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.