By on February 27, 2006

 Growing up in Southern California, I never understood the whole Swedish car thing. SoCal drivers need an all-weather automobile like tacos need herring. Although a Volvo wagon was the left-wing equivalent of a Ford F250 and a Saab was a cap and gown on wheels, speed-crazed Angelinos found Nordic transportation about as exciting as farm machinery. Then Ford bought Volvo and GM scarfed Saab. Suddenly, performance, handling and luxury were piled onto the Smorgasbord. To freshen-up its range, GM instructed Saab to reengineer an Opel Vectra and call it a 9-3. In this guise, the new Saab 9 – 3 Aero joins German rides in the land of palm trees and lip-injections. Perhaps the General was on to something…

Saab's decision to ditch their traditional hatchback for a three-box sedan raises immediate and uncomfortable questions about the intersection of corporate ownership and brand identity. The Aero attempts to distract the faithful with a rear that looks like a hatch (but isn't) and sporting cues. The Jay Leno chin spoiler certainly grabs your attention, and the dual pipes poking out from the blackened derriere make all the right noises. But the 9-3 is too narrow for such deep cladding and there's an excellent chance parking lot rampage will hammer the low-slung ground effects. The Aero's profile is its best viewing angle, projecting European rakishness. Even if Saab newcomers don't catch a Trollhattan vibe, at least they'll know they're not in Kansas anymore.

 The cabin's color scheme is Darth Vader gets creamed. The faux-chrome inserts adorning the Aero's helm and the rabbit hutch-style digital display poking-out from under the windscreen prove that some of Saab's quirkiness has escaped the corporate axe. Needless to say, the Aero's ignition is between the seats, just like Sven's old tractor. However, why are the window rockers near the window? That's sensible, not Saab. The rest of the Aero's ergonomics are fundamentally sound if excessive; over 50 buttons litter the dash. More worryingly, down market GM parts binnage abounds. A handbrake in a $40k car shouldn't feel like little Jimmy's plastic light saber.

Boot the gas and the Aero's 250hp 2.8 liter turbo six looks both ways before crossing the street. A quick glance at the boost gauge indicates turbo lag is no longer the Saab driver's nemesis; a twin-scroll turbocharger fed by two exhaust ducts (one from each cylinder bank) ensures progressive boost. The sluggishness is a simple matter of rotten gearing. Once the rpm count crests 3000, the Deutsche Swede starts to get a serious move on. The sprint from zero to sixty takes a respectable 6.4 seconds, and there's plenty of passing power in the top end of the top gears. Better yet, despite channeling 258 ft-lbs. of torque through 17" front wheels, the Aero's nose stays stable and planted, even at full-stomp.

 Like most Euro sleds, the Aero offers F1 wannabes pseudo-paddle shifts via wheel-mounted thumb-flickers. Unfortunately, ironically, Saab positioned the buttons at the 9 and 3 positions; putting classically trained Happy Handers (10 and two position) at a distinct disadvantage. Or not. The actuators are cheap, nasty little buggers. And, like most manual-autos, the shifts are of the light-a-fuse-and-wait variety. Spirited drivers will play around for all of 30 seconds before returning ratio control to the computer.

Once at speed, medium-grade twisties can be tackled at will. The Aero sits 10mm lower than the standard 9 – 3, with firmer springs and stiffer shocks. The Aero's chassis feels as planted as a potato, but rough roads are painful. The lack of suspension flexibility and chassis communication combines with parallel parking grade steering, creating an all 'round dynamic dowdiness. You can whip this front-driver fast and hard, but you'll never be thrilled, amazed or proud. And whenever things get even slightly dangerous– I mean fun– the Aero's all-knowing Nanny flickers her disapproval and rats you out to the Saab's ABS/Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) system. The stability control system is unobtrusively obtrusive; it cuts in often but doesn't make itself known at the helm. The lack of a smile on your face and dopamine surging through your brain is the best indication that the quiet, stern Frau has done her work.

 Saab's 9-3 Aero is a fine car: it fails in no serious way and makes short work of long journeys. But it's a machine devoid of meaningful dynamic personality. The Aero's target market– commuting enthusiasts– will know there are plenty of "real" German sports sedans at the same price point. They'll also realize that Saab has lost more than a touch of their odd-ball, Arctic Circle values. Although GM is now committed to Saab's Opelization, they'd do well to remember that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. In Saab's case, that's probably not such a bad idea.

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3 Comments on “Saab 9 – 3 Aero Review...”

  • avatar
    admitted Saab buyer

    First off, I agree with most points in Lieberman’s article, especially concerning interior build quality, some of the dynamic quirks and the front spoiler’s ‘cow-catcher’ profile. I do think, though, that price strongly favors this car (well, good enough that I bought one) when you compare it to it’s direct cost-comparison rivals: A4 2.0T, Volvo S40 T5, M-B C230 Sport (closeout pricing in effect!).

    Compared to its rivals with similar out-the door prices, the Saab 9-3 Aero was faster and usually had as much interior space as the other competitors. To appeal to a wider audience, Saab should consider offering the 2.8L Turbo V6 with the regular body trim (leave the overwrought chin as an option for the Fast-n-Furious crowd…).

    I do have to admit that even though the ’07 is faster and has more modern features (HID, why-does-a-small-car-need-it rear park assist, rain sensing), I enjoyed the archaic nature of the old 9-3 (my last being an ’02 SE) even more.

  • avatar

    Just like the previous poster, I too did enjoy the archaic nature of my 99 9-3 Vert, but, with some 126K miles it was a time to part, although nothing was wrong with it, and it was still a lot of fun to drive. It took me awhile to find the replacement, I was leaning towards a BMW 135 vert… until I spotted an 05 9-3 Aero vert, with low miles and in a tip top shape (it took almost a year to find it). It is a fantastic car, and in my view is very adequate compared with competition. Even the somewhat dated NAV in it is still much more user friendly than that of much newer Audi’s, and the handling is on par as well. The 4 cylinder with a Mitsubishi turbo is a lot of fun, makes me wonder why bother with the heavier sixer. Two other points: I do not know why, but for the life of mine I could not find an Audi vert with a stick, and for me, in a sporty car its a complete deal breaker, full stop. Glorified caddilacs these Audi’s are, no matter how “aggressive” and “sporty” they tend to look, sans a stick. Quite a lot thirstier too. (My other car is an LR Disco 2, so i am not a die hard autobox-hater, nor am i naive about what it means to own a thirsty car)
    The Value Proposition of this Saab vert is just outstanding for what it has to offer, especially given the price, but even without. Try finding such a sporty and spirited vert with some good room inside and in the trunk, and so comfortable seats…. I do not know if one can.. I could not. The 135 came close, but its rear seat is laughably small, a big let down if you have a kid, or even a pet.

  • avatar

    I love the Saab 900/9-3 series of cars. I love the quirky styling and eccentric interior layouts. It is what makes a Saab, a Saab. The fact that they are well engineered cars with a ton of features is all gravy.

    I had a 1998 900SE Convertible with the 2.0T engine and 5 speed manual transmission. It was a great driving car and peppy as all get out. On the freeway, I have no problem keeping up and passing traffic at will. Drove the car up the coast and through a monsoon with no problems. The car is a wonderful long distance tourer.

    I recently found a low mileage 2006 9-3 Aero Convertible and bought it, it had 38k miles on it… amazing find. I love it even more than the 1998 even though GM has taken away a lot of the quirkiness. The 2.8 V6 is way more smooth and torquey than the old 2.0T. I think it really is one of the best small engines out there. The car is improved in handling, looks, and retains that off-center individuality which avoids the boring commonness that plagues the 3-series or C-class competitors.

    The best thing about this car is the dash. At night, you would think you are inside an airplane with the green lights, and the way the radio is laid out like a communications panel. There is nothing like it in the car world and unfortunately, changed by GM to a boring design in 2007. That is also a reason why I wanted a 2006. It was the only year where you can get both the 2.8 V6 and the old dash design.

    I have owned many cars, and this is one of the very few cars that I have owned more than one of because I loved it so much. People turn and look at my car way more than they do any of the 3-series or C-class cars out there, that’s for sure. It is a different looking car which catches the eye.

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