The Saab 9-3 offers a powerful turbocharged V6 and a choice of three different body styles, a four-door sedan, a convertible and a wagon. Whichever body style, the 9-3 delivers a sporty driving experience. These cars handle well, making for enjoyable driving when the road gets twisty.
The 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 makes for compelling motivation, while the standard 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has benefited from a recent power increase. For 2007, the turbocharged four-cylinder gets the same six-speed manual gearbox as the potent V6.
Underway, the 9-3 is smooth and quiet. We prefer the automatic, which has a semi-manual feature, over the rubbery six-speed manual. Torque steer is no longer part of the experience.
Inside, the 9-3 offers firm, comfortable front seats with a cabin trimmed in high quality materials. We prefer the standard seats. The ignition switch is located on the center console, which is either awkward or wonderful. The SportCombi wagon boasts big cargo space.
For 2007, the instrument panel has been redesigned, climate and infotainment controls have been simplified and interior trim has been revised. OnStar is available as an option; and XM Satellite Radio is now standard on Aeros, and included in the Premium Audio upgrade for base models.
Saab's unique and rebellious approach to design and engineering adds to the charm of the 9-3 and makes it an interesting alternative to the popular BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Volvo S60/V50, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The 2007 Saab 9-3 comes in three body styles: a four-door Sport Sedan, a two-door convertible, and a four-door wagon called SportCombi (presumably derived from Kombiwagen, which, near as we can tell, is Swedish for station wagon). Two trim levels are offered on all three bodies: basic 2.0T and deluxe Aero.
The 2.0T Sport Sedan ($26,170), SportCombi ($27,170), and convertible ($36,770) are all similarly equipped, and powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 210 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is now standard; a five-speed automatic is optional ($1,350). Leather upholstery and dual-zone automatic climate control are standard equipment; so are power windows, door locks and heated outside mirrors; an eight-way power driver's seat; leather-trimmed steering wheel; 16-inch alloy road wheels; seven-speaker audio with CD player and MP3 capability; and two 12-volt power outlets.
Likewise, the Aero Sport Sedan ($32,475), SportCombi ($33,375), and convertible ($42,375) are all similarly equipped and feature a 2.8-liter turbo V6 rated at 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Again, a six-speed manual comes standard. The optional automatic is also a six-speed, with shifter paddles on the steering wheel, but it lists for the same price as the five-speed in the 2.0T ($1,350). Aero models are further upgraded with 17-inch alloy wheels; xenon projector headlamps; fog lights; premium audio; and a moonroof.
A DVD navigation system is available for all models ($2,145), as is OnStar ($695). Premium metallic paint ($550) is available in a broad palette of interesting colors; while special upholstery colors are available for no extra charge. A cold-weather package ($550) combines heated front seats with headlight washers. A blue top is available for the convertible ($600), instead of the standard tan or black.
Options for the 2.0T include a moonroof ($1,200), and a Premium Audio Package ($895) that delivers 260 watts and 11 speakers (in sedans) or 300 watts and 10 speakers (convertible and Combi) plus XM Satellite radio, 6-disc in-dash changer, and pre-wiring for a hands-free phone. That system can be combined with navigation in the Navigation/Premium Package ($2,740). Another Premium Package ($1,795) combines Red Walnut interior trim (except, that is, on the convertible) with an 8-way power passenger seat, driver seat memory, Xenon headlamps, front fog lights, Rear Park Assist, 17-inch alloy wheels, express up/down for the front power windows, and remote opening for windows and moonroof or convertible top. Yet another package ($1,995) combines the previous package with automatic rain-sensing wipers.
A Touring Package ($1,195) for the Aero adds Rear Park Assist, memory for the driver's seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with integrated garage door opener and compass, rain-sensing wipers, express up/down for the windows with remote opening for windows, moonroof or top.
Safety is a key feature of all Saabs, and the 9-3 is loaded with active and passive safety features. Among them: electronic stability control (ESP), cornering brake control, anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), Brake Assist, and traction control, all designed to help the driver maintain control in a variety of difficult situations. Passive safety features include dual-stage front airbags, dual-stage side-impact airbags, and roof-mounted curtain airbags. Saab's Active Head Restraint system that cradles the head to minimize whiplash in a rear collision is also standard.
The Saab 9-3 is a near-luxury car. The 9-3 sedan is similar in size to the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and Audi A4. These cars are smaller than mid-size Japanese cars, like the Honda Accord, Lexus ES and INFINITI G35 sedan, but larger than compacts like the Toyota Corolla.
The 9-3 cannot be mistaken for anything but a Saab. The sloping, wedge-like profile, the shape of the windows, the sleek, integrated headlights, and the distinctive grille are all unmistakably Saab.
Unlike Saabs of old, however, the windshield is steeply raked, a result of the redesign that began with the 2003 models. The rear fascia no longer presents the edgy, Saab-signature look. Instead, a smoother, more rounded, monochromatic body panel integrating the bumper houses taillights somewhat reminiscent of earlier Saabs, only now wrapping around to the trailing edge of the rear quarter panel.
The SportCombi is one of the coolest-looking station wagons on the planet, front to back. It looks sleek without the roof rack, purposefully sporty with it. The huge white-lens vertical LED tail lamps don't intrude on the cargo opening and finish off the body shape perfectly.
Convertibles feature a soft top that merges cleanly with the car's lines, retaining all the proper proportions and relationships with windshield, wheel openings and wedge profile. With the top down and tucked away beneath the solid tonneau cover, the rake of the windshield draws the eye over the passenger area to the tonneau behind the rear-seat head restraints, which tapers into the trunk lid. The soft top features a glass rear window with a defogger.
Saab's entry-level 9-3 treads Trollhatten's narrow path, upholding the company heritage of quirky eccentricity while reaching for a broader audience among modern sports sedan buyers. Like every Saab built in the past 60 years, it borrows from and trades on Saab's history of aircraft manufacture. SAAB is an acronym for Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolaget, literally the Swedish Airplane Company, which was founded to produce fighter aircraft for the Second World War. Saab still uses a stylized airplane for its marque logo, and calls its top-trim models Aero to complete the connection.
The Saab 9-3's interior is pretty much what one would expect in a near-luxury car, although certain Saab styling cues remain. The ignition key goes into the lock between the bucket seats, on the floor console. Some consider this awkward, but Saab aficionados would have it no other way. The instruments are arrayed in an easy-to-view layout with a big speedometer in a sweeping instrument panel that blends into the center console. It's a relatively high dashboard compared to that in most other cars, but that's long been a signature Saab styling cue.
For 2007, the most significant changes to the 9-3 are the revisions to the instrument panel. While the basic shape and style of last year's panel are retained, the main instrument cluster is expanded, and has absorbed the warning lights that used to be set in a separate binnacle above it. Many of the fussy little buttons that used to operate the climate system have been replaced by three large knobs. Radio and navigation controls have also been simplified.
Overall quality of the 9-3's interior is very good. Door handles and the center console shifter surround are trimmed in brushed chrome, and a bright outline surrounds the instrument cluster. The Aero steering wheel is wrapped in leather with brushed chrome trim on the spokes. The glove box is one of the largest in the class, very useful.
The front bucket seats are firm but comfortable, with side bolsters that restrain during spirited motoring without restricting while climbing in and out. The available Sport seats are more aggressive and best suited to slimmer, narrower bodies.
Rear-seat passengers in the two-door convertible do not fare as well as those in the four-door sedan, of course: The convertible gives up nearly 10 inches of hip room and nearly 3 inches of legroom. A center console can be folded down between the rear seats that contains cup holders and a map storage area.
Cargo space for the sedan is 14.8 cubic feet. The SportCombi has an impressive 29.7 cubic feet with five passengers aboard, or 72.3 cubic feet with the back seats down; and that's all broad, deep, tall usable space. The cargo floor is split into two covers that lift to reveal additional hidden storage, and the flexible cargo cover has a closed position and a semi-closed position. The 60/40 split rear seats can be folded for versatility when carrying one rear-seat passenger and cargo. Trunk space drops to 12.4 cubic feet in the convertible with just 8.3 cubic feet available with the top down.
The Saab 9-3 handles impressively well, with a nicely balanced neutral feel. The steering is a little light, but not enough to detract from the fun-to-drive factor. Passive rear-wheel steering in the rear suspension keeps the rear tires following the front ones in quick lane changes and through rapid transitions when driving quickly on twisting roads. Directional stability is good over almost all road surfaces, even when equipped with the wider tires.
The ride is smooth. And it's quiet, too, with little road noise or wind noise invading the cabin, even through the vast expanse of rear and side glass in the wagon version.
One area in which the 9-3 excels is its suppression of torque steer. This disconcerting trait afflicts many front-wheel-drive cars, where the steering wheel tugs at the driver's hands under hard acceleration or resists corrections in the midst of a corner. Saab engineers worked hard to eliminate torque steer in this latest 9-3, and it appears they were largely successful. The turbocharged V6 develops a lot of torque and a modicum of tugging and resistance is apparent while accelerating over uneven pavement or out of a tight corner, but it isn't the issue it once was in older Saabs.
The V6 delivers all the punch these cars need, with 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque from 2000-4500 rpm. Saab says the 9-3 Aero SportCombi we drove is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds flat. The big torque is more than adequate for those urgent passes on two-lane roads and for getting up to merging speeds on highway on-ramps.
If you really like doing your own shifting, go with the manual transmission; but we don't recommend it. The longish clutch throw takes some getting used to, and the six-speed stick feels a little rubbery. You'll save yourself $1,350; but if you commute, treat yourself to an automatic. The fingertip controls on the Aero models add to the fun in every day driving.
The Saab 9-3 is a delight to drive. The SportCombi is a nice combination of sportiness and hauling function in a pretty, modern wrapper that offers more than 70 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat flopped out of the way. The high-output V6 engine is a hoot to drive, with plenty of low-down torque, and highway mileage across the line varies from 28 to 30 miles per gallon. The current 9-3 manages to remain a Saab yet has no really bad manners or habits.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Dearborn, Michigan.