car, by North American standards a compact premium similar to the Audi A4, BMW 3-series, Lexus IS, Mercedes C-Class and to a lesser extent Acura's TL, Infiniti's G37 and Volvo's S60/V50. It's the right size for urban environs, young families and disorganized professors, and while it hasn't the hatchback versatility of previous Saabs it does have a fold-down rear seat and the wagon is very versatile.
Both engines are tuned for daily driving yet still enthusiastic when you desire. Various suspension choices allow comfortable commuting or threading a twisty road, but neither end of the spectrum is extreme and sacrifices anything for it. The 9-3 feels very solid and stable on the road, easily handled by novices and not a bore for those who know how to handle cars.
Genuine world cars, the 9-3 uses major parts from Germany, Japan, Australia, and Sweden, and is assembled in Sweden (hardtops) and Austria (convertibles). Throw in some French or Italian tires and all you need to do is wave.
Features such as standard leather and dual-zone climate control are just the start, and the quality of the finishes and the clean styling won't leave you thinking you could have done better. Add to that the uniqueness that Saab brings, and you question if the 9-3 gets all the respect it deserves.
Saab 9-3 permutations can get a bit confusing because of the variety and because one version of the 9-3 Sport Sedan is called Sport. However, numerous choices mean you can get a sedan, convertible or wagon (SportCombi), with four-cylinder or six-cylinder engine, a manual or automatic transmission, and excepting convertibles, front-drive or all-wheel drive. The least expensive 9-3 is about $31,000, a loaded Aero convertible more than $55,000; for 2009 all include complimentary scheduled maintenance for 3 years or 36,000 miles.
The Saab 9-3 2.0T Touring front-wheel drive sedan ($30,360), SportCombi ($31,790) and convertible ($42,130) comes with a 210-hp turbocharged 2-liter engine, six-speed manual gearbox. The 2.0T Touring includes leather, dual-zone climate control, 60/40 split rear seat (exc. convertible), power driver seat, tilt/telescope leather-wrapped wheel, heated power mirrors, power windows/locks, rain-sensing wipers, rear fog lamp, CD/XM stereo, Bluetooth, trip computer, cooled glovebox, and 16-inch wheels. Convertibles delete the center rear seat position and add a power folding multi-layer insulated top, and wagons add rear wipe/wash and cargo cover.
Options on touring grade cars are limited to a cold weather package ($550) with heated front seats and washer jets; metallic paint ($550); and a five-speed automatic transmission ($1350). On convertibles a blue, sand or gray top is available ($600).
9-3 2.0T Comfort sedan ($34,150), SportCombi ($35,315), and convertible ($44,455) include a five-speed automatic but the six-speed manual is a no-cost option. Comfort adds the cold-weather package, auto-dimming inside mirror with compass, moonroof, and 17-inch alloy wheels with 235/45VR17 tires. Options include metallic paint, a premium package ($1495) with xenon cornering headlamps, front fog lamps, rear park assist, power passenger seat, driver memory system; Bose Centerpoint sound system ($995); and navigation ($2145).
9-3 2.0T XWD four-door models feature all-wheel drive (Cross-Wheel Drive), with six-speed automatic or manual gearboxes. XWD comes in sedan ($36,395) and SportCombi ($37,810) versions. XWD models are similar to Comfort-grade cars but include self-leveling rear shocks, upgraded brakes, red walnut trim, and 235/50VR17 tires. Like the Comfort, a premium package is available.
9-3 2.0T Sport versions come in Sport Sedan ($37,140), SportCombi ($38,305) and convertible ($47,345) models. Above the Comfort level, these add a six-disc in-dash, 11-speaker Bose Centerpoint audio system, lower sport suspension, larger brakes from the Aero/XWD, metallic trim, Xenon cornering headlamps, rear park assist, sport seats, power passenger seat, driver memory system. Transmissions are five-speed automatic or six-speed manual (no cost) and options include premium leather and navigation.
9-3 Aero models come with a 280-hp turbocharged 2.8-liter and six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Aero sedan and SportCombi are all-wheel drive, while the convertible is front-wheel drive. Aero models come well equipped, essentially as Sport models, plus self-leveling in back for the sport suspension, electronic rear limited-slip differential, discrete two-tone leather, and carbon-fiber style trim. Options include high-performance 235/45YR18 tires, leather upgrade, and navigation.
Safety features: All 9-3s include adaptive front, front side and side curtain airbags, active front head restraints, stability control, full electronic brake assists, and one year of OnStar 8.0 Safe & Sound. The 9-3 has been recognized for three years running as an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety top pick and the 9-3 convertible was the only soft-top convertible to get that award in 2008.
Seen from above the 9-3's aeronautical heritage is evident in the rounded front-end and windshield, and less so in the tapering towards the tail. There are no rough or superfluous edges on a 9-3 as those run counter to Scandinavian practicality.
The nose is clean with nice proportions between grille openings and painted surfaces, the lines drawing it closer to the ground for that hunkered down looks; this is especially apparent on Sport and Aero models that sit closer to the ground and have the larger diameter wheels. Regardless of version the 9-3 is relatively void of chrome and clutter, what's occasionally called jewelry when the basic design isn't so arresting.
A wedge side profile is accentuated by the hood seam at the top of the fender, the clamshell hood design better at keeping pine needles and tree droppings out of the engine compartment and shedding snow and ice. Signal repeaters are in the front fenders where they can be seen 180 degrees and are less likely damaged than similar devices mounted in mirror housings. Practical.
Since the convertible's top is folding cloth (and available in four colors) there's no bulbous rear end to hide; it looks alright with the top up (sort of a Bentley profile to it) but looks much better with the top down; only the headrests distract from the purity and you want those. At the rear of the convertible there is a small trunk spoiler and different lights and sheet metal than the sedan; it still looks like a 9-3 but aerodynamics dictated the changes to maintain stability and light visibility.
The SportCombi has no issues with rear light visibility because the LED lamps run vertically up the pillars next to the hatch; even an all-wheel drive throwing snow or spray around is easily seen, and every 9-3 has a rear fog light for just such conditions. Sleeker roof rails are matte-finish but no less capable, and the roof of the SportCombi is a few inches higher than the sedan so it has lots of hat and cargo room even if it looks a bit utilitarian in profile.
Saab claims a coefficient of drag of 0.28 for the base model, a good showing for a compact car. Equally good is the wind management that limits snow buildup on the headlights, moves rain away from the side window/mirror, and keeps taillights clean on dirty roads. Even your gloves don't get too dirty grabbing door handles.
All 9-3 models use the same interior design, with changes amongst the models apparent in the various textures and colors of leather, trim panels set off in woodgrain, metallic, red walnut, or faux carbon fiber, the shape of the seats on Sport and Aero models, and the general level of goodies on board.
The interior is also where you find more Saab-isms…those things that only Saab does among volume-production machinery. These include the ignition switch adjacent the shifter, carried from locales where you have to leave the car in its lowest gear when parked, and the night panel switch that for minimum distraction darkens the dash except for the speedometer's 0-90 range and lights up gauges or warning lights only if needed. Others are picking up on some other Saab characteristics, including the joystick vents that allow adjustment of both axes simultaneously, the speedometer that changes gradations above 90, and the split-element right side mirror with a very wide-angle section to minimize head movement and blind spots.
All business, the black dash with well shaded, clearly labeled white gauges and switches arcs gracefully around the driver, like your shoulder became the pivot point for the designer. Immediately ahead are the usual instruments with an added boost gauge many turbos (both high performance and otherwise) leave out. On one hand you may hear the turbo when its on boost (at low speeds with the radio off) and sensitive behinds will feel it, but for everyone else the visual cue is a good idea; first, its better to avoid lots of boost until the engine is fully warmed up and second, using lots of boost means less-than-economical driving. Dash lighting is all green for the least fatigue over long night drives.
A proper-size tilt/telescoping steering wheel offers a good view, and ancillary controls are all well placed and thought out, the one exception being the stability control defeat. If you want that off or dialed back, as you might trying to find traction in snow or a spirited drive down a road you like better than the car, you have to use the steering wheel buttons to scroll through the Driver Information Center menus to switch it.
At good height in the dash is the (optional) navigation/audio system, a touch-screen shared with some GM product. And in this case shared with Cadillac is good because the touch-screen system works well and provides redundant means to various functions that speed the learning curve.
Below that are a few switches and a pop-out cupholder, then a conventional three-ring layout for dual-zone climate control. Be warned whatever latte or cola spills from that cupholder will make those controls gooey. At the bottom of the dash is a cubby area with non-skid bottom, and the glovebox release is on the left side for easier driver reach.
The seats are plump and supportive, with a pocket at the leading edge; some taller drivers report the seat cushion has a bit too much support in the middle and not enough at the leading edge. With power adjustment and the movable wheel finding a good driving position is simple. The shifter is easy-to-reach (wheel paddles on some automatics) and the parking brake is disguised as a grab handle on the left side of the handle; keep your digits away from the ends that become pinch points. The sport seats fitted to sportier models are wholly appropriate but still look like they belong in a luxury car and not a race car.
Rear seats are also accommodating, though the compact exterior dimensions dictate that three adults should be limited to short trips. Reading lights, fold-down rear seat and pass-through are all here, as are jacket loops on the assist handles.
The sedan's 15 cubic feet or trunk space is good for this class, and loading fairly easy. With the top up the convertible manages 12.4 cubic feet and top-dropped it is 8.3, still plenty for a road trip. Behind the rear seat and under cover the SportCombi has 30 cubic feet, behind the front seats 70 cubic feet of space. Lift a substantial T-hook and you'll find space for smaller bits and pieces under the floor.
Open the driver's door and only the odometer and the turbo boost gauge light as if to make a statement. Twist the key on the floor and the driver info center displays All systems go and you're off.
While the 2.0T engine makes a quite respectable 210 hp (Audi's new-for-2009 makes just one more) it is the 221 lb-ft of torque at just 2500 rpm that propels the 9-3 so effortlessly. That's as much torque as some competitor's six-cylinder engines and earlier in the rev band so the 9-3 is no slouch and passing is a non-issue. Balance-shafts keep it smooth and the automatic transmission is programmed to use the torque rather than downshift and add noise. The manual gearbox is equally good, the shifter a bit rubbery as Saabs are but never misses a gear and the clutch is light enough for commuter duty; since the turbo comes on above idle speed, stop-and-go traffic doesn't add jerkiness.
The V6 used on the Aero is a version of the high-feature V6 used in Cadillacs as a 3.6-liter and other sizes in various GM divisions around the world. Like the 2.0T it is turbocharged and while 280-hp is nothing to sneeze at, again it is the midrange torque (295 lb-ft at 2000 rpm) that makes it such a joy (convertibles are detuned to 273 lb-ft to limit torque steer since they are front-drive only). The audio soundtrack accompanying it doesn't hurt, either.
Small by modern V6 standards the 2.8-liter is delightfully smooth and delivers a gentle purr, like a big cat yawing just before it stretches its legs. With clutch action that's buttery smooth and easily controlled you can idle into motion in traffic or slip it yielding perfect launches, wherein the 9-3 takes off en route to 60 mph in the low six-second range.
Fifth and sixth gears are fairly close-ratio for high-speed use; it will lope down the highway with ease but also gain speed without needing a downshift. The only negative noted was revs that hang above idle at relatively low-rpm, closed-throttle shifts. Since all V6s are all-wheel drive and from a stop engage drive to all four wheels without waiting until wheel slip is detected, the Aero makes best use of its power.
Front-drive cars manage well with electronic traction control and 60% of the car's weight over the front wheels; Saabs are built and designed not far from the Arctic Circle so they know a bit about snow. XED cars accelerate and can steer slightly better in the snow, but all-wheel drive does not stop any sooner.
The all-wheel drive cars use a Haldex system and require no driver action…it's on all the time adjusting power to front and rear axles as appropriate. On Aero XWD there is an electronic limited-slip differential that can vary 40% of power between left and right rear wheels making the driveline manage some of the yaw damping that would otherwise be left to electronic stability control. From the seat it feels like the rear tire opposite the direction you are turning is helping to push the car around the bend, so stability control can be (and is) programmed to let the car do the handling work and only step in when you really screw it up.
On a standard 9-3 there's never any hint the car is relatively tall and narrow, and the ride is mellow but controlled with no bobbing. The steering is light and easy but not overboosted and vague, the 9-3 going where you point it. Like anything else in class it understeers, a characteristic most owners will appreciate even if they don't know what it means, and a little body roll keeps everyone aware of how hard you're pushing. It's a very forgiving car and very easy to drive smoothly and get the most out of it. Only the turning circle (39 feet for a U-turn) seems out of place for a compact sedan.
Brake size varies by weight and size but they all stop well and offer good pedal feel. Antilock and brake assist (which provides full braking effort when needed even if you don't press the pedal to maximum) are standard, and the proper handbrake will hold a decent grade.
Sport level 2.0T and Aero cars are even better planted with a hunkered down feel that means business, not harshness, an indication of the structure's excellent stiffness. Despite it being the heaviest the SportCombi is among the most fun because the extra weight is all on the rear wheels, making balance inherently better, and any Aero with the optional 18-inch wheel/tire package (Pirelli P Zero Rosso on our tester—think Porsche, Lamborghini, etc.) the Aero is properly entertaining. In any of its various trim levels the 9-3 doesn't reset the bar in any aspect, rather it's a balanced product that delivers over a wide range and rides well enough to put away long commutes daily.
The 2009 Saab 9-3 is arguably the most attractive, capable and sportiest ever built. It offers a great combination of performance, comfort, and space, and real-world gas mileage that won't break the family piggybank. The 9-3 does business in a crowded near-luxury segment part of the market, and it's a worthy competitor, with lots of built-in value and a long-standing reputation for active and passive safety.
Saab 9-3 2.0T sedan ($30,360); 9-3 2.0T sedan XWD ($36,395); 9-3 2.0T SportCombi ($31,790); 9-3 2.0T SportCombi XWD ($37,810); 9-3 Aero XWD sedan ($43,605); 9-3 Aero XWD SportCombi ($44,885); 9-3 2.0T convertible ($42,130-47,345); 9-3 Aero convertible ($51,330).
Trollhattan, Sweden; Graz, Austria.
Options As Tested
high-performance 235/45YR18 tires ($750).
Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi ($44,885).
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