2008 Saab 3-Sep Review

2008 Saab 3-Sep - Like always, not ordinary.


People who buy the Swedish Saab generally aren't like those who purchase cars such as BMW or Mercedes-Benz models. They never have been, probably never will be.

Starting in the 1970s, buyers of the front-wheel-drive Saab have tended to be well-educated, affluent nonconformists -- partly because Saabs always have been non-mainstream cars with what might be called a "liberal" image. Somewhat like Sweden's Volvo, matter of fact.

A new Saab 9-3 Turbo X AWD model arrived this spring with a new all-aluminum turbocharged V-6 -- Saab's most powerful engine ever. The car also has Saab's first all-wheel drive (AWD) system.

But it's doubtful that the Turbo X AWD will change Saab's offbeat reputation. It has a lowered body but still looks like a Saab and has Saab traditional features, such as a console-mounted ignition switch.

Saab made airplanes before starting to make autos in 1948, when the military aircraft market slowed. It used aerodynamic aircraft techniques for its new car, but gave it a tiny two-stroke, two-cylinder engine that didn't play well in America, where powerful, high-compression V-8s were arriving.

But then, Saab always has gone its own way. It gave its tiny first cars front-wheel drive, which provided good traction but was an alien feature to U.S. car buyers, and a sturdy safety cage. Features such as side-impact bars also appeared, although most Americans weren't much interested in safety items. Saab wasn't all that offbeat, it was just ... different.

Saab found buyers here in the 1950s, when small European oddball (for America) cars found some takers, although most such autos disappeared in the 1960s. Not Saab, though. Americans didn't care that its sturdy little cars did well in tough European rallies, which were essentially tough, open-road races, but they got more acceptance when Saab gave them a German Ford V-4 engine in 1967. And Saab dropped its unusual "aero" styling when it introduced its new 99 two- and four-door models in 1969. They had a regular inline four-cylinder that didn't use much fuel but provided adequate performance without a turbocharger.

The 99 still looked rather offbeat here, but was a big step forward for Saab. The car soon got fuel injection and four-wheel disc brakes -- absent in most American cars then. Saab became a leader in turbocharging mass-production autos by giving its four-cylinder engines a turbo for more power in 1978 -- the first of many "turbo" Saabs. Then the more modern 900 model appeared in 1979, followed by the even more modern 9000 in the late 1980s.

The Saab 9-3 came in 1999 with a turbocharged four-cylinder, because Saab always has believed in producing turbo four-cylinder motors for a good blend of performance and fuel economy.

The latest compact 9-3 comes with a small two-liter turbo four-cylinder, which has 210 horsepower and delivers 19 mpg in the city and 29 on highways. There's also a 2.8-liter turbo V-6 with 255 horsepower (15 mpg city, 24 highway) -- and a new 2.8-liter turbo V-6 with 280 horsepower, which has about the same fuel economy as the lower-power V-6. Premium fuel is recommended for all engines.

The new all-aluminum V-6, which works with a responsive six-speed automatic transmission, comes in the new Turbo X AWD. Called XWD, the sophisticated all-wheel-drive system distributes power to all wheels as traction and surface requirements demand. It's said to take surfaces such as gravel, asphalt, concrete and low-friction roads in stride, although I only had a chance to successfully use it on wet area roads.

The 2008 compact 9-3 (Feb. 11 AutoTimes) has sharper styling partly derived from Saab's striking Aero X concept car, a slightly more powerful 255-horsepower V-6 -- and the new Turbo X AWD model.

General Motors owns Saab, so the 9-3 lends its basic design to GM's above-average Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac G6 and Saturn Aura. GM hopes the revised 2008 9-3 will help boost sales, which totaled 32,711 units in America last year.

The 9-3 Turbo X AWD should help Saab, which also sells the larger 9-5 sedan and wagon and 9-7X mid-size SUV. The Turbo X AWD comes as a $41,765 sedan and as a $42,565 station wagon. It has all the many comfort, convenience and safety features of the entry 9-3 and higher-line 9-3 Aero models. And it adds a limited-slip differential, stronger brakes, load-leveling performance suspension, 45-series tires on larger 18-inch wheels and a rear spoiler.

The latest Aero sedan/wagon models can get the new V-6 and all-wheel-drive in a $2,645 option package, but not the performance suspension, uprated brakes and larger wheels of the lowered Turbo X AWD.

Despite its extra equipment, the Turbo X didn't feel as sporty as I expected. Merging and passing times were plenty fast and the 0-60 mph time was only 5.7 seconds. The firm brake pedal had a nice linear action, but the quick steering was a little light and the suspension felt a bit soft. It caused some "float" over certain roads, although prominent bumps could be felt on expressways. A European version of the 9-3 I drove in Italy last year with a turbo diesel engine had the same generally soft feel.

The 9-3 Turbo X AWD interior is quiet, except for mild engine drone at highway speeds. Front seats are supportive, and gauges can be quickly read. Climate controls are large, but radio controls are small. Front doors have storage pockets and the glove compartment is large. Rear legroom is tight for long-legged passengers and the center of the back seat is too stiff for comfort.

The especially large cargo area has a low, wide opening and can be enlarged by flipping forward the rear seatbacks, which sit flat.

While not as sporty as German rivals, the Turbo X AWD is very capable and, like all Saabs, a little different.


Prices: $41,765-$42,565

Likes: New turbocharged V-6. New all-wheel drive. Sharper styling. Lots of equipment.

Dislikes: Not as sporty as one might think. Tight rear seat room. Rather soft suspension. V-6 engine drone.

Dan Jedlicka

Dan Jedlicka's Website

Dan Jedlicka joined the Chicago Sun-Times in February 1968 as a business news reporter and was named auto editor later that year. He has reviewed more than 4,000 new vehicles for the Sun-Times--far more than any newspaper auto writer in the country. Jedlicka also reviewed vehicles for Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Autos Internet site from January, 1996, to June, 2008.

Jedlicka remained auto editor at the Sun-Times until October, 2008, and continued writing for the newspaper's AutoTimes section, which he started in 1992, until February, 2009. While continuing his auto writings at the Sun-Times, he served as assistant financial editor of that newspaper from 1970 to 1973, when he began his automotive column.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NBC's "Today," ABC's "20/20" and "The CBS Evening News." He was a host, consultant and writer for Fox-TV Channel 32's 1991 New Car Preview show and that Chicago-based station's 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 Chicago Auto Show Previews.

Jedlicka's auto articles have been printed in national magazines, including Esquire and Harper's. His auto columns have been reprinted in U.S. government publications and economic textbooks and he is profiled in the "World's Greatest Auto Show" history book about the Chicago Auto Show. In late 1975, Jedlicka was host and technical advisor for three one-hour television specials, "Auto Test 76," which aired nationally on PBS and were the first nationally televised auto road test shows.

In 1995, Jedlicka was the recipient of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois Inc.'s Consumer Education Award, given annually to a person who has gained distinction in the field of consumer education. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Media category and inducted into the Legends of Motorsports Guild at the Carquest World of wheels custom car show in Chicago in January, 2006.

Jedlicka was a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year jury, composed of a select number of auto journalists from throughout the country, from 1995 until 2009. From 2010 to 2012, he was a member of Consumer Digest magazine's auto experts panel that gave Best Buy new vehicle recommendations.

He is a 1987 graduate of the Bob Bondurant Race Drivers School and later of the BMW "M" and Skip Barber Advanced Driving schools. He was a member of the U.S. team that participated in the 1987 1,000-mile Mille Miglia race/rally in Italy and has been a race winner at the Chicago area's Santa Fe Speedway.

Jedlicka has owned 25 classic cars, including 1950s and 1960s Ferraris and 1950s and 1960s Porsches, a 1965 Corvette, a 1967 Maserati and a 1957 Studebaker supercharged Golden Hawk. Jedlicka resides with his wife, Suzanne, in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park. They have two children, James and Michele.

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