September 8, 2008
Ottawa, Ontario – It seems, these days, that for a sport sedan to be taken seriously, it needs to offer all-wheel drive. Audi offers just a handful of models that aren’t so-fitted (base versions of the A3, A4 and TT); BMW sells many of its 3 Series with all-wheel drive; and Jaguar’s recently-discontinued X-Type couldn’t be had any other way.
In fact, the Saab 9-3 was one of few premium compact sedans without available all-wheel drive. With Saab’s future hanging in the balance (at least, according to longtime loyalists who miss the brand’s long-lost quirkiness), the addition of an all-wheel drive option to its volume seller seems like an obvious way to help boost sales.
In what could be a nod to the brand’s oddball past, General Motors dubbed the 9-3’s new drivetrain “cross-wheel drive,” or XWD for short. The system was designed along with the folks at Sweden-based Haldex. Saab claims a couple of innovative features in its cross-wheel drive system: pre-emptive engagement of the rear wheels for optimal traction at take-off, and an electronically controlled rear limited-slip differential, called eLSD, that allows torque to be transferred between the two rear wheels.
We’ve seen both of these features before, in similar forms. Volvo’s Instant Traction all-wheel drive setup (also a Haldex system) allows the rear wheels to remain engaged when the car stops for better start-up traction in slick conditions. And Acura’s Super Handling all-wheel drive (SH-AWD) system has been capable of shifting torque between its vehicles’ rear wheels since it was introduced on the 2005 RL. So really, all that’s new here is the name Saab has chosen for its four-wheeler system.
If nothing else, however, it seems to work well. I wasn’t able to force a whiff of wheelspin out of my tester, save for on gravel surfaces, where all four wheels would spin in an aggressive launch. At lower speeds (below 60 km/h), the XWD 9-3 will still understeer if you combine lots of steering input with deep stabs of the throttle, but more usefully, the all-wheel drive system virtually eliminates torque-steer in hard, straight-line acceleration. This, plus the benefits that all-wheel drive brings in snowy weather, might be enough to justify the cost of adding XWD to a 9-3, particularly in V6-powered Aero form.
The standard stability and traction control duo can be deactivated, but doing so involves scrolling through the lengthy menu in the instrument cluster, which is accessed via buttons on the steering wheel. A simple button on the dash would be preferable.
The V6 is Saab’s now-familiar 2.8-litre, turbocharged motor, tuned to produce 280 horsepower when bolted to the cross-wheel drive system. That’s a healthy boost over the 255 horses the engine makes in front-drive 9-3s, but the extra juice seems like only enough to offset the added weight of the extra drivetrain components, as the car doesn’t feel notably faster than Aero-trim 9-3s I’ve driven in the past. Not that it’s any slouch: acceleration is plenty strong, with the great low-end punch for a turbo engine. It’s very smooth too, as is the six-speed automatic transmission it was mated to in my tester.
Handling is balanced, but the Saab simply doesn’t feel as well-connected to the road as a similarly-priced BMW 3 Series or Audi A4. One criticism of its firm ride is that large bumps come crashing through the suspension, with lots of bump noise making its way into the cabin – a disappointment given that road noise is generally very well muted. That said, this isn’t uncommon on cars in this class when equipped with larger wheel-and-tire packages (my 9-3 tester had 17-inch wheels).
The 9-3’s steering is reasonably communicative, with quick turn-in and little lag in transitions. The steering wheel, however, is huge and totally out of place in a car with sporting pretensions; this might do the trick in the 9-7X SUV, but not here in an entry-level sport sedan.
As with other 9-3s I’ve driven, this car’s interior was very inviting and comfortable. Front-seat legroom is great, but headroom is compromised by the standard sunroof (making this a delete option in Aero models would be a good idea); it feels like the height-adjustable front seat could stand to go another inch or so lower. My only gripe with the front seats are bottom cushions that are a little short.
Rear seat space is adequate, but four tall people in this car could generate some complaints from the rear quarters. The back seats are comfortable, although the bottom cushion is a little low and doesn’t provide enough thigh support. Headroom in the back is good.
The trunk at 425 litres is competitive in the 9-3’s class, and as is common in premium European sedans, the space is shaped well and beautifully lined. The traditional trunk hinges would be a no-no in an economy car, in my opinion. At least they slide out of sight behind the carpeted trim when the trunk is closed, so they won’t crush your belongings.
The interior is nicely constructed; while some of the materials are a little plain for a premium car, Saab is at least consistent in terms of assembly quality. My ergonomic complaints are few: one has to deal with the fussiness of the options menu in the instrument cluster (as with the stability control on/off I mentioned above); the other is with the strip of silver trim that runs around the top section of the dash. Drive this car on a sunny day, and that strip is reflected in the windshield, directly in the driver’s line of sight.
The 9-3 starts at a shade under $36,000, with the standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. My Aero V6 tester rang in at $45,490 with the six-speed automatic transmission. Add to that a $1,995 DVD-based navigation system; cross-wheel drive for $2,340; the Aero Touring Package, which bundles a three-position memory for the driver’s seat, auto-dimming interior mirror with integrated garage door opener, and rear parking assist; and finally, the premium leather interior trim option, which seems a little pricey at $1,850. Add in $1,400 for freight, and the final tally is $54,225.
That’s almost $17,000 worth of options in a car that, in all honesty, is quite competent, comfortable and entertaining in base form. I will say, after having driven a few different 9-3s in the past couple of years, that the turbo V6 is the best engine choice if you want an automatic transmission; four-cylinder turbo lag â€“ mild as it is â€“ is too apparent with the automatic, though the smaller engine is well-suited to the standard six-speed manual.
The question I always ask myself when I test a vehicle is “would I buy one”? I do like the 9-3, but I’d skip a loaded-up version like this one and choose a more basic 2.0T model with the manual transmission. Either that, or wait a year and buy one outfitted like my tester, but used, to take advantage of Saab’s precipitous depreciation.
A basic 9-3 is a good deal for a premium sedan, but no matter the trim level, I think enthusiasts will find it lacks the pure driving qualities that BMW’s 3 Series brings to the table. The addition of an all-wheel drive option â€“ goofy name or not â€“ should help the 9-3 gain some ground on its German competitors, but it still needs a little bit more traction to catch up.
Pricing: 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD
with six-speed automatic transmission
|(DVD-based navigation system, $1,995; cross-wheel drive, $2,340; Aero Touring Package, $1,050; Premium leather trim, $1,850)|
|Price as tested:||$||
Manufacturer’s web site