Saab 9-3 2.0 turbo sedan, thankfully still marching to its own beat

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The driver’s seat in the 2008 Saab 9-3 is a wonderful place to spend time. It’s as comfortable as your favorite recliner, and the cockpit’s design is friendly, attractive and contemporary.

It’s easy to get comfy, to gain confidence behind the wheel. The road lies ahead. It’s time for a car trip, the longer the better. Obviously, other things are just as important as the seat, but if you are snuggled in a great-feeling chair than the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

But this Saab is more than ordinary in many other ways.

The uniqueness of Saab of previous decades is still there in a refreshed edition of the latest 9-3 — introduced in 2004 — with the aircraft-style air vents with joystick-like controls, the ignition switch mounted in the floor between the seats and the black night panel in which all dashboard lights can be turned off except for the speedometer.

Revised exterior styling, that retains the traditional Saab grille and its wedge-shaped silhouette, also engenders a more modern Saab mindset while allowing you to know well what you’re getting into. What designers did to the exterior of the 9-3 is subtle yet advances the look creating a more handsome package. The black body side molding strips are gone producing a cleaner look, the front end features a redesigned grille including a bolder under-bumper air intake, streamlined headlight enclosures, new door handles and redesigned taillights. The traditional rounded clam shell hood is still there, which should make Saab traditionalists smile.

After quickly gaining a relaxing position behind the wheel, the standard Saab 9-3 2.0-liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine quickly comes to life making 210 horsepower a rewarding drive. If you want a bit more quickness move to the Aero, which is moves you with a turbocharged 2.8-liter 255-horsepower V-6.

The biggest change for 2008 is the addition of something Saab calls XWD — or as Saab officials explained, cross-wheel-drive — a unique version of all-wheel drive. It became available in January.

We tested the system on an airstrip runway and a grassy field in Virginia hill country outside of Washington, D.C., and found the rather unique Saab system very effective.

In normal driving conditions about 90 percent of the torque is directed at the front wheels. But when things change — even under hard acceleration — the system works in concert with the stability control system and the engine to move torque rearward. It electronically engages the clutch before take-off, avoiding wheel spin and achieving immediate and maximum traction. No front wheel slip is required before the rear wheels are engaged.

The cross-wheel part of the equation comes from an optional rear limited-slip differential that can move up to 40 percent of the engine torque between the rear wheels. This feature can improve traction on slippery roads and aid in high-speed cornering to keep the car on line.

If you live in a part of the country where winter conditions make all-wheel drive a necessity rather than a luxury, be ready to pay about $2,000 for the option, which comes with a 280-horsepower version of the V-6.

While the Saab doesn’t stand out in any one area — with the exception of those wonderful seats — against formidable entry-level luxury competition such as the BMW 3-Series, Cadillac CTS, Acura TL, Audi A4, Lexus IS, Mercedes C-Class and the Infiniti G35, it offers a unique personality and a pleasant driving experience at a price that undercuts much of the competition.

For instance, a well-equipped 2.0T Sport Sedan starts at $28,385 with the manual transmission. We know that prospective buyers in this segment may loath investing in a 4-cylinder engine, but we fell in love with the turbocharged Saab powerplant that dishes out a rewarding amount of urgency that makes for a fun driving experience whether mated to a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic.

The Aero trim level with its turbocharged 255-horsepower V-6 brings 0-to-60 performance in the mid 6-second range. The engine was named one of Ward’s Auto World magazine’s “10 Best Engines” for 2006. It’s a smooth operator when mated to a six-speed automatic.

But be prepared to pay a base price of $35,415 for the Aero package. Adding an automatic transmission to either the 2.0 or the Aero is $1,350.

Speed alone is not what makes a good sports sedan. And the 9-3 2.0T acquits itself quite well in handling and road carving. But again when you  inject comparisons, the Saab suffers. Compared to such bread-and-butter family sedans as the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry, the 9-3 is definitely a step above. But when matched up against its peers, it’s OK, but not quite in the class of Infiniti, BMW and Audi.

We do applaud Saab’s new-found ability to wring most of the torque steer out of the front-drive setup. Even with the car’s 221 pound-feet of torque, we had little trouble controlling the steering wheel on pedal-to-metal takeoffs.

The 9-3 comes in three configurations. If you want the Saab experience, but need extra space, the 9-3 comes as a station wagon called the SportCombi. If you want the Saab experience, but want open-air fun, it comes in a soft top convertible. We have driven both the wagon and convertible and we very much like both vehicles.

We applaud Saab for eliminating all but one of the crazy and confusing trim level names — Linear, Arc and Aero. The Linear and Arc have been combined into a self-explanatory 2.0T base trim level and the upscale Aero name, which has been around for years, has been retained.

Safety equipment is a big part of the standard package including stability control, antilock brakes, active head restraints, side-impact airbags and side-curtain airbags.

The 9-3 sedan earned the 2007 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Top Safety Pick Award in the midsize car category for the third consecutive year. For 2006 the 9-3 earned the Top Safety Pick – Gold Award and received a Double Best Pick crash test rating for 2005.  The 2007 model was awarded the designation despite toughening criteria.

For 28 grand, the 2.0T offers a fairly high level of standard equipment including leather upholstery, wood-grain trim, eight-way power driver's seat, dual-zone climate control, seven-speaker audio with CD player and satellite radio.

Our test car had a few extras including a moonroof, a cold weather package, 17-inch alloy wheels and special paint bringing the bottom line to $31,435.

If you are into warranties, Saab has you covered with a 100,000 mile/five-year powertrain warranty, 50,000 mile/four-year limited warranty and no-charge scheduled maintenance for three-years or 36,000 miles.

The Saab offers an alternative to the sameness of the Japanese and European brands. It’s a very enticing alternative. It makes a statement that you march to the beat of a slightly different drummer with no apologies necessary.


Base price, $28,385; as driven, $31,435
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4
Horsepower: 210 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 221 foot-pounds @ 2,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 105.3 inches
Length: 182.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,175
Turning circle: 39 feet
Luggage capacity: 15 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.4 gallons (premium)
EPA mileage: 29 highway,19 city
0-60: 7.5 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Acura TL, Audi A4, Lexus IS250

The Good

• Great front seats
• All-wheel drive now available
• Design that doesn't shout "me too"

The Bad

• As good as it is, how long can Saab continue to sell a 4-cylinder in the entry-level luxury segment?

The Ugly

• Doesn't match competition in performance and handling