Saab cars have always been a bit different. The combination of a cold Swedish climate and an aircraft engineering heritage has consistently produced cars that are both highly capable and very eclectic. So too is this freshened Saab 9-3. Now it could be seen as just another European-style sport series. But as with all Saabs, that’s only part of the story.
It’s a story that continues with an edgier design, and a higher level of technical proficiency than ever.
The nicely freshened 2008 Saab 9-3 once again offers three body styles: a Sport Sedan, a convertible, and our test vehicle, a SportCombi sport wagon in upscale Aero trim.
The turbo-charged powertrains are also familiar. The base 2.0-liter inline-4 is unchanged with 210 horsepower and 221 pound feet of torque. Transmissions are a 6-speed manual and 5-speed automatic.
The Aero mates a 6-speed auto with manual shift to a 2.8-liter V6 with 255 horsepower - 5 more than before - and 258 pound-feet of torque.
But, output rises to 280-horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque when the V6 is attached to the first all-wheel drive system ever offered in the 9-3.
A fourth-generation Haldex wet-clutch system dubbed “XWD” for “Cross Wheel Drive.” XWD not only tries to preempt slip by providing four-wheel power when accelerating, it also incorporates an electronic limited slip differential to vary torque up to 40% between the rear wheels. This not only ensures traction on patchy ice, but also goes a long way in eliminating understeer that often plagues all-wheel drive cars.
XWD and the higher rate V6 can be added to the 9-3 Aero Sedans and SportCombi, and will be standard on the limited edition Saab Turbo X. The Turbo X is a sinister tune, trim, and technology package that marks the 40th anniversary of the Saab Turbo.
But, even without the uprated engine, our front drive SportCombi Aero did quite well when challenged. A spirited 6.9 seconds from 0 to 60 is faster than a comparable Audi A4 Avant. The quarter-mile passed in 15.5 seconds at 94 miles-per-hour.
Handling is by way of MacPherson struts up front, and a 4-link geometry in the rear. The 9-3 SportCombi is extremely stable and maneuvers with the utmost confidence. Its ability to corner flatly makes you forget that you’re driving a wagon. Add in standard stability and traction control and there is no better handling front-wheel drive car on the planet than a Saab 9-3.
Brakes are all-discs with ABS and Brake Assist. Stops were arrow straight and averaged 128 feet from 60 to 0, but there was more fade than we expected.
From the outside, the sleek 9-3 now sports bolder styling cues from the Aero X Concept car. The front view is now defined by a U-shaped hood, larger grille, and optional bi-xenon swivel headlights. Deep set fog lamps are an Aero standard.
The 9-3’s taut, unified look is further improved with new doors for the Sport Sedan and SportCombi, and now standard flared rocker panel extensions.
The rear shows off restyled tail lamps and finishes off with sporty exhaust pipes. 16-inch wheels are standard, while our SportCombi Aero rode atop new 17-inch five-spoke alloys.
The also refreshened interior continues with a driver-focused cockpit headlined by an ergonomically proper panel. Gauges and controls exude a sporty and refined feel. Our SportCombi has new design leather appointed seats with available heat, and the leather steering wheel boasts standard audio controls, which allow the driver to command a new Bose Centerpoint surround sound system, standard on the Aero Sedan and SportCombi.
Also new for 2008 is standard OnStar and XM radio.
Saabs are renowned for their rear seat room. The 9-3 has plenty of it for three, and the 60/40 split folding seatbacks open up to a sizable cargo area of 72.3 cubic feet.
A full compliment of airbags are provided and the 9-3 is a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
Government Fuel Economy ratings for our Aero SportCombi are 15 city/24 highway on Premium gas. We managed 19.9 miles-per-gallon in everyday driving. The Energy Impact Score for this vehicle is a fairly high 19.0 barrels of oil consumed per year.
But, prices for the 9-3 start fairly low for a premium European series. The base Sedan 2.0T starts at $28,385, while our SportCombi Aero starts at $36,265. Cross Wheel Drive and the uprated V6 will add about $2,000 to the tab.
The brand born from jets has long been known for making enjoyable automobiles with a unique Swedish twist, and plenty of practicality. The new 2008 Saab 9-3 adds ever sharper looks and capabilities. We expect fans of Saab to be very pleased, and all others to take a bit more notice.
Aero Engine: 2.8-Liter V6
Torque: 258 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 6.9 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.5 Seconds @ 94 MPH
60-0 MPH: 128 Feet
EPA: 15 MPG City/ 24 MPG Highway
Mixed Loop: 19.9 MPG
Energy Impact Score: 19.0 Barrels Oil/year