December 15, 2006
Saab’s revered aviation and auto sport heritage plus an outstanding safety research and engineering record were the cornerstones upon which many Canadians based their loyalty to this unique Swedish automaker. While the take-over by General Motors may have had some Saab enthusiasts questioning their loyalty, the new 9-3 should give them renewed confidence in this famous Scandinavian automaker.
Now that the Subaru-derived Saab 9-2X has been discontinued, the 9-3 is once again the entry-level car in Saab’s line-up, followed by the 9-5 and the 9-7X. Within the 9-3 series there’s a four-door sedan, a two-door convertible and the subject of this review the four-door SportCombi wagon.
All 9-3’s come in two trim levels 2.0T and Aero, which replaces the previous Linear and Arc designations. The 2.0T is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, rated at 210 horsepower for 2006. A five-speed manual transmission is standard and six-speed automatic is optional. For 2007, a six-speed manual replaces the five-speed manual.
Even the base 2.0T ($36,635) Sportcombi comes with leather upholstery, wood interior trim, a dual-zone automatic climate control and a five-speed manual transmission. You also get: power windows, door locks and heated outside mirrors; eight-way power driver’s seat; leather-trimmed steering wheel; 16-inch alloy wheels; seven-speaker audio with CD and input for MP3; two 12-volt outlets.
The Aero SportCombi ($43,895) features a new turbocharged 2.8-litre V6 rated at 250-horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, and a six-speed manual. Upgrade with 17-inch alloy wheels; xenon projector headlamps; fog lights; premium audio and a moonroof.
The six-speed automatic is optional ($1,500) and it features shifter paddles on the steering wheel. A DVD navigation system is available on all versions.
Options for the 2.0T include a moonroof and a Premium Package that includes Red Walnut interior trim, eight-way power passenger seat, 300-watt audio upgrade with 6-CD and 13 speakers, express up/down front windows with remote opening, remote opening for the moonroof or convertible top, and fog lights.
A Touring Package 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.
Now, you will not find the word ‘wagon’ mentioned in any of the marketing material on the SportCombi, but I know a wagon when I see one: this is a station wagon. A very good-looking wagon, for sure, with some hidden talents, plus it packs a lot of power under the hood.
Competition in the premium sport wagon category has grown in recent years but the 9-3 compares well on price and has an exotic uniqueness that appeals to this type of buyer. Designed and built in Sweden the SportCombi is a modern take on the traditional Saab aero-wedge design. The rear is particularly attractive and I think it looks even better than the sedan. The fastback style tailgate has a built-in spoiler above the rear window and the tall LED taillight assemblies add a very cool looking finish.
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, yet it’s still somewhat reminiscent of earlier Saabs.
If you like switches and dials (as all pilots do) the 9-3 dash has them in abundance. The dash light show at night is also quite impressive, but a clever night-control switch allows you to dim all but the speedometer, to make them less distracting.
Leather upholstery is standard and the front bucket seats were firm but very comfortable, with good side bolster support. Metallic accent trim and thick leather wrapped steering wheel add to the overall the quality of the interior and give the 9-3 an upmarket feel.
Like all Saabs the ignition switch is located (for safety reasons) between the front seats. It also has a dashboard that sits higher than most other cars and a huge glove box, additional Saab traits.
Rear seat legroom is not great without some cooperation from the front seat occupants. The cargo hold has an impressive 814 litres (29.7 cu-ft) and 2050 litres (72.3 cu. ft.) with the back seats down. There’s also an extra covered (under floor) storage area and the rear seats can do the 60/40 split.
The 9-3 is one of the safest cars on the planet, based on crash simulations and real-world data. The 9-3 is loaded with active and passive safety features including the Active Head Restraint system, invented by Saab, which helps minimize whiplash. Among its safety 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.
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.
It’s always a challenge when a powerful turbo-engine drives the front (also steering) wheels, but Saab engineers have finally tamed this beast. There is no torque-steer. There’s still some turbo lag but the power and adrenalin rush when that turbo boost kicks-in kind of adds to the Saab experience.
My test car came with a six-speed automatic, which has a manual mode and additional shifter paddles on the steering wheel. To be honest, I didn’t use the paddle shifters a lot, as it shifted so crisply in the full-auto mode. It’s long geared for better highway economy – at 110 km/h the tachometer was still reading under 2000 rpm (in sixth-gear).
City fuel consumption, on the other hand, is disappointing for a relatively small V6, and it demands premium fuel. The on-board fuel consumption calculator showed an average of 12.2 L/100 km, with mostly city use. Engine noise, a droning sound, at low speeds was also a bit louder than most these days, but I didn’t find it unpleasant.
The rear suspension has a passive rear-wheel steering feature that helps keep the rear tires tracking the fronts to reduce under-steer. It handles impressively well with a surprisingly neutral feel for a front-drive car and it has a tight turning circle.
I really liked the driving position in the 9-3, a near vertical steering wheel and excellent seat comfort. Saab-ish features include a right side mirror that tilts down for better back-up vision and three high-pressure washer jets that have a ‘car wash’ effect on the windshield.
The Saab 9-3 SportCombi is a stylish yet discreet wagon with hidden talents and is lots of fun to drive.
Manufacturer’s web site