Saab 9-3 SportCombi brings back the favored hatchback

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

A number of manufacturers refuse to call them wagons.

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

Vehicles with four doors and a hatch in back were once a staple of the 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 — a few 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.

Know that Jaguar, BMW, Audi, Volvo and now again Saab all have excellent examples of these compact and mid-sized wagons.

For 2006, Saab has added a bit of a twist. The new Saab 9-3 SportCombi 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. Arching high-mounted rear taillights wrap into forward-slanted D-pillars.

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 long ago Saab was synonymous with hatchback. A great number of Saabs over the past few decades were either three-door or five-door hatches.

It wasn’t that many years ago that we spent a couple of days in New Hope, Alabama testing and proving the versatility of the hatched version of the Saab. From grandfather clocks to too many 50 pound bags of fertilizer to a full-blown mainsail and as we recall a tuba or two; the Saab worked to perfection showing off its carrying capabilities.

But under the direction of owner 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 45 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the seats folded and nearly 15 cubic feet behind the seats. It’s a wonderful combination of driving fun and practicality.

Our test car was the sporty Aero trim level, which runs $6,000 more than the base version at $32,900. In our estimation it’s worth the money. In addition to a power-packed turbocharged 250-horsepower 2.8-liter V-6, the Aero brings bolstered front sports seats, leather upholstery, a lower body kit treatment, a lowered sport suspension, 300-watt stereo with 13 speakers, 17-inch alloy wheels, chrome instrument surrounds and chrome interior trim.

There are only two trim levels across the 9-3 model lineup for 2006. The confusing Arc and Linear designations have been discontinued and combined into an unnamed standard model.

The standard engine in the SportCombi is a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder generating 210 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque.

Both trim levels have manual transmissions available, a 5-speed in the base and a 6-speed in the Aero. Our test car came with a 6-speed automatic with steering wheel shift controls. It suited us just fine.

The V-6 pulls strongly through the gears, but with a hint of turbolag at lower rpm. We felt virtually no torque steer in the front-driven wagon. That’s impressive since the V-6 generates 258 pound-feet. The SportCombi actually feels faster than the unofficial published times of around 7.0 seconds from 0 to 60.

We did not drive the 4-cylinder model, but performance should be satisfying with 0-to-60 in the mid 8-second range.

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.

The driving position is near-perfect thanks to the excellent sports seats. They offer a neat combination of comfort and support. And we were impressed with the look of the parchment-colored leather seats with black inserts.

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. Not to worry, even those of us who can’t remember what we had for lunch manage to hit the right buttons in the Saab by dinner time.

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.

Saab was also one of the first automakers to offer a large, cooled glovebox for beverages or to keep your Snickers bar from melting in hot weather. It’s standard equipment — lined with a rubber insert — on the SportCombi.

Storage areas are plentiful, including under-floor cubbies in the cargo area.

Our test car came with a few options including navigation, automatic transmission, front heated seats and special Metallic paint bringing the bottom line to $38,065. The base price includes no-charge maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles and a four-year, 50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.

Saab more recently decided to bring back the 9-5 hatchback, and like the 9-3 as a SportCombi, for a base price of $35,820 including 17-inch wheels, leather interior and a Harmon Kardon stereo. It carries the same warranty and no-charge maintenance as the 9-3 SportCombi.

The new Saab gives people who desire an upscale vehicle that’s just a touch quirky with plenty of cargo space an opportunity to say no to the gas-hungry sport utility. They will get a handsome wagon that can return 28 miles to the gallon on the highway while offering driving excitement not possible in a high-profile SUV. And the key is still in the floor. That’s the stuff that makes a Saab, well…a Saab.