Saab's aging 9-3 offers some thrills
In 2008, Saab restyled its popular entry-level 9-3 sedan, convertible, and wagon (known as the SportCombi in Saab-speak) and gave it all-wheel drive for the first time, but even these rather significant changes don't cover up the fact that the 2009 9-3 is not only identical to the 2008, it's basically the same car it was in 2003 - when it was last redesigned.
That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to like about this eccentric, turbo-powered small luxury car, especially if you're a station wagon fan. However, the competition is tough, and the 9-3 is only a bargain when you take into account incentives, and those won't continue indefinitely. The 2009 versions are on sale now, and the only change is that the company's all-wheel-drive option is now available on more trim levels. There are no other significant upgrades.
I recently tested both a 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero convertible and the limited-edition 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi wagon with all-wheel drive.
Saab's 9-3 isn't the most radical-looking sedan on the market. In fact, besides Volvo, there aren't many sedans so generic-looking. Most manufacturers today are leaning toward very bold, distinctive designs, leaving Saab somewhat at a disadvantage. The automaker did make a few changes in 2008, giving its 9-3 family a new grille, headlights, and front bumper, along with a revised rear bumper and taillights.
The new grille adds some visual seasoning to an otherwise bland front end, and the black-rimmed taillights do the talking around back. When painted certain colors, like white and yellow, the taillights are especially striking, but not necessarily in a good way.
Overall, the sedan, wagon, and convertible are all relatively handsome on their own. The convertible received the most positive remarks during my testing, but it sure didn't elicit any head-turns from passersby.
Because the Saab is an aging model, the interior appears more dated than the competition's. In some ways I thought the interior felt cheap, especially the fit and finish along the dashboard, where major panels meet the top of the dash. You could feel a very rough cut of plastic there.
The switch that controls the convertible top's operation moved the entire plastic panel surrounding it, and on the steering wheel large gaps showed the wires running to the buttons mounted on either side. All of these faults detracted from an otherwise well-styled interior.
Saab eccentricities include honeycomb air conditioning vents, an ignition switch that's located dead center between the driver and passenger seats, and a parking brake that looks like it's integrated into the center console of the car. All of these touches give Saab a certain quirky, charming aura that its competition lacks. To me, they don't make up for other faults, but they certainly are what make a Saab a Saab.
I also liked the standard leather seats. In the 9-3 Aero convertible, two-tone leather is standard. The front seats are also comfortable, if a tad stiff. There's considerable support.
The rear seats in the SportCombi Turbo X I tested were plenty roomy compared with a BMW 3 Series wagon. My wife also commented on how much more room there was than in our own Subaru Outback's backseat. We had our same child-safety seat in both cars, and it clearly fit into the Saab more easily while still allowing more seat room for passengers.
The experience of driving a Saab is completely dependent on your engine selection. The base 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder packs 210 horsepower and is an adequate power plant, if not overly exhilarating. The sedan gets 19/29 miles per gallon city/highway with the standard manual transmission, 19/26 with an optional automatic. The 2.8-liter turbo V-6 found in Aero trim levels produces 255 horsepoweer and is considerably more fun to drive, but also thirstier, at 16/26 miles per gallon with the manual and 15/24 with the automatic. Both the wagon and convertible get slightly worse mileage than the sedan.
My test of the Aero was in the convertible. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the Aero convertible jerked between shifts, and the turbo kicked in far too often. This is typical of turbo engines . . . from five years ago. Most newer turbo engines have wrangled in turbo lag so well that most novices won't even notice it. Not in this Saab.
Still, when the turbo kicks in under heavy acceleration it offers a thrill that most normally aspirated engines with the same power ratings can't replicate.
Unfortunately, the convertible body style married to front-wheel drive led to an unbalanced driving experience; the car felt unsettled and required a lot of corrective steering under heavy acceleration. That's not a quality I find as endearing as the eccentric interior. The soft-top convertible is quiet during highway driving, however, and when cruising with the top down the 9-3 offers a very pleasant open-air experience, with just the right amount of wind hitting the driver.
For 2008, Saab produced a limited-edition Turbo X version of its 9-3 sedan and wagon. It features a more powerful version of the turbo V-6 that packs 280 horsepower. The extra 25 horsepower is very noticeable, and if you can find one of these cars still on a lot it will be well worth testing. However, the Turbo X was most notable because it featured the first all-wheel-drive system available on the 9-3, called XWD. The bigger engine plus all-wheel drive give the Turbo X a performance-car feel that I've never experienced in a Saab.
Unlike the convertible, the Turbo X felt planted and secure during spirited driving. On the highway, the ride is surprisingly comfortable. High-performance trims often feature such taut suspension tuning that bumps get amplified at cruising speeds. The Turbo X, however, seems to be made for a driver who's just slightly sporting - other than the loud exhaust note, which ruined the family aspect of this wagon by creating a lot of noise. I like to hear a car grunt as much as the next guy, but at cruising speeds I don't need to be constantly reminded that there's something extra under the hood - give me performance and performance-car sounds on demand, please. This was the lone drawback in the highway experience.
Unfortunately, the Turbo X will not be offered for 2009. However, XWD will be added as an additional trim level for all 9-3 sedans and wagons.
The 9-3 doesn't offer a long list of standard features like most of today's entry-level luxury competition. You get leather seats and a glove compartment cooler, but things like heated seats and a moonroof, which you can find standard on many competitors, are part of option packages.
While the 9-3 starts at a reasonable $28,445 for a base 2.0T sedan, to get it properly optioned can be expensive. Compared with the 2009 Acura TSX, which is just $515 more, you get a lot less for your money in terms of features. You'd have to order nearly $3,000 in options for the 9-3 to get it similarly equipped to the TSX.
What the 9-3 does pack is room, as it outdistances the competition in almost every category, including cargo room in both the trunk of the sedan and in the large cargo area of the SportCombi, which is 29.7 cubic feet with the backseat up. That's more than the Dodge Magnum wagon, which was recently discontinued. Looking at direct competition like the Volvo V70 wagon, though, the 9-3 loses out just slightly on space, though the V70 costs a few thousand more.
The convertible has a usable trunk area when the top is down, but the canvas top takes more than 20 seconds to retract, which is long by today's standards.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has given both the Saab 9-3 sedan and convertible its highest award of Top Safety Pick, which means they scored Good - the highest mark - in front, side and rear crash tests.
Standard safety features include a stability system, side curtain airbags (except the convertible), side torso airbags for the front seats and active front head restraints.
While the 9-3 has a lot of utility and relative luxury for the money, it simply can't stand up to the competition when it comes to performance or features for the price. While the more powerful all-wheel-drive trims are quite good, they can't compete with similarly priced Audis. The base trims can't compete with the extremely well-equipped competition, like the TSX or Lexus IS.
On the convertible front, I much prefer a similarly priced Volvo C70, which has a retractable hardtop and a more usable trunk.
No amount of clever taillight applications or new grilles will cover the fact that the 9-3 just doesn't have enough to beat the best of the segment. What Saab can cling to is its unique interior styling and the distinct driving feel of the turbos. Otherwise, with no significant changes for the 2009 model year, I'm left wondering when an all-new 9-3 is coming.