February 4, 2008

Photo Gallery: 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi

Specifications: 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi

The Guide: 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi

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Winnipeg, Manitoba – I think it’s time to recalibrate my value-meter. Here’s why: I make a point of driving my test cars for a day or two before I look at things like price point and options. It allows me to get a feel for the car and what I think buyers should be paying given its relative merits versus class-competitive vehicles. Sometimes the first peek at a price tag yields a pleasant surprise, but more often than I’d like, my response is less favourable.

The Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi is one of those latter cases. On its own, it’s a good-looking (styling is the big change for ’08), powerful wagon with many premium features. But the car’s as-tested price—$51,360 plus destination—means that it has to stand out among a tough group of peers as well.

That’s not to say a Saab wagon is unattainable. $37,550 is the price of entry, and that nets a 210-hp turbocharged engine, automatic climate control, heated leather seating, active head restraints, and airbags galore. The $47,190 Aero adds such niceties as a more powerful V6 turbo, 17-inch alloys, sunroof, and upgraded 11-speaker audio.

Add our tester’s options: navigation ($1,995), touring package ($1,050 gets a memory seat, auto-dimming mirror, and rear parking assist), metallic paint ($700), and roof rails ($325) and that’s how the ‘5’ appears at the beginning of this car’s price tag.

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To determine whether there’s value in that number, we turn to similarly equipped European competitors against which this car must do battle: Volvo V50 T5 ($48,460), BMW 328xi Touring ($54,300), Audi A4 Avant ($57,800), and VW Passat 3.6 ($55,775).

Well that sheds a whole new light on things, doesn’t it? The cheaper Volvo has fewer horses under the hood, while the three pricier competitors are equipped with all-wheel-drive. For the record, the Saab is a front-driver (the all-wheeler, dubbed XWD, will be available later this year) and Volvo does offer an AWD version of the V50—just add $2,500 to the price listed above.

So that puts Saab right in the middle of the action in terms of price point, and with that newly-calibrated perspective in mind, let’s see how it fares.

New for 2008 is swoopier styling, which GM says is inspired by the Aero X concept shown in Geneva in 2006 – but that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s attractive nonetheless, and unmistakably Saab. And the SportCombi wagon configuration is more appealing than the sedan to these eyes. Still, the Bimmer and Audi play the upscale part a little more naturally.

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Testing the ability of the front tires to grab hold of the pavement is the 9-3’s optional 2.8-litre twin-scroll turbocharged V6. More or less a carryover from last year’s model, the 24-valve unit produces 255 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Most importantly, that torque curve is flatter than the Trans-Canada across Saskatchewan, remaining close to its peak value from 2,000 all the way up to 5,000 rpm.

So it doesn’t matter too much that there are no less than six forward gears in the Saab’s slushbox (a six-speed stick is standard), or that the transmission does a fine job of keeping the turbo on full boil. Truth is, there’s lots of power to be had almost anywhere in the engine’s rev range, so access to power is never a problem. In fact, like many transmissions available with manual shift modes, I prefer to leave it in ‘D’ almost all of the time. There are very few manumatics on the market that are actually enjoyable to shift manually.

The V6 has character as well: start it up and it settles down to a nice, throaty idle that reminds me of BMW’s inline sixes. And as it climbs through the rev range, whether with urgency or in relaxed mode, it maintains its quiet, refined composure the whole way through. This is a sweet engine, and makes the 9-3 SportCombi an unexpectedly quick car. Come to think of it, that 255-horse rating seems a little light.

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The SportCombi is one of those cars that goes down the road with good manners: firm but supple over the bumps and with excellent control of body motions in the twisties. Just a minor quibble: brake pedal feel is a touch spongy and not the easiest to modulate at slow speeds. Otherwise, the driver’s seat is just a great place in which to spend time.

Helping matters further is the 9-3’s interior environment. Supple leather on the seats, a stylish leather-and-aluminum steering wheel with integrated shift controls, GM’s intuitive navigation system and user interface, and sound ergonomics: this is an impressively complete execution. Green instrument panel lighting is about the only criticism I can volley against the Saab.

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But what I like most about the 9-3 is the subtle ways it tells you that you’re driving something just a little bit different. Saab’s quirky Swedish character may not be as extroverted as it once was, but look closely and you’ll find it. Yes, the key is located true-to-form down on the centre console, but it will take more than that for me to call it a Saab. Like the forced-induction engine and a "night panel" feature that shuts down all gauges except the speedometer. Or joystick-style vent controls and a passenger-side mirror with a convex portion at the outer edge that eliminates the blind spot (kudos to Saab for that—it should be an industry standard). And here’s the neatest one: put the Saab in reverse, and the rear wiper does a quick sweep across the backlight to clear the view.

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The 9-3 SportCombi makes a compelling case in the premium wagon arena. I wouldn’t seriously consider front wheel drive in this class, so the XWD version is probably worth the wait. But the competition is stiff—and even though the Saab isn’t overpriced among its peers, it might have hard time standing out. Let’s just hope those in the market to spend this kind of coin find the Saab’s character as appealing as I do.

Pricing: 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi

Base price: $
Options: $
A/C tax $
Freight: $
Price as tested: $


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