2011 Saab 9-3 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
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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