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.