First Drive: 2008 Saab 9-3

click above image to view more high-res shots of the 2008 Saab 9-3

The 9-3 received a mid-cycle enhancement for 2008 that's comprised mostly of tweaks to its exterior styling. The front end now wears a grille inspired by the Aero X concept that debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in 2006. It's a handsome face for Saab, which in deference to tradition must always incorporate a three-part grille evoking the brand's heritage in aviation.

Read on as we report on our brief time spent behind the wheel of the new 9-3 at GM's Milford Proving Grounds last week.

All photos ©2007 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

The inside of our 9-3 tester was exhibited the stark contrast of light sandy beige leather set against the black dash. The shape of the instrument panel carries over, while we encountered a simpler interface with less buttons than recent Saabs we remember.

The 9-3 is still based on GM's Epsilon platform, which it shares with other cares like the Opel Vectra and Cadillac BLS in Europe. The Saturn Aura and upcoming Chevy Malibu are based on a stretched version of the same platform. As such, we weren't expecting anything exciting when we started off on the prepared four-mile test course that GM had set up for us. And we didn't encounter anything exciting. The 2008 Saab 9-3 handles predominantly like it did before, which is to say predictably and without much fuss.

The test course provided many different types of surfaces, including simulated pot hole-riddled roads and low- to high-frequency sin waves. The 9-3 felt solid over most surfaces, exhibiting no squeaks or rattles despite its suspension being tasked to the limit.

The 9-3 is, of course, driven by its front wheels, so understeer was predictably present. We don't imagine many 9-3 owners floor the accelerator when exiting turns around town, but if they did, they'd find their intended line would widen a bit. The car's brakes, as well, were adequate for their intended duties, and the pedal feel felt good.

Our particular tester was powered by Saab's 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder, which was mated to a 5-speed "Sentronic" automatic. This engine mated to this transmission makes for an unexciting pair. The 2.0L feels too small for the 3,230 lb. car before the turbo kicks in, which makes a full-on acceleration run feel lazy at best. Even when the turbo spools up, the power delivered isn't impressive. As for the 5-speed automatic, we found the manual shifting capability to be as disappointing as every other we've tested. It's slow to shift when asked, and will often make up its own mind near redline before you have the chance. Keep this one in auto mode and forget about it.

We're sure the Aero model's 2.8L turbocharged V6 goes a long way in alleviating the lethargy felt in our 9-3 tester, but with mid-size family sedans from Honda, Toyota and others offering over 260 HP from larger 3.5L V6 engines, what's the point in buying a more expensive Saab? We imagine there are many happy Saab owners out there who can answer that question for you. Nevertheless, we found the 9-3 on hand at Milford excelled in its ability to be average at everything.

All photos ©2007 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

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