The Swedish Saab always has been for someone who wants something, safe, solid and a little different.
Saabs have become more mainstream in recent years. They've long been proficiently designed because they come from a company that makes airplanes.
General Motors owns the entire Saab operation, having bought half of it in 1990 and the rest in 2000. It has left Saab cars pretty much alone because it recognizes that distinctive autos are part of Saab's appeal.
The smoothly styled 9-3 is the top-selling Saab. Its list prices range from $26,250 to $43,100. The base model is the 2.0T turbocharged four-cylinder 210-horsepower sedan, which I tested. The 2.0T also comes as a station wagon and convertible. Other 9-3 models are the higher-performance Aero sedan, wagon and convertible, which is the most costly 9-3. Aeros have a turbocharged 250-horsepower V-6.
Engines come with a six-speed manual gearbox and five- or six-speed automatic transmissions. My test 2.0T sedan had the manual, which shifted crisply and worked with a light but long-throw clutch.
Estimated fuel economy with the 210-horsepower engine is 22 mpg in the city and 30 on highways with the manual transmission and 21 and 30 with a five-speed automatic. The figures are 18 and 28 with the V-6 and manual and 17 and 28 with that engine and six-speed automatic. Premium fuel is recommended.
Saab began building small, aircraft-inspired cars in the late 1940s following years of being a respected airplane producer. Saab cockpits thus always have been no-nonsense affairs, and the 2007 9-3 has a redesigned interior with new automatic climate controls, larger instrument cluster and new trim.
The white-on-black gauges can be read quickly, and it's easy to reach and work controls. Front seats provide good side support in curves, although the split-folding rear seat has a hard center area best occupied by a fold-down armrest. All 9-3s have Saab's traditional console-mounted ignition switch, which might seem odd to some but is easily gotten used to.
Attention to detail is shown by the windshield washers. There are three of them with dual nozzles that shoot six high-powered streams of washer fluid.
All doors have storage pockets, although the center console bin is small, and a plastic cupholder that pops out of the dashboard for the front passenger seems rather flimsy.
Saabs always have had front-wheel drive and lots of safety features. The 9-3 features an electronic stability control system, along with anti-lock disc brakes. Other safety items include front seat active head restraints to prevent whiplash injury, front side air bags and side curtain side air bags.
Even my base 9-3 test car was decently equipped with comfort and convenience equipment. Standard are air conditioning with dual-zone automatic climate controls, leather upholstery, AM/FM/ CD player, tilt/telescopic wheel, power driver seat, cruise control, tire-pressure monitor and power heated windows, mirrors and locks with remote keyless entry.
The 9-3 provides plenty of comfortable space for four tall adults, although knee room gets a little tight for a rear occupant if a tall driver shoves his seat back a lot. The back windows roll all the way down, although rear roof pillars hinder rear visibility a little.
The trunk is long and deep, and rear seatbacks flip forward and sit flat to increase the cargo area. The large pass-through opening between the trunk and rear seat area can accommodate bulky cargo. Seatback controls are in the trunk to prevent access in the rear-seat area by thieves. (Many cars have seatback releases in the back-seat area.)
The 9-3 is not a sports sedan such as a BMW. But steering is quick, handling is sure and the brakes are strong, with good pedal feel.
My test car's supple ride was comfortable, although the sharper-handling Aero models have a stiffer ride with their sport suspension and wider tires.
The hood moves up smoothly via a hydraulic strut, and fluid filler areas can be easily reached.
Many owners of older Saabs were individualists not out to impress anyone. The new models are more mainstream but bought mostly by folks who appreciate their virtues -- and still want something a little different.
LIKES: Fast. Comfortable. Sophisticated. Redesigned interior. Safety features.
DISLIKES: Slight turbocharger lag. Thick rear roof pillars hinder visibility.