Review: 2008 Saab 9-3 2.0T sedan

Few true enthusiasts can deny having at least a small soft spot for Swedish automaker Saab in their hearts. It's hard to ignore that Saab's history is laced with the things that make an automaker great: A rally heritage thanks to Erik "On the Roof" Carlsson, a dedication to turbocharged performance and a history of innovative - fine, quirky - design. With this in mind, we decided to take a look at the refreshed 2008 Saab 9-3 2.0T sedan to see if it continues to live up to this intriguing mystique despite the fact that it is the first vehicle to be developed under General Motors' full ownership of the Swedish brand.

Though Saab-o-philes might harp about GM's involvement with their beloved Swedish brand, it's important to note that without GM's initial investment in 1990 and their subsequent buyout of the brand in 2000, Saab would almost certainly be only known as an airplane manufacturer, not an automaker. (The airplane producing and designing Saab AB was split off from the company when GM bought a 51 percent share in 1990). By the late 1980s, Saab's future was bleak: The ubiquitous 900 traced its roots to the 1968 99 and the 9000, an impressively roomy and fast sedan, was essentially conceived without the budget for a replacement. Fortunately, the General stepped in and the world still has Saabs, albeit Saabs based on GM-engineered platforms.

What is it?
Unlike its hatchback predecessors, the Saab 9-3 is a standard three-box sedan aimed at the compact executive car market worldwide. Also available in wagon (SportCombi in Saab-speak) and convertible variants, the sedan is the volume seller in North America. In fact, the 9-3 is by far Saab's best seller in the North American market, where the automaker also hawks the dated, larger 9-5 sedan (which features the last application of a motor fully designed by Saab as an independent entity) and the curiously addictive (in Aero form) Chevrolet TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy-based 9-7x SUV.

For 2008, the 9-3, which was introduced in its current configuration, was given a thorough exterior freshening. It continues to be based on GM's Epsilon platform, which, in an extended configuration, also underpins the Chevrolet Malibu, Saturn Aura, Pontiac G6 and even the Fiat Croma in Europe. That said, the 9-3 is marketed as a considerably more upscale vehicle and includes many of the features you'd expect to see in the entry-level sports/luxury sedan market. Not to mention that it looks and feels absolutely nothing like its platform mates.

The 2.0T we've tested is Saab's base model; a turbo V6-powered Aero and high-performance TurboX all-wheel-drive model are also available. For 2009, changes include the linewide availability of all-wheel-drive and standard Bluetooth.

What's it up against?
Go lightly on the options and you can find a 9-3 priced well under $30,000 on a dealer lot. Inevitably, this puts it at a price advantage over many of its competitors, including the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The 9-3 also competes with its Ford-owned Swedish rival, Volvo, though the S40/V50 models are quite a bit smaller both inside and out. The redesigned Acura TSX isn't quite as powerful, but it offers a lot of features at a similar price point and the Subaru Legacy GT is a touch larger and doesn't offer the brand cachet, but also offers a similarly sporty driving experience.

Any breakthroughs?
When the 9-3 was introduced for 2003, its biggest breakthrough was its ReAxs passive rear-wheel steering. Rather than featuring rubber bushings, the the 9-3's rear suspension features toe links and ball joints, which allow the slightest bit of deflection from the rear wheels when cornering. It's designed to help the car hold its place during long, sweeping corners and to prevent excessive understeer by reducing the crabbing effect that makes a front-wheel-drive car's tail have a hard time following the drive wheels.

The 9-3 also features one of the most unique, artistic cupholders we've ever encountered. And for the Big Gulp-guzzling society that makes up much of Saab's global market, this is quite a breakthrough.

How does it look?
The 9-3's new nose takes its inspiration from the Aero-X shown to the world at the 2006 Geneva show. Our Fusion Blue metallic 9-3 featured a sharply chisled beak with distinctive headlamps that curve to a sharp point at the hood line. The hood itself is a clamshell design that cuts open towards the top of the fender in a nod to the Saab 99 and the classic 900 produced until 1994. From the side, the 9-3 has a certain generic European look to it, though it's hardly offensive. Out back, Saab has included clear tail lamps that, according to the Swedes, are supposed to make us think of icicles and crystals. We think those crazy Scandinavians have been enjoying a little too much of one of their other famous products: Absolut Vodka. Thick, aggressive black lines outline the lamp sections of those vaguely crystalline light housings. They're not especially displeasing but we think they'll look pretty dated in a few years.

With the optional 17 inch wheels not on our test car, the 9-3 has a sporty stance that pushes the wheels out to the corners. However, it looks under-wheeled and over-tired with the busy standard 16 inchers on our test car. We do like the subtle bodykit and the subtle integrated spoilers in the front bumper and trunklid.

It's not nearly as unique as the classic 900s were with their distinctive hatchback shape, but the 9-3 is overall a pleasant, vaguely generic European design. The 2008 upgrades go a long way to giving it a unique external identity.

And inside?
For 2007, the 9-3 got a mild interior upgrade that continues for 2008. A tall, wrap-around dash covered in matte-finish black plastic dominates the driver's compartment. This dash, with its vertical panel for the controls, has been a Saab tradition for 30 years and it continues to present itself as a well-organized, comfortable place to spend time. A silver line around the flat fascia does a nice job of recalling similar trim on classic 900s.

Despite the tall dash, the interior manages to feel airy - due in part to the light parchment-colored seats, door panels and headliner on our tester. Again following Saab tradition, the chair-like leather and vinyl seats provide fantastic support, though the 2.0T model doesn't have the bolstering that the Aero and TurboX models feature.

The ignition is on the center console between the front seats - once again, a Saab quirk, this time designed to keep dangling keys away from knees in the event of an accident. To the left of the ignition is the creatively designed handbrake, which integrates nicely into the center console design.

That 2007 upgrade included GM's "black tie" radio design. Though we don't necessarily like the idea of Saab sharing such obvious bits and pieces with other GM vehicles, the radio is exceptionally functional. However, the auxiliary input jack for digital music players blocks the cupholder from deploying and retracting when it's in use. You'll have to interrupt your tunes to park your Big Gulp (which, incidentally, is too big anyway).

Otherwise, the interior design is functional and fairly upscale. The materials and designs aren't quite as richly upscale as you'll see in a BMW 3-Series, but they're sufficient for the 9-3's lower price point. Few materials feel genuinely out of place, but few also truly exceed expectations. Equipment-wise, the 9-3 also neither impresses nor truly disappoints. We'd like to see features like an auto-dimming mirror with a compass and full leather trim standard on the 9-3 2.0T rather than a simple night/day mirror and reasonably convincing vinyl on the seat bolsters and patches of leather in the center, though even offering any leather trim as standard equipment is a rarity in this class. As an aside, Saab does offer a $1,500 full leather package that swathes every seat surface in rich leather and gives the interior an intoxicating aroma of hides not seen since Saab offered Bridges of Weir leather in the 9000 more than 10 years ago.

Still, the 9-3's cabin is a pleasant place to whittle away the miles.

But does it go?
With a 210-horsepower 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder under its hood, the 9-3 whistles its way around traffic with authority. There's a touch of turbo lag at lower RPMs, but that's generally made up for by the phenomenal mid-range torque. Though only rated at 221 lb-ft., the torque curve is nearly flat above its 2,500 RPM peak. Since the 9-3 is a 100 percent GM product, it shed its robust Saab-designed engine for the 2003 redesign. The 9-3 gets a heavily revised variant of GM's Ecotec line of motors. Drive a 9-3 and a Chevrolet Cobalt SS (also turbocharged, albeit direct-injected and featuring variable valve timing) back-to-back and you'd never know the motors were related.

Around town, the 9-3 felt frisky and sporty enough, but on the highway it became an entirely different beast aiming for the left lane. The five-speed automatic transmission behaved faultlessly in our eyes, downshifting exactly when called upon and providing firm but not harsh shifts. Saab's SportDrive, a fancy term for calibrating the transmission to hold the gear longer during acceleration, really livens up the driving experience. It also forces earlier downshifts when braking, making it easier to get back up to speed if you're just slowing to avoid hitting that car that pulled out right in front of you.

Though its idle is a touch too perceptible, the 9-3's four-cylinder is otherwise a pleasant motor, intruding only with a high-pitched whistle from the turbocharger under acceleration. We averaged around 22 mpg in town and greater than 30 on the highway.

The 9-3's ReAxs rear suspension helps it settle nicely into long, sweeping corners, where the car seems to have nearly limit-less grip. That's pretty impressive for a front-wheel-drive car and we're anxious to get behind the wheel of an all-wheel-drive example. Though liberal throttle applications can force the steering wheel to tug a little - front-wheel-drive cars are almost always plagued by a little torque steer - the steering feels appropriately assisted both in parking lots and under aggressive driving. The 9-3 exhibits a bit more body roll than we'd like, though we'll chalk that up to a fair trade-off for the compliant suspension that provides a soft, composed ride over our test course. An especially tight body structure and a well-oiled feel to the suspension give the 9-3 a very planted but still highly tossable personality.

The 9-3's standard Pirelli P6 tires aren't our favorite choice thanks to their rather loud tread pattern that squeals in corners and rumbles on the highway, but they did help give the 9-3 a supple ride.

Why you would buy it:
You're looking for a less-expensive way to experience unique European flavor and you want a car with personality as well as surprising performance and efficiency.

Why you wouldn't:
You're a Saab purist disheartened by the GM-sourced motor and platform.

2008 Saab 9-3 2.0T sedan, base: $28,080, as tested: $31,925.
Options as tested: Five-speed automatic transmission, $1,350; Moonroof package, $1,200; Cold weather package, $550; Destination, $745.

Words and Photos by Andrew Ganz

2008 Saab 9-3 2.0T sedan