With the addition of a powerful new V6, the Saab 9-3 has become a real contender among the sports sedans, convertibles and sport wagons in its class. Whichever body style fits your needs and desires, the Saab 9-3 is sporty, it's tight, and it handles well. A new 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 has been added for 2006 along with an improved 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 35 more horsepower last year's engine. Together, they make the 2006 Saab 9-3 a more compelling choice.
For 2006, Saab has reconsidered, reformulated, and recalculated all of its models, packages and prices, and the new models are several thousand dollars less expensive than comparably equipped 2005 models, enough of a price difference to warrant further consideration by fringe Saab shoppers, who are already looking at the big name competitors: the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Volvo S60 and S40, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Saab, originally a Swedish aircraft company, borrows aircraft design elements for its cars, right down to the twin-engine plane logo, and now calls its top models Aero to complete the connection. Past examples of aero design include the wraparound, near-vertical windshields and aircraft-style dashboards with instrument lighting that can be switched off at night. Small map lights looked like they came from a cockpit. Outside mirrors were bent at the edges to reduce blind spots. More aero touches abound on the 2006 models, which now come standard with body-color trim and body-color tonneau covers for the convertible top. Saab is promoting its airplane heritage in its 2006 advertising campaign.
The 2006 9-3 looks like a Saab and manages to remain a Saab, yet it's a thoroughly modern car with few of the quirks or foibles historically associated with the brand. The 9-3 was completely redesigned for the 2003 model year, the convertible followed for 2004, and for 2006, the lineup includes the new 9-3 SportCombi, a sport wagon. With this new choice of body styles, powertrains and equipment, this is the most versatile family of 9-3s Saab has ever produced, with 18 models in all.
The 2006 Saab 9-3 comes in three body styles, a four-door sedan, a two-door convertible, and a four-door wagon called the SportCombi (or simply Combi). Two trim levels are offered, the 2.0T and the Aero. (The old Linear and Arc model designations are gone.)
The 2.0T sedan ($25,900), SportCombi ($26,900), and convertible ($36,500) are similarly equipped. The 2.0T is powered by the high-output version of the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, rated at 210 horsepower for 2006. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. A six-speed automatic is optional ($1,350). The 2.0T comes standard with leather upholstery, wood interior trim, and dual-zone automatic climate control come standard. Also standard: 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. For 2006, all 9-3 models come with no-charge scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance during the warranty period.
The Aero sedan ($31,900), SportCombi ($32,900), and convertible ($41,900) are similarly equipped and feature the new 2.8-liter V6 rated at 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual comes standard. The six-speed automatic is optional ($1,350) and features shifter paddles on the steering wheel. The Aero is further upgraded with 17-inch alloy wheels; xenon projector headlamps; fog lights; premium audio; moonroof.
A DVD navigation system is available for all models ($1,995). A blue top is available for the convertible ($600). Premium metallic paint ($550) is available in a broad palette of interesting colors. Special upholstery is available for no extra charge.
Options for the 2.0T include a moonroof ($1,200) and a Premium Package ($1,895) that includes Red Walnut interior trim, eight-way power passenger seat, 300-watt audio upgrade with 6CD 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 ($1,195) 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.
Safety is a key feature of all Saabs, and the 9-3 is loaded with active and passive safety features. Among them: 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.
The Saab 9-3 is a near-luxury car. The 9-3 sedan is similar in size to the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, and Audi A4. These cars are smaller than mid-size Japanese cars, like the Honda Accord, Lexus ES and Infiniti G35 sedan, but larger than compacts like the Toyota Corolla.
The 9-3 cannot be mistaken for anything but a Saab. The sloping, wedge-like profile, the shape of the windows, the sleek, integrated headlights, and the distinctive grille are all unmistakably Saab.
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 somewhat reminiscent of earlier Saabs, only now wrapping around to the trailing edge of the rear quarter panel.
The SportCombi is one of the coolest-looking station wagons on the planet, front to back. It looks sleek without the roof rack, purposefully sporty with it. The huge white-lens vertical LED taillamps don't intrude on the cargo opening and finish off the body shape perfectly.
Convertibles feature a soft top that merges cleanly with the car's lines, retaining all the proper proportions and relationships with windshield, wheel openings and wedge profile. With the top down and tucked away beneath the solid tonneau cover, the rake of the windshield draws the eye over the passenger area to the tonneau behind the rear-seat head restraints, which tapers into the trunk lid. The soft top features a glass rear window with a defogger.
The Saab 9-3's interior is pretty much what one would expect in a near-luxury car, although certain Saab styling cues remain. The ignition key goes into the lock between the bucket seats, on the floor console. Some consider this awkward, but Saab aficionados would have it no other way. The instruments are arrayed in an easy-to-view layout with a big speedometer in a sweeping instrument panel that blends into the center console. It's a relatively high dashboard compared to that in most other cars, but that's long been a signature styling cue of Saab cars.
In keeping with the narrow confines and intimate nature of the interior, the buttons and switches in the 9-3 are smaller than those in many cars. Nonetheless they are all well placed for the driver to reach while driving. An extra set of warning gauges is mounted on top of the dashboard in the center in a small pod, locating them more directly in the driver's line of sight. Radio settings are also displayed here. The glovebox is one of the largest in the class, very useful.
Overall quality of the 9-3's interior is very good. The sedan and SportCombi feature wood trim, while the convertible goes with more matte-black finish. Door handles and the center console shifter surround are trimmed in brushed chrome. The Aero steering wheel is wrapped in leather with brushed chrome trim on the spokes.
The front bucket seats are firm but comfortable, with side bolsters that restrain during spirited motoring without restricting while climbing in and out. The available Sport seats are more aggressive and best suited to slimmer, narrower bodies.
Rear-seat passengers in the two-door convertible do not fare as well as those in the four-door sedan, of course: The convertible gives up nearly 10 inches of hip room and nearly 3 inches of legroom. A center console can be folded down between the rear seats that contains cup holders and a map storage area.
Cargo space in the sedan is 14.8 cubic feet. The SportCombi has an impressive 29.7 cubic feet, or 72.3 cubic feet with the back seats down, and it's a broad, deep, tall usable space. The cargo floor is split into two covers that lift to reveal additional hidden storage, and the flexible cargo cover has a closed position and a semi-closed position. The 60/40 split rear seats can be folded for versatility when carrying one rear-seat passenger and cargo. Trunk space drops to 12.4 cubic feet in the convertible with just 8.3 cubic feet available with the top down.
The Saab 9-3 handles impressively well, with a nicely balanced neutral feel. The steering is a little light, but not enough to detract from the fun-to-drive factor. Passive rear-wheel steering in the rear suspension design keeps the rear tires following the front tires in quick lane changes and through rapid transitions when driving quickly on twisting roads. Directional stability is good over almost all road surfaces, even when equipped with the wider tires.
The ride is smooth. And it's quiet, with little road noise or wind noise invading the cabin, even through the vast expanse of rear and side glass in the wagon version.
One area in which the 9-3 excels is its suppression of torque steer, a disconcerting trait afflicting many front-wheel-drive cars where the steering wheel tugs at the driver's hands under hard acceleration or resists corrections in the midst of a corner. Saab engineers worked hard to eliminate it in this latest 9-3, and it appears they were largely successful. The turbocharged V6 develops a lot of torque and a modicum of tugging and resistance is apparent while accelerating over uneven pavement or out of a tight corner, but it isn't the issue it once was with older Saabs.
The V6 delivers all the punch these cars need, with 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque from 2000-4500 rpm. Saab says the 9-3 Aero SportCombi we drove is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds flat. The big torque is more than adequate for those urgent passes on two-lane roads and for getting up to merging speeds on highway on-ramps.
If you really like doing your own shifting, go with either one of the manual transmissions, but we don't recommend it. The longish clutch throw takes some getting used to and the six-speed in the Aero feels a little rubbery, but you'll save yourself $1,350. If you commute, get the six-speed automatic. The fingertip controls on the Aero models add to the fun in every day driving.
The Saab 9-3 is a delight to drive. The SportCombi is a nice combination of sportiness and hauling function in a pretty, modern wrapper that offers nearly 60 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat flopped out of the way. The high-output V6 engine is a hoot to drive, with plenty of low-down torque, and highway mileage across the line varies from 27 to 31 miles per gallon. The current 9-3 manages to remain a Saab yet has no really bad manners or habits.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Dearborn, Michigan.
|Model Line Overview|
|Base Price (MSRP)|
|Saab 9-3 2.0T Sport Sedan ($25,900); Aero Sport Sedan ($31,900); 2.0T Convertible ($36,500); Aero Convertible ($41,900); 2.0T SportCombi ($26,900); Aero SportCombi ($32,900)|
|210-hp 2.0-liter dohc 16v turbocharged inline-4; 250-hp 2.8-liter dohc 24v turbocharged V-6|
|5-speed manual; 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic|
|Safety equipment (Standard):|
|ABS, electronic traction control (TCS), Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Cornering Brake Control (CBC), mechanical Brake Assist, dual-stage front airbags, side-impact airbags, and curtain airbags, active front-seat head restraints, automatic front seatbelt pre-tensioners, OnStar telematics|
|Safety equipment (Optional):|
|automatic pop-up rear roll bar on convertible|
|4 years/50,000 miles|
|Trollhattan, Sweden; Graz, Austria|
|Specifications As Tested|
|Model tested (MSRP):|
|Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi ($32,900)|
|automatic climate control; leather-appointed seats; height-adjustable, telescoping and leather-wrapped steering wheel; power windows; remote central locking, heated power outside mirrors; interval wipers; cruise control; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; automatic climate control; dual powered front seats with driver memory; dashboard Night Panel feature; rear-window defogger; Saab Car Computer, AM/FM/CD 13-speaker stereo; anti-theft alarm with engine immobilizer, daytime running lights, front fog lights|
|Options as tested:|
|automatic transmission ($1350); Cold Weather Package ($550) includes heated front seats and headlamp washers; navigation system ($1995); metallic paint ($550)|
|Gas Guzzler Tax:|
|Price as tested (MSRP)|
|2.8-liter dohc 24v turbocharged V-6|
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm):|
|250 @ 5500|
|Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm):|
|258 @ 2000|
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy:|
|Head/hip/leg room, f:|
|Head/hip/leg room, m:|
|Head/hip/leg room, r:|
|59.6 cu. ft.|
|independent MacPherson strut, gas-pressurized shocks, anti-roll bar|
|independent four-link, coil springs, gas-pressurized shocks, anti-roll bar|
|disc/disc w ABS, EBD, traction control, ESP, CBC, Brake Assist in.|