Saab has been something of a whipping-boy in the automotive press; paired up with BMWs and Audis and other sporty Euro-makes in comparison tests that the brand’s basically predestined to lose. After all, Saab never really was about all-out European-style driving sublimity-even if the brand’s current owner doesn’t really get that.
GM picked up Saab in one of the General’s characteristic impulse-buys; matching Ford’s fortuitous acquisition of Volvo. GM figured a high-end make in its stable would flesh out the corporate portfolio-but they weren’t really buying the same type of brand to begin with. Saab has always been about being adventurous, being off-beat, being different, first and foremost-not necessarily about being the best at any one thing in particular. Merecede’s has a lock on prestige, BMW’s core value is driving perfection, Volvo’s become synonymous with safety. And where for every ounce of effort GM’sm put into trying to beat those brands at their game, they’ve ignored to the same extent the true, innate character that solidified Saab’s loyal customer base in the first place.
Saab buyers never really wanted to beat Bimmer guys around a racetrack, or to project an image of self-sacrificing “family-first” safety-ism, nor do they lust after that prominent position in the valet-parking lot. Overmatched as they might be in comparison tests with brands that do aspire to those traits-especially when the test itself is skewed in that direction-Saab’s place in the automotive stratosphere has been secured by the brand’s willingness to do things differently, to march to it’s own beat, to dare to be different. And while certain models in the current lineup have eschewed that core strength thanks to GM’s ill-advised attempt to make Sweden’s second-biggest automaker compete with the rest of Europe, the current 9-3 has managed to hold on to a lot of what makes a Saab a Saab. Viewed in that light, it’s a success.
Exterior styling is the primary attribute that lures walking-wallets into showrooms; the way a car looks weighs heavier on most buying decisions than any other single quality. The 9-3 manages to pass this test, while maintaining the brand’s identity, with aplomb-it looks like nothing else on the road, and still looks good. “Born from Jets” is the new (and rather uninspired) tagline, and it does apply to the current car in question’s appearance. Sleek is the watchword here, with wind-tunnel-tested lines forming a slippery, sexy shape that is every bit as good as the baby sedans from other makes in the same class. Low, lean, and lithe, the 9-3 carries over a basic shape that’s familiar going as far back as the late 1980s, although regular restyling has kept the form fresh and modern. The classic grille, the expected body skirts, and the hatchback-like shape should all please the eyes of the Saab faithful.
Inside is a similar story; Saab shoppers salivate for the unusual in their interiors-and won’t be disappointed.
That’s what makes the 9-3 different; Saab’s also included a lot of content that matches the competition as well. There’s nice leather on those sport seats, and real wood on that console. The folding rear seat, with ski-bag pass-thru is a convenient touch, as is the 12-volt outlet in the armrest. We liked the clock/trip-computer unit sitting atop the dash as well; the average fuel economy (we got 23.6 m.p.g.-not bad for us leadfoots), range, date/alarm and so on is handy, if not heady, stuff. The two sturdy rear cupholders did make us wonder why the ones up front are so either flimsy-feeling or poorly positioned (the spidery thing protruding from the dash or the spot right by the ignition switch). But the overall level of equipment-high-powered six-disc DC audio system, keyless entry with remote trunk, HID headlights, leather, wood and power-everything-seemed rich for the $32,960 as-tested price (the base car runs $25,900). And pretty much all controls functioned well and were within reach-even if they were a little hard-to-fathom in that typical Saab fashion.
A nav note here. Our tester did, as is increasingly common in almost every price range, include one of these systems. First off, the 9-3’s unit lacks touch-screen capability (and voice-entry as well), failing our first test for ease-of-use. Furthermore, the intelligent logic used in this Swede’s system seemed subpar; if it wasn’t dragging our route around superfluous U-turns, it was freezing up altogether. Finally, we couldn’t find a way to turn off the voice-guidance interrupting the audio system-pretty much all settings were obfuscated to say the least-which we found annoying especially in a system that feels a need to talk to you every twelve seconds.
It’s the driving dynamics where the Saabs generally begin to lose points in those buff-book title fights mentioned above. And it’s true, the Saab is nowhere near as connected to the road as a 3-series, and by no means can the 9-3’s composure be compared to a C-Class. However, our Swedish subject is not noticeably lacking in any of these qualities, either. The 9-3 is essentially a composed car-unless pushed hard; a state that at least 2.0T owners are unlikely to achieve. Cornering is smooth, grip is satisfactory, and response to inputs from the helm are accurate if not instantaneous. Our Saab was never unsettled on any but the worst of the area’s tarmac, and was creditably smooth when the road was, too. Essentially, the 9-3 makes a good compromise between all-out handling prowess and quiet cruising comfort.
Technical details are rounded out by a five-speed Sentronic automatic transmission. For the shift-it-yourself crowd, a six-speed manual tranny is also available. Or, you can use the manu-matic function; we found the Saab’s to be one of the better examples of this concept, holding the selected gear to redline and executing split-second shifts when activated.
A couple faults do detract from the drive/ride, however. First off is the notorious torque steer issue; Saab has still not managed to learn how to tame a thundering 221 lb./ft. through the front wheels without nearly ripping the wheel out of the driver’s hands-especially not with the turbo motor’s tendency to come on quick. That turbo also contributes to a lack of quiet in the cabin; an ever-present whistle belies the Saab’s premium pretensions.
And yet the turbo acquits itself of any quibbles fairly well when you put your foot into that drive-by-wire throttle. 210 horses might not sound like a lot, but when that forced induction comes to a boil-which it does faster than road rage hits on the Beltway-the horses shove you back into your seat as the Saab takes off. We measured zero to sixty in about seven and a half seconds; on par with the more-expensive BMW and Audi sedans in the class.
This isn’t an all-out sports-sedan, though. The motor does run out of steam at some supremely extralegal speeds, and low-end torque isn’t a bragging point, either. Furthermore, the all-season rubber on 16-inch wheels is a good compromise between handling, all-weather capability, safety, noise, and simple wear. Driven in a normal, everyday manner, the Saab 9-3 2.0T feels like a smooth, competent European car that just happens to have turbo-power waiting in the wings for whenever you might need it-nothing more, nothing less.
Take the svelte styling, the comfortable if quirky interior, and the peppy drivetrain. Then factor in the overall value the 9-3 represents, when compared to a similar-sized BMW, Volvo, Audi, Mercedes, and so on. Add it all up, and your sum is a solid, sensible-and singular-Saab. Sure, we know we probably couldn’t talk any Saab-lovers out of buying one anyway-but we’re still happy we don’t have to.