Saab 9-3 Saab SportCombi — crossover alternative

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Manufacturers cringe when you call one of their four-door hatchbacks a wagon.

But vehicles that look curiously like station wagons of old are making an astounding comeback, particularly among the European entry-level luxury ranks.

Cars with five doors were once a staple of the automotive industry in virtually all segments. Then in the ’90s it became more fashionable to find the hatch attached to the rear end of a sport utility vehicle.

But people are rediscovering that wagons — companies beg us not to refer to their vehicles as such — are capable of hauling as much stuff as a comparably sized SUV while yielding much better gas mileage and offering alluring designs. Many of these new offerings can be ordered with all-wheel drive offsetting one of the few advantages of an SUV.

BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Saab and Volvo all have excellent examples of these compact and mid-sized wagons.

The Saab 9-3 SportCombi, introduced as a 2006 model, is a honey of a car and returns the Swedish automaker to its hatchback roots.

All of the new European wagons are wonderfully proportioned. The 9-3 is no exception. The roof gracefully tapers rearward into a steeply raked tailgate. The rear haunches rise up toward the sloping roof line.

The front third of the car is similar to the 9-3 sedan. And that’s a good thing.

The SportCombi is a mouth-watering design that puts Saab back in the hatchback business. Not many years ago Saab was synonymous with hatchback. A great number of Saabs over the decades were either three-door or five-door hatches.

But under the direction of General Motors, the rear door was eliminated in 2003 in favor of a traditional sedan trunk.

Saab loyalists who loved the hatchback design were left on the side of the road. The SportCombi has put the Saab aficionado back in the driver’s seat.

The 9-3 offers a sports-sedan feel with 72 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the seats folded and more than 29 cubic feet behind the seats. It’s a wonderful combination of driving fun and practicality.

Our test car was the sporty top Aero trim level with a hefty base price of $45,660, nearly $12,000 more than the base Touring trim, which starts at $33,915 with automatic transmission.

There are some significant differences between the two — with Comfort, XWD and Sport in the middle range running from 36 grand to 39 grand.

We like the Saab wagon, but we were astonished by the rapid escalation in prices from 2006 to 2009. The base price of the Aero SportCombi we tested in 2006 was $33,000. Four model years later with only minor changes and upgrades, the same SportCombi sells for a whopping 36 percent more. That's inflation run rampant at a time when new cars are selling at about the same pace as video cassette recorders.

What is Saab thinking?

The Aero brings the best of Saab to the station wagon buyer including a turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6 making 280 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic, Saab's XWD all-wheel drive system, 17-inch alloy wheels, sunroof, leather upholstery, 11-speaker audio including subwoofer with six-CD changer and satellite radio, Bluetooth wireless data link for hands-free phone, and heated power front seats.

But to us the best buy in the lineup is the Touring model starting at about 34 grand with a six-speed automatic. It can be purchased for $32,565 with a manual shifter. But even the Touring model is about $6,000 more than it sold for in '06, about a 22 percent markup.

Standard features on the Touring model, which comes in front-wheel drive, are a 210-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, full power package, leather upholstery, eight-way power driver's seat, dual-zone climate control, seven-speaker audio system with satellite radio, and cruise control.

That's a rather impressive list of equipment, but, unfortunately, navigation cannot be purchased as an option on the Touring model, a major error in judgment on a vehicle selling north of 30 grand.

The turbocharged V-6 offers satisfying performance. It pulls strongly through the gears, but with a hint of turbolag at low rpms. Saab has eliminated the torque-steer issues of the past with standard all-wheel drive mated to the 280-horsepower engine.

The SportCombi actually feels faster than the unofficial published times of around 7.4 seconds from 0 to 60. And Saab says it will run fine on regular gas, but according to EPA yields a rather disappointing 15 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg highway.

We did not drive the 4-cylinder model, but performance should be satisfying with 0-to-60 in the mid 8-second range. It's gas mileage ratings are 19/27.
The power derived from the V-6 is a suitable counterpart to the car’s excellent handling and cornering capabilities. And this smile-inducing behavior is achieved in part thanks to a firm but certainly not jarring suspension.

Good feedback is offered through the steering wheel with excellent on-center feel.

Saab has some of the best brakes in the segment. The pedal has a solid, confident feel. One published test showed that the SportCombi stopped from 60 miles per hour in an amazingly short 109 feet.

The driving position is near-perfect thanks to the excellent seats, a Saab staple over the years. They offer a rewarding combination of comfort and support. And we were impressed with the look of the black leather seats with beige inserts.

We found the rear seats comfortable with a good seatback rake, but legroom was disappointing. It might be necessary to reach a compromise with the front-seat passenger to gain long-distance comfort.

The dashboard layout is standard Saab black. We’ve always found Saab’s aircraft-inspired instrumentation attractive, even as some critics call for more colorful executions, but as in the past there are a lot of same-looking buttons that can be confusing until the controls are put to memory.

Saab’s signature Night Panel remains, in which all the interior lights can be cut off expect for the speedometer for less distracting night driving.

We like the rather quirky Saab. We like the way it looks and the way it drives. But we are puzzled by the price escalation since its introduction in 2006, particularly in the top trim line. The buying service says there are incentives available on the SportCombi and it may be possible to save several thousands over sticker.


Base price: $32,565; as driven, $48,555
Engine: 2.8-liter turbocharged V-6
Horsepower: 280 @ 5,000 rpm
Torque: 295 foot-pounds @ 1,900 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 105.3 inches
Length: 183.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,957 pounds
Turning circle: 39 feet
Luggage capacity: 29.7 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 72 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.4 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 24 highway, 15 city
0-60: 7.4 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Volvo V70, BMW 3-Series wagon, Audi A4, Subaru Outback Limited

The Good

• Excellent all-wheel drive system
• Great front seats
• Quiet, comfortable cabin

The Bad

• Rear-seat legroom is tight

The Ugly

• Significantly overpriced