Saab is a small Swedish car company with a long history in rallying on the one hand and safety research on the other, with a small but loyal following around the world. It has been effectively turned into the American marketing arm of Germany's Opel by its owner, General Motors, using many parts, systems and chassis also used by GM's German brand.
For 2008, Saab 9-3 benefits from more powerful engines and a radical new front and rear-end redesign. The cabin is largely unchanged. Saab claims that, in addition to the new look, front, side and rear, it has made some 2157 changes to the details of the 9-3.
On freeways, we found the 9-3 rides quietly and lets you listen to the music. The front-wheel-drive Saab 9-3 Aero V6 we drove was smooth and quick. On back roads, the handling was responsive; it handled bumps well, in corners and over rises. The seats are comfortable.
All-wheel drive will be available on late-2008 Saab 9-3 models. The XWD all-wheel-drive system is made by the Swedish company Haldex, which also supplies systems to Volvo, Ford, Jaguar, Volkswagen, and Audi. It's the fourth-generation system, and it is said by Saab to be the fastest-acting, best all-around system in the world, moving engine torque from front to back and side to side as needed, and using an optional eLSD electronic limited-slip differential at the rear that can juggle up to 4 percent of the supplied torque between the left and right tire as necessary. Saab claims an Aero V6 XWD can outrun a $150,000 Porsche 911 Turbo through a slalom with this system.
The 2008 Saab 9-3 lineup includes six models, starting with the 2.0T sedan ($28,385) packing the turbo four-cylinder engine. The 2.0T is available with a choice of six-speed manual, five-speed automatic or six-speed automatic.
The 2.0T Convertible ($39,710) and 2.0T SportCombi wagon ($29,630) are similarly equipped.
The Aero models all carry turbocharged V6 engines and some additional standard equipment here and there, and are restricted to the six-speed automatic transmission only. The Aero V6 sedan ($35,365), the Aero V6 convertible ($45,665), and the Aero V6 SportCombi wagon ($36,265) are similarly equipped. All models come with a $745 destination charge built into the stated price. When you buy an Aero version of any model, a two-day trip to the Saab Aero Academy driving school at Road Atlanta is included.
Options include a moonroof package ($1200), a premium package ($1695), cold weather package ($550), and a touring package ($895). There are two levels of navigation systems, at $2145 and $2840, two levels of sound system upgrade with CD changer, $895 and $995, metallic paint ($550), a roof rack ($250), leather upholstery ($1500), automatic transmission ($1350), and five-spoke alloy wheels ($750).
When the XWD (cross-wheel-drive) versions arrive this winter, they will come only as Aero V6 models, and they will come only with a special high-output, high-boost-turbo engine package that makes 280 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque. Although prices haven't been set yet for this new top-of-the-range model, we expect it to be about $2000 more for the big engine and all-wheel-drive system. It will be available on the sedan and SportCombi versions, but not on the convertible, which uses a reinforced floor pan that won't accommodate the rear-axle assembly for the drive system.
Safety features include front, side and curtain airbags, ABS, traction control, and electronic stability control as an option. With its crash-resistant structure and features, the 9-3 has been awarded a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for three years in a row.
The bold new nose on the 2008 Saab 9-3 is a direct descendant of the nose on the Aero-X concept coupe that Saab displayed on the auto show circuit a couple of years ago, and that, coupled with the complete absence of Saab's traditional black side-molding for door protection, is the biggest clue that this is the new 9-3.
The tail lights have been redesigned for 2008 along with the hood, grille, bumper, and headlights. Also new are the doors and door handles. All models have side sill extensions for an extra measure of sportiness.
That adds up to a total of 70 percent new body panels.
The new nose works very well in the wind tunnel, yielding a drag coefficient of 0.28 for the sedan, a very good number.
Saab spent all of its budget money for the 2008 9-3 update on the body, the engine upgrades, and the XWD system, so there was little left over to redesign the interior, which is why it looks so similar to the interior in the outgoing version of the 9-3.
All models will come with black, not gray, instrument panels, and have OnStar, XM Satellite Radio, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a built-in tire-pressure monitoring system as standard equipment. A hot Bose 11-speaker sound system will be optional on late-2008 models.
A few subtle differences distinguish the cabins of the 2.0T and Aero models, with the latter getting metallic trim on the steering wheel and some additional standard equipment.
The ignition key is mounted in the center console, although it is now a fully electronic key, and there are up/down shifting buttons for the automatic transmission mounted on the three-spoke steering wheel. There are storage cubbies in the dash, console and doors, and the console can be customized to an extent when ordering.
The Saab born-from-jets design ethic is nowhere more apparent than in the design of the seats, steering wheel, and instrument panel.
The seats are extremely comfortable and supportive, with lots of adjustment range built in, the steering column is adjustable for both rake and reach, and the wraparound instrument panel is high-mounted and compact, so that only quick glances are necessary to monitor all functions.
An optional Profiler system consists of a set of steering wheel-mounted controls and a 6.5-inch-wide color display screen at the top center of the instrument panel that will read out climate control, clock/alarm, speed, wipers, anti-theft system, seat heating, park assist, telephone, voice activation, and other functions. The Profiler, and the rest of the dashboard displays, can be dimmed or turned off completely, with a Night Panel feature Saab has used for years.
We wish we could tell you more about the XWD all-wheel-drive system, but the fact is, we were only in the demonstrator vehicle for a couple of minutes, testing the car's abilities through a full-throttle slalom course where it worked beautifully.
The rest of the time, we were in a front-wheel-drive 9-3 Aero V6, with its dazzling new looks in jet black and 10 more horsepower than the previous 9-3. We could feel the extra power through the six-speed automatic transmission, a transmission we left under manual control pretty much all day long so we could use the shifter paddles on the steering wheel.
The turbocharged V6 may be small by competitive standards at only 2.8 liters, but, at just under nine pounds of boost, it is a model of efficiency, smoothly and quietly bringing the power on and keeping it on until it runs out of revs. Saab says this engine will propel the new 9-3 from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds, and it certainly feels strong and sounds good doing it. One of the 2157 changes Saab boasts is the addition of a quiet package standard on all models, so the car definitely sounds more refined than before.
The dynamics of the new 9-3 are very similar to the outgoing model, because nothing major has been changed. The body and chassis are extremely stiff. The suspension is nicely isolated and very good in handing terms, with built-in rear-steering. The steering is both light and quick, the brakes are very big for the car's size and weight, very powerful and highly resistant to fade.
Driving this car, with all of its chassis, suspension and electronic aids, is a pleasure because it responds so quickly and so well over bumps, into holes, around corners and over rises. Driving on freeways, the 9-3 just settles down quietly and lets you listen to the music.
The 2008 Saab 9-3 is the prettiest, sportiest Saab 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 part of the market, the $35,000 near-luxury segment, and it's a worthy competitor, with lots of built-in value and a long-standing reputation for active and passive safety.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Washington.