2006 Saab 9-3
MSRP
$31,900
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2006 Saab 9-3 Expert Review:Autoblog

 

 "Holy s**t, it's like a f***ing airplane," announced my hockey buddy as she slid into the cockpit. Like it was 'born from jets' or something.

Even given that the above expletives came courtesy of a foul-mouthed Canadian who isn't terribly car-savvy, our friend's first impression of the 9-3 Aero Convertible tester shown above would undoubtedly play like music to GM's ears. Which is just as well, because inserting the funky ignition key and listening to the satisfyingly subtle rumble of Saab's turbocharged 2.8L DOHC V6 as it fired up was music to ours.

 

Consider the addition of the Aero's turbocharged V6 for 2006 a much-needed bump in a segment where Saab has been trailing the pack. With just a high-strung turbocharged 2.0L 4-banger on offer, the Saab was down on cylinders, but worse-- it showed. As it gave chase to the German competition (BMW's 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz's C-class, etc.), the previous model's 210 hp and 221 ft.-lbs. of torque didn't inspire when compared to the BMW 330i's inline-6 (226/214) and the Benz C320's V6 (215/221). While a little lighter than both, the front-wheel drive and 40-60 weight distribution (to say nothing of the turbo lag) caused the previous Aero to come in third in many a comparison test.
 

Even for those who rue the day GM bought into the fair Swede, the new 250 hp Australian-sourced Ecotec aluminum engine in the 9-3 Aero (a version of which also powers the Cadillac CTS) is hard to complain about. The water-cooled twin-scroll turbocharger and variable intake valve timing raises the bar on horsepower, and the 60-degree dual overhead cam is out to get optimal power while netting decent fuel economy... at least according to GM. In reality, our tester has been managing about 20 mpg, despite doing a lot of highway driving (of course, the fact that we've got a heavy throttle foot has nothing everything something to do with it). 

To accommodate the extra power rendered by the improved powerplant, Saab has added stiffer anti-roll bars, tweaked the steering and tightened up the suspension, choosing to add a four-link independent setup in the rear. It's certainly difficult to make a convertible handle as well as a similar hardtop, the prime culprits being weight differences and a loss of rigidity without the hardtop, but GM asserts that its engineers developed the 9-3 convertible alongside the sedan and Sport Combi, ensuring that driving dynamics remain stellar.
 

On paper, at least, the Saab's plenty fast thanks to some of the company's best technology. But let's stop for a moment to examine exactly how fast it looks. Despite its expected role as hauler of golf clubs (a page in the manual is actually devoted to giving instructions on how to fit two sets in the trunk), the Aero's aggressive stance, wedge-like profile, dual exhaust pipes, 17-inch flat-spoke alloy wheels and gaping air dams make it look like a contender. The roofline of the convertible top follows the sedan's, more or less. But with the top down... hoo boy! We've been wondering exactly what to do with a Detroit-bound convertible in February, but the look of it with the top down just might encourage us to put the heated seats, HVAC system and wind isolation to the test.

The specific test model we received boasts Saab's Electronic Stability Program, traction control, front seat head and torso side airbags, automatic roll-over protection, active head restraints in the front, ABS, mechanical brake assist and cornering brake control, an anti-theft system, cruise control, heated outside mirrors and projector beam xenons, among other perks. Of special interest to our directionally-challenged selves is Saab's navigation system, which, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), requires the vehicle to be at a stop in order to program it. All in all, those bennies and the $720 destination fee bring the original $41,900 base MSRP up to a total amount of $47,065.

So how's the sound system? What's it like in the interior? How does the traction control really play out? Is the turbo truly smoother than the previous model's as GM claims? Stay tuned for more when we take the Saab 9-3 Aero out for a spin or 20 later this week.

 

 

 

The base Aero convertible starts off at just over $37K -- a price that's not too difficult to swallow considering the powerplant and power retractable top -- but as some readers lamented in response to our post for Days 1-2, the options add up quickly. In our $47K Aero vert, most of these perks outfit the interior.

In the previous model year Saabs we've sat in, the interiors have been monochromatic and dreary. Not so in the 2006 9-3 Aero Convertible. The rich leather interior of our Saab is striking in its contrast between the beige and black, rounded out with silver metal accents. While differently appointed than some of the competition (we miss the stitched leather steering wheel present in the cockpit of many a 9-3 competitor), the hard places like the dash and controls don't feel plasticky or cheap by anyone's standards.

It's this color scheme that has us drooling -- the two-tone trend seen in many concept cars (Chrysler Imperial, MINI Traveller concepts) and some edgy, youthful production cars (MINI Cooper, Mazda 3) has made its way to Saab, and the vehicle is all the better for it. While ours is an attractive Parchment on Black, more conservative drivers are welcome to go with Saab's Slate on Black offering, which is still tasteful, if a little macabre. In the 20 Years edition (which has an electric blue exterior), the interior is Parchment with playful blue accents stitched into the seats and lining parts of the doors.

Looks aside, the creature comforts of the vehicle run aplenty. The 9-3's seats, for instance, are amazing. They're firm and supportive for quick jaunts and long hauls alike, with the adjustable lumbar support kicking in for extra comfort. The front chairs are also fully adjustable, giving drivers the opportunity to set the seat just “so,” and with the Touring Package (not equipped on our Saab, unfortunately), the vehicle can even store driver preferences. The headrests, in addition to being rather comfortable on longer trips, also employ an active safety feature to prevent neck injuries in the event of an accident.

 

 

For those of us who have struggled with manual convertible tops, the automatically retracting top is a godsend. At a speed of 20 mph or less, just press down on one little button and enjoy the show. Keep pressing down and it will even lower the windows for you automatically. With the top up, the Saab doesn’t feel as claustrophobic as most drop tops, a situation credited to the relatively ample back window and as-narrow-as-possible C-pillars. Outward vision suffers and a few extra decibels are hanging around thanks to the soft top, of course, but we’ve certainly seen and heard convertibles that've had it worse. Use your mirrors, turn up the killer sound system and you’ll be fine.

 

 

 The back seats don’t have a whole lot of legroom, but what convertible does? Getting into the back seat, however, is another story. Saab has seen fit to include levers in the shoulders of the front seats that one needs to yank in order to gain access to the back. They are a little cumbersome, and while she might not find much sympathy among car guys, this Autoblogger’s mother broke a nail trying to take up residency in the back seat. She spent months getting them to that length, which is an important point. If you don’t think that matters guys, then don’t be surprised if you end up driving this convertible all by your lonesome.

 

If any real complaint is to be made, however, it'd be that the center console's busier than the Swedish hockey team trying to fend off the Finns for Gold. While overall the controls are fairly intuitive, no medal can be awarded based on the sheer number of buttons that confront the driver. A number pad for the phone, separate switches for the various audio settings (why can't Saab's engineers just design one chiclet that you punch a few times to cycle through the options rather than giving everything its own attention-grabbing button?), several options for display settings, five million HVAC options -- per passenger -- and all that without even mentioning the navigation system, which takes us down another long and winding path of possibilities.

The nav system is a little more intuitive, though, and it comes in handy on unfamiliar turf. The vehicle has to be stopped in order to use it, which for those of us that have no problems multitasking is a little annoying, but it's for our own good. Like most navvies, it's operated by a scrolling knob that must be pushed in to make a selection. The lag in calculating the route is relatively quick, and any misguidance should be blamed on the driver before the pleasant female voice that offers instruction. Speaking of that voice, lest you forget this vehicle is European, it speaks with a British accent, instructing the driver to "mehrge onto the mowtahway" rather than "get on the highway." As pleasant as the sound is, however, we still haven't a way to turn her off and just let the arrows do their job. There's gotta be a button for that somewhere...


 

 

The aforementioned stereo system assaults the senses with 300 watts, 10 speakers, an in-dash CD player and a 6-CD changer in the luggage compartment (what's it doin' back there?). There's also an auxiliary jack for an iPod or other media player. One can control the system either via (yet more) buttons on the steering wheel, or from the center console. And, unlike some steering wheel-mounted controls, turning the wheel doesn’t cause an accidental departure from the latest episode of This American Life you were listening to.

 

 

So now’s the part where you say, “Fire up the engine and drive already!” In the interest of saving the best for last, however, we’ll wait and cover the fun stuff in the third and final installment of our test drive, scheduled to appear on Friday. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

Our last moments with the Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible were bittersweet... hearing the engine purr, hauling ass off the line to pass unsuspecting BMW and Acura owners, and stopping on a dime at the next red light almost brought tears to our eyes when we realized that GM's minions would soon repo our topless Swede. Too bad.

Far and away, our 9-3 Aero's defining performance characteristics are its horsepower and mid-range torque. That is, once the turbocharger kicks in. The 60-degree V6 packed 'neath the hood has the unmistakable lag associated with most turbocharged mills, but the Mitsubishi-sourced unit's uptake is smoother than those belonging to Saabs of yore. The engine's 250 horses and 258 lb.-ft. of torque easily chirrup the front wheels, both off the line and in particularly sharp turns taken a little fast in search of a bit of slightly un-P.C. fun (this, despite Saab's Electronic Stability Program). And hey... from where this author sits, any sport sedan that doesn't allow a little harmless slippin' and slidin' has no business being in the segment.

The 9-3 Aero convertible we had in the Autoblog Garage arrived sporting Saab’s 6-speed “Sentronic” automatic transmission, which affords drivers the option to manually shift gears via steering wheel buttons or gearshift. While it was fun to use at first, the 6-speed automatic was more than eager on its own, easily adjusting to an aggressive driving style without feeling like it was hunting around on-edge. Quite frankly, the automatic mode did a much better job than we could in manual mode as we pressed buttons and waited for the lag inherent in the manual mode to pass. The only time the buttons seemed to make sense was in heavy traffic – using the transmission to slow down the engine certainly beat stomping back and forth between the gas and brake (though brake fatigue is cheaper than driveline wear, admittedly!).

Because gas mileage has become more of an issue within the last year or so, we’re happy to report that mileage leveled out between 21 and 22 mpg despite some really spirited driving. With premium gas, a full tank in Michigan topped $33 and had a range that could get you from Detroit to Chicago and then some. Saab claims MPG to be 18 city/28 highway with the MT, 17/28 with the automatic.

If complaints are to be made, the steering is nervous and prone to understeer, making the handling something of a challenge, and the feedback is a little muted. The Saab does route its substantial 250 horsepower through the front wheels, and any steering that can keep up with that without flailing about like a bass on a line is a-okay in our book, but it's one of those things that puts the competition slightly out of reach for Saab. Despite the fact that the vehicle is a convertible, however, the body was plenty stiff, which helped with handling. Obviously, Saab's steadfast adherence to front wheel drive is one of the things holding it back from the ever-present BMW 3-series benchmark. By giving the front wheels too many jobs (steering, motivation, etc.) and a 40-60 weight ratio, Saab has handicapped the handling a bit, though those from icier climes will likely take the tradeoff.

 

 

 Alright. So Saab doesn't follow the standard 3-Series recipe for performance sedan nirvana. The engine is force-fed and pours its gumption through the front wheels. But what would the world be like if everybody drove the same thing, or if all car companies plied the same products? For the rebel at heart, this is a fine choice. Quirky Swedish heritage, a characterful engine, solid power and handling, and distinctive styling all combine to make the Saab 9-3 Aero a viable alternative to the competition.

More power, new SportCombi wagon.

Introduction

With the addition of a powerful new V6, the Saab 9-3 has become a real contender among the sports sedans, convertibles and sport wagons in its class. Whichever body style fits your needs and desires, the Saab 9-3 is sporty, it's tight, and it handles well. A new 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 has been added for 2006 along with an improved 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 35 more horsepower last year's engine. Together, they make the 2006 Saab 9-3 a more compelling choice. 

For 2006, Saab has reconsidered, reformulated, and recalculated all of its models, packages and prices, and the new models are several thousand dollars less expensive than comparably equipped 2005 models, enough of a price difference to warrant further consideration by fringe Saab shoppers, who are already looking at the big name competitors: the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Volvo S60 and S40, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. 

Saab, originally a Swedish aircraft company, borrows aircraft design elements for its cars, right down to the twin-engine plane logo, and now calls its top models Aero to complete the connection. Past examples of aero design include the wraparound, near-vertical windshields and aircraft-style dashboards with instrument lighting that can be switched off at night. Small map lights looked like they came from a cockpit. Outside mirrors were bent at the edges to reduce blind spots. More aero touches abound on the 2006 models, which now come standard with body-color trim and body-color tonneau covers for the convertible top. Saab is promoting its airplane heritage in its 2006 advertising campaign. 

The 2006 9-3 looks like a Saab and manages to remain a Saab, yet it's a thoroughly modern car with few of the quirks or foibles historically associated with the brand. The 9-3 was completely redesigned for the 2003 model year, the convertible followed for 2004, and for 2006, the lineup includes the new 9-3 SportCombi, a sport wagon. With this new choice of body styles, powertrains and equipment, this is the most versatile family of 9-3s Saab has ever produced, with 18 models in all. 

Lineup

The 2006 Saab 9-3 comes in three body styles, a four-door sedan, a two-door convertible, and a four-door wagon called the SportCombi (or simply Combi). Two trim levels are offered, the 2.0T and the Aero. (The old Linear and Arc model designations are gone.)

The 2.0T sedan ($25,900), SportCombi ($26,900), and convertible ($36,500) are similarly equipped. The 2.0T is powered by the high-output version of the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, rated at 210 horsepower for 2006. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. A six-speed automatic is optional ($1,350). The 2.0T comes standard with leather upholstery, wood interior trim, and dual-zone automatic climate control come standard. Also standard: power windows, door locks and heated outside mirrors; eight-way power driver's seat; leather-trimmed steering wheel; 16-inch alloy wheels; seven-speaker audio with CD and input for MP3; two 12-volt outlets. For 2006, all 9-3 models come with no-charge scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance during the warranty period. 

The Aero sedan ($31,900), SportCombi ($32,900), and convertible ($41,900) are similarly equipped and feature the new 2.8-liter V6 rated at 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual comes standard. The six-speed automatic is optional ($1,350) and features shifter paddles on the steering wheel. The Aero is further upgraded with 17-inch alloy wheels; xenon projector headlamps; fog lights; premium audio; moonroof. 

A DVD navigation system is available for all models ($1,995). A blue top is available for the convertible ($600). Premium metallic paint ($550) is available in a broad palette of interesting colors. Special upholstery is available for no extra charge. 

Options for the 2.0T include a moonroof ($1,200) and a Premium Package ($1,895) that includes Red Walnut interior trim, eight-way power passenger seat, 300-watt audio upgrade with 6CD and 13 speakers, express up/down front windows with remote opening, remote opening for the moonroof or convertible top, and fog lights. 

A Touring Package ($1,195) for the Aero adds rear park assist, memory for the driver's seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with integrated garage door opener and compass, rain-sensing wipers, express up/down for the windows with remote opening for windows, moonroof or top. 

Safety is a key feature of all Saabs, and the 9-3 is loaded with active and passive safety features. Among them: electronic stability control (ESP), cornering brake control, anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), Brake Assist, and traction control, all designed to help the driver maintain control. Passive safety features include dual-stage front airbags, dual-stage side-impact airbags, and roof-mounted curtain airbags. Saab's Active Head Restraint system that cradles the head to minimize whiplash in a rear collision is also standard. 

Walkaround

The Saab 9-3 is a near-luxury car. The 9-3 sedan is similar in size to the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, and Audi A4. These cars are smaller than mid-size Japanese cars, like the Honda Accord, Lexus ES and Infiniti G35 sedan, but larger than compacts like the Toyota Corolla. 

The 9-3 cannot be mistaken for anything but a Saab. The sloping, wedge-like profile, the shape of the windows, the sleek, integrated headlights, and the distinctive grille are all unmistakably Saab. 

Unlike Saabs of old, however, the windshield is steeply raked, a result of the redesign that began with the 2003 models. The rear fascia no longer presents the edgy, Saab-signature look. Instead, a smoother, more rounded, monochromatic body panel integrating the bumper houses taillights somewhat reminiscent of earlier Saabs, only now wrapping around to the trailing edge of the rear quarter panel. 

The SportCombi is one of the coolest-looking station wagons on the planet, front to back. It looks sleek without the roof rack, purposefully sporty with it. The huge white-lens vertical LED taillamps don't intrude on the cargo opening and finish off the body shape perfectly. 

Convertibles feature a soft top that merges cleanly with the car's lines, retaining all the proper proportions and relationships with windshield, wheel openings and wedge profile. With the top down and tucked away beneath the solid tonneau cover, the rake of the windshield draws the eye over the passenger area to the tonneau behind the rear-seat head restraints, which tapers into the trunk lid. The soft top features a glass rear window with a defogger. 

Interior

The Saab 9-3's interior is pretty much what one would expect in a near-luxury car, although certain Saab styling cues remain. The ignition key goes into the lock between the bucket seats, on the floor console. Some consider this awkward, but Saab aficionados would have it no other way. The instruments are arrayed in an easy-to-view layout with a big speedometer in a sweeping instrument panel that blends into the center console. It's a relatively high dashboard compared to that in most other cars, but that's long been a signature styling cue of Saab cars. 

In keeping with the narrow confines and intimate nature of the interior, the buttons and switches in the 9-3 are smaller than those in many cars. Nonetheless they are all well placed for the driver to reach while driving. An extra set of warning gauges is mounted on top of the dashboard in the center in a small pod, locating them more directly in the driver's line of sight. Radio settings are also displayed here. The glovebox is one of the largest in the class, very useful. 

Overall quality of the 9-3's interior is very good. The sedan and SportCombi feature wood trim, while the convertible goes with more matte-black finish. Door handles and the center console shifter surround are trimmed in brushed chrome. The Aero steering wheel is wrapped in leather with brushed chrome trim on the spokes. 

The front bucket seats are firm but comfortable, with side bolsters that restrain during spirited motoring without restricting while climbing in and out. The available Sport seats are more aggressive and best suited to slimmer, narrower bodies. 

Rear-seat passengers in the two-door convertible do not fare as well as those in the four-door sedan, of course: The convertible gives up nearly 10 inches of hip room and nearly 3 inches of legroom. A center console can be folded down between the rear seats that contains cup holders and a map storage area. 

Cargo space in the sedan is 14.8 cubic feet. The SportCombi has an impressive 29.7 cubic feet, or 72.3 cubic feet with the back seats down, and it's a broad, deep, tall usable space. The cargo floor is split into two covers that lift to reveal additional hidden storage, and the flexible cargo cover has a closed position and a semi-closed position. The 60/40 split rear seats can be folded for versatility when carrying one rear-seat passenger and cargo. Trunk space drops to 12.4 cubic feet in the convertible with just 8.3 cubic feet available with the top down. 

Driving Impression

The Saab 9-3 handles impressively well, with a nicely balanced neutral feel. The steering is a little light, but not enough to detract from the fun-to-drive factor. Passive rear-wheel steering in the rear suspension design keeps the rear tires following the front tires in quick lane changes and through rapid transitions when driving quickly on twisting roads. Directional stability is good over almost all road surfaces, even when equipped with the wider tires. 

The ride is smooth. And it's quiet, with little road noise or wind noise invading the cabin, even through the vast expanse of rear and side glass in the wagon version. 

One area in which the 9-3 excels is its suppression of torque steer, a disconcerting trait afflicting many front-wheel-drive cars where the steering wheel tugs at the driver's hands under hard acceleration or resists corrections in the midst of a corner. Saab engineers worked hard to eliminate it in this latest 9-3, and it appears they were largely successful. The turbocharged V6 develops a lot of torque and a modicum of tugging and resistance is apparent while accelerating over uneven pavement or out of a tight corner, but it isn't the issue it once was with older Saabs. 

The V6 delivers all the punch these cars need, with 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque from 2000-4500 rpm. Saab says the 9-3 Aero SportCombi we drove is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds flat. The big torque is more than adequate for those urgent passes on two-lane roads and for getting up to merging speeds on highway on-ramps. 

If you really like doing your own shifting, go with either one of the manual transmissions, but we don't recommend it. The longish clutch throw takes some getting used to and the six-speed in the Aero feels a little rubbery, but you'll save yourself $1,350. If you commute, get the six-speed automatic. The fingertip controls on the Aero models add to the fun in every day driving. 

Summary

The Saab 9-3 is a delight to drive. The SportCombi is a nice combination of sportiness and hauling function in a pretty, modern wrapper that offers nearly 60 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat flopped out of the way. The high-output V6 engine is a hoot to drive, with plenty of low-down torque, and highway mileage across the line varies from 27 to 31 miles per gallon. The current 9-3 manages to remain a Saab yet has no really bad manners or habits. 

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Dearborn, Michigan. 

Model Lineup

Saab 9-3 2.0T Sport Sedan ($25,900); Aero Sport Sedan ($31,900); 2.0T Convertible ($36,500); Aero Convertible ($41,900); 2.0T SportCombi ($26,900); Aero SportCombi ($32,900). 

Assembled In

Trollhattan, Sweden; Graz, Austria. 

Options As Tested

automatic transmission ($1350); Cold Weather Package ($550) includes heated front seats and headlamp washers; navigation system ($1995); metallic paint ($550). 

Model Tested

Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi ($32,900). 

*The data and content on this web site is subject to change without notice. Neither AOL nor any of its data or content providers shall be liable for errors in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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