Saab owners -- often referred to as "Saabophiles" -- are a loyal bunch, and it doesn't take much seat time in a Saab 9-3 to find out why. Though the 2007 9-3 is a more conventional car than Saabs past, driving one is still a unique experience that starts the moment you turn the key (which goes in the center console, not the steering column). Pricing: $28,240 base, $38,460 as tested, EPA fuel economy 17-22 MPG city, 28-30 highway.
First Glance: General Motors' most unique car?
Swedish automaker Saab has been a division of General Motors for several years. The 9-3 rides on GM's Epsilon platform, meaning it's a cousin to other front-wheel-drive GM cars like the Saturn Aura, Pontiac G6, and European-market Opel Vectra. But while those cars all bear close similarities, you'd be hard pressed to tell that the 9-3 is related to any of them. The 9-3 bears much more resemblance to the Swedish-designed Saab 9-5 than it does to any other GM car. The only indication of the 9-3's American lineage is that the ride is smoother and quieter than the 9-5. But make no mistake: From its turbocharged engine to its center-console-mounted ignition switch, the 9-3 is a Saab through-and-through.
One of my favorite things about the 9-3 is that it’s available as a wagon (SportCombi in Saab-speak). Mid-size wagons are few and far between; most come from Europe, where $6/gallon gas makes SUVs undesireable. So what sets the 9-3 SportCombi apart? For one thing, it's a lot more affordable than cars like the Audi A4 Avant and BMW 328i. And it's a Saab, which means it marches to the beat of a different drummer.
Making a wagon look attractive isn't easy, but Saab has succeeded. Lower body cladding gives the 9-3 an aggressive look, though numerous scrapes on my tester's front spoiler (link goes to photo) indicated that steep driveways are a problem. And while I don't normally like styling touches like the big silver band across the 9-3's tailgate, in this case it worked really well -- the 9-3 SportCombi looks sharp from any angle.
In the Driver's Seat: Base model is the best deal
2007 brings a number of improvements to the Saab 9-3's interior. New, simple three-dial climate controls replace last year's keyboard-like array of buttons, and cars without the $2,145 navigation system get GM's corporate CD stereo. The Aero model's steering wheel gets nifty-looking silver trim and the trip computer's display moves from the top of the dashboard to the instrument cluster. The Night Panel feature, which dims all the gauges save the speedometer for distraction-free night driving, remains. (Pictures: Night panel off, night panel on.)
My test car, an Aero model, emphasized the fact that while the base Saab 9-3 SportCombi is a good deal at $28,240, a well-equipped 9-3 Aero isn't. Most of the good stuff -- leather seats, dual-zone climate control, a full complement of safety gear including electronic stability control, and free maintenance for 3 years or 36,000 miles -- comes standard with the 9-3 base model. The Aero's $6,200 price premium buys you a bigger engine, sport-tuned suspension, sunroof, nicer stereo, power seats, metal interior trim instead of wood, and admission (but not travel) to Saab's Aero Academy driving school. Options like automatic transmission ($1,350), metallic paint ($550), and a Touring Package full of interior doo-dads ($1,195) brought my test car's price up to nearly $38,500 -- yet it was missing station wagon must-haves like roof rails and a cargo cover. Tick all the option boxes and your 9-3 will cost over $41k. For that price you could have the bigger Saab 9-5 wagon, with enough cargo space to relocate Sweden.
On the Road: Nice, but I'd rather have the 4-cylinder
Were I buying a 9-3, I'd much prefer the four-cylinder engine -- a 2.0 liter turbo that puts out just 40 fewer horsepower than the V6 -- with the 6-speed manual. I drove this combination in another Saab 9-3, and while it's no speed demon, it's much more willing to put the power to the ground than the V6/automatic, plus it's much more economical. EPA mileage estimates for the V6/auto wagon are 17 city/28 highway; I averaged an unimpressive 21 MPG in mostly-highway driving. EPA estimates for the 4-cyl stick-shift are a much more palatable 22 city/30 highway.
Also standard on the Aero model is a sport-tuned suspension. Its ride was comfortable, though a bit floaty over some of the bigger bumps. The base model handles just as well -- I drove both on a the same roads and both handled city streets, freeways and two-laners comfortably and competently. Unfortunately, another driver in a PT Cruiser put an end to my test drive before I got a chance to attack my favorite curvy canyon road.
Journey's End: My test ends with a first-hand lesson in Saab safety
I got a first-hand lesson in Saab safety when a driver tried to pass on the right just as I was making a turn. The impact wasn't severe enough to set off the 9-3's side airbags, but it was a significant hit with the brunt of the force directed at the passenger's door. The Saab's body structure absorbed the impact, so while there was significant damage to the 9-3's door and fender, there was no damage to the interior door panel, or, more importantly, my wife Robin's leg. The other car literally bounced right off of the Saab. Would a lesser car have held up as well? I couldn't say and I wouldn't want to find out. I'm just very glad we were driving a Saab that day.
So would I buy a 9-3 SportCombi? Yes, though not the Aero model I tested. I'd buy the 2.0T. With lots of standard equipment and a base price under $30k, it's a great deal on a unique car. Aside from the sport-tuned suspension, which I don't need, and the V6 engine, which I wouldn't want, most of the Aero's uplevel goodies are optional on the 2.0T. If I could afford the $40k for a well-equipped Aero, I could afford an Audi or a BMW -- though truth be told I'd probably still buy the base-model 9-3, and use the change to pay for gas. -- Aaron Gold