2008 Saab 3-Sep Review

2008 Saab 3-Sep - Ready for takeoff.


The 2008 Saab 9-3 compact sedan has all the things one might applaud with a new model, including sharper styling, a more powerful engine and all-wheel drive availability.

The last revised Saab 9-3 arrived for 2003, so changes to it are overdue. But Saab always has done things at its own pace -- and in its own way -- since it began building aerodynamic cars with a definite aircraft influence in the late 1940s, after years of building airplanes. (Saab eventually built jet fighter planes.)

General Motors bought half of Saab in 1990 and the rest in 2000, but largely has left the Swedish automaker alone. However, the 9-3 lends its basic design to GM's Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac G68 and Saturn Aura.

A more powerful turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6 with 280 horsepower will be available for the 9-3 this spring. The engine will be paired then with a new sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system that Saab calls "XWD" and offers for the first time. Saabs traditionally have had only front-wheel-drive, but competitors offer all-wheel drive so it figured it better also develop such a drive system.

Enhancing the XWD system is a new, oddly named "eLSD" option, which is the first electronically controlled rear limited-slip differential in the 9-3 market segment. The eLSD option gives a driver enhanced control when cornering hard or completing a high speed maneuver such as a lane change.

That turbocharged V-6 and XWD initially will be offered for the 9-3 Aero sedan and SportCombi station wagon but eventually will be available with the base 2.0T models. The 280-horsepower V-6 will come with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.

Saab is a whiz at extracting lots of power from rather small, tough engines. Thus, a turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder with 210 horsepower is in the base front-drive 9-3 2.0T sedan, SportCombi and convertible. A turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6 with 255 horsepower (up from 250) powers the higher-line 9-3 Aero versions of those three body styles.

The 210-horsepower engine comes with a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission, while the 255-horsepower V-6 is offered with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.

Estimated fuel economy with the 2-liter engine is 19 mpg in the city and 26 on highways with the automatic and 19 and 29 with the manual. The 2.8 V-6 delivers 16 and 26 with the manual and 15 and 24 with the automatic. Premium fuel is recommended for both engines.

Considering the weight of the XWD all-wheel-drive system, I suspect the 255-horsepower 9-3 will be nearly as fast as a 9-3 with the 280-horsepower V-6 and XWD -- although XWD definitely will add more traction.

The 2008 9-3's racier styling partly comes from the automaker's Aero X concept car. Bodywork ahead of the windshield pillars is all new, with swept-back frontal lines. There's a wilder-looking front end containing edgier headlights and larger under-bumper air intake. The intake is flanked by black front-end air vents that represent a metaphor for jet engine intakes.

There also are new body color door handles, side sill extensions visually integrated with scalloped corners of the new front/rear bumper moldings. At the rear are smoked white light lenses.

New alloy wheels enhance the highly aerodynamic 9-3's appearance, and there's a new Snow Silver metallic paint finish similar to that seen on the Aero X.

The revised styling gives the 9-3 a cleaner, more cohesive shape, but there's no mistaking any 9-3 model from being anything but a Saab.

List prices range from $27,640 to $38,965 for 2.0T models, while Aero models go from $34,620 to $44,920 for the convertible.

I tested the $34,620 Aero Sport Sedan. Its 255-horsepower V-6 provided rapid merging and passing, with only a trace of torque steer during quick acceleration. The manual transmission shifted shifted well, although it worked with a long-throw clutch. Driving at 35 mph in sixth gear didn't cause the smooth engine to balk.

Steering was quick but felt somewhat rubbery. The Aero's firmer sport suspension caused bumps to be felt on subpar side streets. A regular 9-3 has a more compliant ride on such roads but lacks some of the Aero's handling sharpness. The brake pedal had a nice linear feel.

The Saab 9-3 is rather pricey but has lots of equipment. Even 2.0T models have leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, tilt/telescope leather-wrapped wheel, power driver seat, AM/FM/CD, heated power mirrors and power windows and door locks with remote keyless entry. There's even rain-sensing variable intermittent wipers, along with a split-folding rear seat.

Aero models add the turbo V-6, power front passenger seat, upscale Bose sound system with an in-dash 6-disc CD changer, sport suspension and wider tires on larger wheels.

Standard safety features for all 9-3s include traction control, anti-skid system, anti-lock brakes and front side- and curtain-side air bags.

The cleanly designed interior has been left pretty much alone, with supportive front seats, easily read gauges and large climate controls. The ignition switch is in its traditional position on the center console, which is no bother. There's good room up front, but tight knee room for a tall passenger behind a tall driver.

The interior heats up quickly in cold weather and doors have storage pockets. Rear windows lower all the way, which isn't the case with most cars.

The large trunk has a low, wide opening and rear seatbacks flip forward to provide more cargo space.

The engine has a large plastic cover, but fluid filler areas are easily reached without getting clothes dirty.

The new 9-3 now matches main rivals for sportiness, and remains a car for people who want something different.

2008 SAAB 9-3
PRICES: $27,640-$44,920

LIKES: Distinctive revised styling. New all-wheel drive. More powerful V-6. Still unique.

DISLIKES: Overly light steering. Unrefined ride. Tight knee room behind driver. Some models rather pricey.

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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