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
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.