By on September 13, 2006

1201326.jpg Trollhattansaab.net recently upbraided TTAC for failing to mention their champion amongst a list of station wagon alternatives to SUV’s. According to the Aussie Saab blog, the SportCombi “more than matches its competition on price, performance, specification, utility and safety.” Be that as it may, I wanted to know if Saab’s wagon deserved a place next to Volvo and Mercedes in my list of classic European station wagons. So I grabbed some seat time in an '06 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi (a.k.a. 9-3 Aero 5-Door).

The 9-3 SportCombi shares the same clean, sensible, sober and forgettable face as all other current Saabs. Thankfully, the Aero’s deeper chin spoiler spices things up… a bit. The wagon’s profile is more, uh, “eccentric.” Blacked-out B and C pillars and an upwards swooping lower window line create a strangely truncated rear window and an odd D-pillar kink. The SportCombi’s rear end shares Volvo’s penchant for twin tower brake lights, which bracket a Pacifica-esque rounded rump. The overall design is handsome enough, though less coherent than the wagon genre’s best examples.

1201334.jpg Once inside, the SportCombi’s cockpit is a smorgasbord of black plastic, black plastic and… black plastic. The polymers resemble the material The Dark Knight wore in the Batman movies. Staying with the theme, the steering wheel’s silver insets remind me of the Bat plane. My Saab salesman, however, was entranced by a clever D-shaped plastic piece on the center console, slotted to hold business cards or dry cleaning receipts. The part’s quality (or lack thereof) was strictly squirt gun level chic. In fact, I haven’t seen plastic that cheap since I darkened the door of a Chevy Citation some twenty-five years ago.

The SportCombi’s optional 10-speaker Premium Audio System continues the budget-minded bonanza. Beethoven’s Eroica wasn’t. Three hundred watts and I could still check out of Hotel California anytime I liked. How an audio system dares call itself “premium” with only two knobs (treble and bass) and no EQ or preset mix adjustments is a mystery best left to The General’s multi-national bean counting squad.

At least the Swedes got the driving position right. The glove leather chairs are amazingly comfortable and endlessly supportive. The tilting and telescoping steering wheel easily adjusts for the optimal driving position. The center console-mounted ignition remains lovably Saabish. As with nearly all cars of its size, rear knee room is limited; adults confined to the second row may wish to consult The Geneva Convention. The SportCombi’s back seats fold flat, opening the cargo space to a Home Depot-friendly 72.3 cu. ft.

1201328.jpg The SportCombi saves its greatest pleasures for enthusiastic drivers. Awaken its 250hp turbo-fed 2.8-liter V6 engine and the exhaust’s velvety burble speaks of the good times to come. If you like straight-line shove, the wagon won’t disappoint; the SportCombi sprints to sixty in a fraction over six seconds. Better yet, maximum torque (258 ft-lbs.) kicks in at just 2,000 rpm. Save for a brief bit of turbo lag from a standing start, power is instantly available at any gear, at any engine speed.

Paddle shifters mounted just above nine and three o’clock on the steering wheel control the SportCombi’s six-speed automatic. Unlike other sports sedans and wagons, Saab engineers did the Patek Phillipe thing: they chose one shifting algorithm and chose it wisely. The autobox is biased towards sports driving; it delivers crisp, accurate shifts.

The SportCombi Aero’s sport-tuned suspension lowers the car by 10mm and stiffens up the shocks and springs. The set-up delivers an ideal balance of body control and road feel. As you’d expect for a 60.6-inch-tall vehicle, there’s a fair amount of initial lateral roll. But once the SportCombi finds its balance, it maintains its composure during high-speed cornering– regardless of the road surface.

1201309.jpg Equally admirable, torque steer is virtually nonexistent– without compromising steering feel. Less commendably, the always optimistic EPA says the SportCombi travels 17 miles for every gallon of gas in the city, and 28 on the highway. The only other major blot on the SportCombi’s dynamic playbook: throttle response. Take your foot off the accelerator under full turbo boost and, for a brief moment, the accelerator pedal seems welded to the floor.  I don’t know if this problem was unique to my test vehicle. If not, it’s a completely unacceptable design flaw. If it is, it’s a completely unacceptable manufacturing aberration.

As tested, the 9-3 Aero SportCombi with Touring Package stickers for $36,715. That’s a lot of pre-discount dough for a smallish “entry-level luxury” wagon. For that money, Saab should clean up the interior deficiencies and find a way to switch off the afterburners. On the other hand, the SportCombi’s power and handling are superb for a family hauler. Taken as a whole, there’s no question that the Combi deserves a place in the pistonhead's pantheon of Euro-style station wagons. We stand corrected.   

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36 Comments on “Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi Review...”


  • avatar

    Yes, but did you find it “Born from Jets” as their ads needlessly plug? Does TTAC have a “model family” to fit in SUV’s and station wagon, er crossovers to compare those annoying family features for when you aren’t taking the car to the track?

  • avatar
    Commuter

    I considered one of the 4 cylinder versions of the SportCombi earlier this year. Those go for well under $30k and are a pretty good deal; complete with leather seats and 210hp. The fatal flaw was the complete lack of rear seat room. The back of the front seat actually touches the rear seat when adjusted all the way back. Definately not in keeping with the Geneva Convention.

  • avatar
    trandell

    I had same issue with back seat. I am 6′ 2″ and when I am confortable in the front seat of teh 9-3 there is NO room for anyone behind me. The rounded front of the back seat doesn’t help matters. I had a 1999 9-3 and did not find this problem. I ended up going with an 06 9-5 in order to get the back seat space I needed.

  • avatar
    Brian E

    Did you test an ’06 or an ’07? The ’07 model (which is in the pictures, but those look like publicity photos) gets a stereo upgrade courtesy of GM’s corporate parts bin special. That stereo, at least when I looked at it in the Saturn Aura, had EQ adjustments and midrange control.

    Honda needs to kick some serious tail on the European luxury wagon market and bring the Accord Tourer here as a TSX wagon.

  • avatar

    Whats the problem with the “Born from Jets”? Its factual and its a lot better than “Still Quirky But Not As Cool As We Used To Be”

  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    “Born from Jets” is not factual.

    “Born in Malibu” is factual.

    “Overpriced G6 without the legroom” is factual.

    “Aura without the Saturn dealer network” is factual.

    Anyhow, thanks for the review, Monty – I guess you liked it, although I’m guessing that the market for wagons without rear legroom is rather limiting. Of course, the Malibu Maxx has scads of legroom, and it’s not selling, either.

  • avatar
    jazbo123

    I would guess that the throttle-off lag you experienced was the wastegate doing its job. It’s not uncommon with Turbos and Saabs in particular. The damn thing has to do something with all that inertia when you suddenly yank the collar.

    Good review, too bad about the plastic. My 9-5 has a decent interior.

  • avatar
    qfrog

    Andy,

    The slogan is weaksauce because the 9-2 and 9-7 are by no means even of the same herritage as the traditional saab models 900 & 9000 which became GM adoptees and have now been asymilated into the borg… er corporate chassis program. There is no more born from jets left imo… I believe that saabs are now born from a commitee.

    I rather enjoyed test driving a new 02/03 Vector 9-3 with the 2.0T high output snail. I’d skip the V6 and opt for the 16v turbo with software. I must agree with the interior plastics comments… I was shocked by the glaring cheapness of that card holder thing which mirrors the e-brake handle iirc. I do like the e-brake handle design which is a lot like the Audi A3′s.

  • avatar
    gearhead455

    Oh snap! Not the “Born From Jets” crap again… It’s a marketing slogan. If you actually believe that GM wants you to think there are actual aircraft parts in a re-skinned Malibu than you all need a padded room. ;-)

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz

    I test drove one, sans-salesman, for about 40 minutes. I found handling to be pitch-and-roll in the 20mph-50mph range. That turbo boost is addictive though.

  • avatar
    Walter Pabst

    I quit cryin’ for Saab once I saw they were slingin’ leftover Bravadas. What a shame. I suppose brand engineering is palatable when you share with Alfa 164′s and Lancia Thema’s, but this SportCombi smells like a GM inside. Glad they still make a sweet turbo.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    William,

    The pedal welded to the floor is by no means unique to your vehicle.

    I found the exact same “quirk” when I reviewed the seden. But I still think it is more a problem of gearing than engine.

    A 6MT would make this such a good car.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Brian E: The demo car was a 2006 model. The ‘07s are not yet circulating in my neck of the woods.

  • avatar
    Tiger Commanche

    Don’t mean to sound defensive, but I have the sedan, and my 10, 8 and 6 year-olds ride in the back occasionally and they do not complain about legroom. They elbow each other and fight, but they do not complain about the legroom. qfrog, that card holder thing across from the parking brake handle is cheap, but fits my credit-card sized parking pass perfectly and is quite handy. Cheap, but handy.

  • avatar
    Yuppie

    Before I bought my A3 2.0T FSI, I also considered the Saab 9-3 (sedan). I like the looks of the 9-3 a bit more, even though it was older (which will cost you re: resale value). One aspect of my research was “software”, i.e., aftermarket “chips” or reflash. I could not find any U.S. Saab tuners. Not to mention the A3′s interior is much nicer than the 9-3′s.

    Qfrog, will you please post a couple of links?

  • avatar
    ktm

    I would guess that the throttle-off lag you experienced was the wastegate doing its job. It’s not uncommon with Turbos and Saabs in particular. The damn thing has to do something with all that inertia when you suddenly yank the collar.

    Wrong part. The waste gate keeps the F/I system from overboosting. The blow-off valve or by-pass valve (if it recirculates the air) is the part you are thinking about. On lifting the throttle, the throttle plate closes. The incoming charged air needs someplace to go, so it is either vented to the atmosphere via a BOV or recirculated back into the intake system via a BPV. Both systems are vacuum actuated.

  • avatar
    jazbo123

    Wrong part. The waste gate keeps the F/I system from overboosting. The blow-off valve or by-pass valve (if it recirculates the air) is the part you are thinking about.

    I believe you are right.

    My 9-5 also does this. It just doesn’t like to stop spooling at a moment’s notice, it seems to take about 2-3 seconds under full-0 throttle transitions.

  • avatar
    stormj

    Oy vey, am I every glad I traded in my 9-3.

    I enjoyed driving Saabs for many, many years. Then I got the GM version last year. I kept it for 10 months. Blech.

  • avatar
    Brian E

    qfrog: the 9-2x actually had a decent claim to be “Born from Jets”. Remember that Fuji Heavy used to manufacture airplanes, and that the Flying V is in fact supposed to resemble the wings on an airplane. That’s one reason why I was disappointed by the execution of the 9-2x, which had a nice exterior exterior reskin, but an interior as cheap as the Impreza. Personally I think the Saabaru concept had legs – much better than “Born from Trailblazers”.

    SherbornSean: it’s actually “Born from Opels”. When I park my Saturn L300 next to a Saab 9-5 you can see just how much both share in their general outline, shape of the C pillar, etc. The Malibu doesn’t look at all like the 9-3 due to GM’s terrific job in uglifying the Malibu.

  • avatar

    William,

    Thanks for addressing the issue. As the Saab-blogger that brought this up I can honestly say I enjoyed the read, though I’ll be double checking that rear legroom issue at lunchtime at my local dealer ;-)

    The other thing that should be mentioned is that the ‘iceblock’ rear lights as shown in the pictures aren’t available in the US market, where your regulations have mandated that they be red rather than clear.

    Yuppie,

    There are a bunch of tuning options available for the Saab range. The only ones available in the US though are aftermarket and may give you warranty issues if you don’t think through your mods properly. Try Genuinesaab.com in the US or Elkparts in the UK. Substantial HP and torque increases (around 25% for each) can be had for around $1000.

  • avatar

    I’ve driven the 9-3, Malibu, G6, and Aura. The Saab feels nothing at all like the others.

    That said, I’ve always preferred the 9-5.

  • avatar
    ktm

    jazbo123, the turbo never stops spooling as it is driven by exhaust gases. On throttle lift, the throttle plate should close immediately and the charge air recirculated or vented. The phenomenon that you, and others, have experienced is puzzling.

    I agree with Jonny that it maybe gearing/transmission related and not engine related. I know that on some older automatics that I drove (rentals, friends cars, etc.), there was no such thing as engine braking (like with a manual). If you lifted up off the throttle, the car tended to slowly lose spend, almost as if there was the mother of all flywheels attached to the engine.

  • avatar

    Mr. F, please keep a tight rein on your guest writers. I think this is the least interesting or engaging review I’ve ever read on TTAC.
    Why? It reads mostly like a list of stats with a few gripes thrown in. As you keep telling us, the stats are readily available anywhere online- it’s the personal opinions that count around here. The Saab drives fine, has nice seats and a crappy dash. Okay, what else? How are its driving dynamics? How does it corner? ’73.5 cubic feet’ of hauling room… so what does that fit?
    Come on, we expect better.

  • avatar

    Thanks to everyone for the correction….As a former Saab owner I realize that the new Saabs arent as “jet-like” or whatever as they used to be. My point was that Saab doesn’t really have any other marketing options when they aren’t anything but rebadged subarus, trailblazers, and malibus. No one would buy the car if they showed the absolute truth…. A true Saab commericial would just show some trendy independent thinker buying a 9-3 because he doesn’t want be like “the masses”…thats why i bought mine anyway ;D.

  • avatar

    and to SherbornSean…

    it is factual…Saab the company was born out of jet-making.

    “Saab is an aviation and defense company based in Sweden and founded in 1937 in Linköping. Its name was an acronym for “Svenska Aeroplan AB,” where “AB” stands for “aktiebolaget” (“limited company”), thus written as ‘SAAB’. Since the changes in company ownership in the 1990s, the company name is now Saab AB.”

    -wikipedia.com

    sorry as a history major, I hate to quote wikipedia, but i have to prove my point. Forgive my persistence.

  • avatar
    cman321

    i used to own a 2003 Saab 9-3 2.0T. I have long since gotten rid of the car. My current car, a 2006 VW GLI is a very similar car in spec, but does almost every thing better (faster, better handling, better ride, more solid, much better interior, better stereo, and cheaper). Hows that for technology.

  • avatar
    Grendel

    it is factual…Saab the company was born out of jet-making

    WRONG! Saab split from Saab Aviation 25 or more years ago. They are seperate and distinct companies. No GM Saab has ever had any connection with Saab Aviation.

    The “Born from Jets” tagline is a fraud, much like the “American Revolution” of Mexican and Canadian built Chevys. As a former real Saab owner I am deeply disappointed by GM’s mishandling of Saab.

  • avatar

    I think we’re playing word games here…but I’ll back down. Its just sad to see SAAB get lumped in with the GM generic.

  • avatar
    noley

    People whine too much. And who cares about a lame tagline?

    I’v e had Saabs for 22 years, and while the 9-3 SS and SC lack the carved-out-of-a-single-chunk-of-steel feel the old 900s had in the ’80s, they are not bad.

    I compare it favorably to my two 9000s and my 9-5 wagon. There IS a cheaper feel to some interior pieces, and the GM parts bin is obvious, but most cars from the same parent share some parts with other model these days. I agree the little card-holder thingy (or whatever it is) cheap feeling. Bean counters!

    Complaints about the back seat are valid, but most people who will buy a 9-3 SC probably don’t need lots of back seat room on a regular basis. Think about the rear cabin in a Suby Outback and a lot of other small wagons with a 6-foot tall driver and the 9-3 isn’t all that bad. On the other hand, I’m 6’2″ and I can’t drive it with the driver’s seat all the way back–I’m just too far back.

    But the metal trim on the Aero steering wheel is cheesy beyond belief. Maybe they’re trying to sell accessory “sport” steering wheels!

  • avatar
    Steinl

    Andy, there’s no reason to get upset. Saab began as an airplane factory, supplying military aircraft to the Swedes during WWII.

    I have worked with the brand’s advertising, and have sat at Trollhättan in meetings with clueless GM exec’s who refused to use the aircraft heritage (mid-90s onwards).
    However, as of end of nineties, it’s Volvo that makes the jet engines in the Saab military aircraft, and the exec’s felt this killed the concept totally.
    Until they realized that this is the essence of the brand – and should be used. Unless you want to change the name of the company Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget SAAB – means Swedish Airplane Shareholders’ Company.

    To the person above stating he bought Saab because it was the intellectual’s car. The Saab vs. campaign was killed because it was too intellectual. A campaign everyone still remembers. Damn shame. BTW – one dealer actually said, of Saab vs. Bauhaus, that those foreigners can’t even spell.

    Saab engineers were working on HUD (Head up Display) years before BMW thought of putting it in their cars. But the GM branddestroyers were out to build a luxury sedan.

    He-he.

  • avatar
    Johnson

    Oh snap! Not the “Born From Jets” crap again… It’s a marketing slogan. If you actually believe that GM wants you to think there are actual aircraft parts in a re-skinned Malibu than you all need a padded room. ;-)

    You should take a visit to GMInsideNews.com sometime … many of the members there would have you believe otherwise, as they seem to take that slogan *very* seriously.

    Either way, it’s not like the slogan has helped Saab’s perception, or their sales. North American Saab sales are still virtually non-existent.

    As for the 9-3 Aero SportCombi … whew … talk about a long name … the only thing I really like about it is the “iceblock” taillights … the ones not available in the US … and that’s not saying much about this car. That interior might look nice, but when you actually sit in, you’ll think twice about this car, especially after you see it’s price tag. I’ve always viewed Saabs as being overpriced, and this is no exception.

  • avatar

    Don’t worry I’m not upset. I have to argue history all day, its my passion. If I too things like that personally, Id be a very unhappy, broken hearted individual. I only wish it could have gotten more heated. I was really just trying to make a joke earlier and come up with a funny catchphrase for SAAB.

    I’m a Honda guy anyway, I played the SAAB game a few years ago and just ended up with a big speeding ticket and huge, expensive, annoying repairs. And being the individual that I am, I promptly traded it in for a Chevy S-10….

  • avatar
    crackity jones

    I thought this was a good review. Thanks for writing it.

    And before you throw Farago and crew under the bus, tell us where you can go for no-holds-barred commentary — both from the staff and the readers. I’ve checked out “Autospies” and it’s Soviet Russia compared to the free-flowing TTAC. The owner of Autospies uses his website as his beard to get into industry functions. So, the opinions on Autospies are sanitized, or removed. You can knock a BMW interior or call a Lexus suspension soft, but that’s about it!

    This TTAC experiment is worth seeing through. Sure, Farago is probably the best writer on here but give the other guys time. And remember next time you post an opinion here, you won’t get censored. These are the guys who made BMW mad as a hornet. Their opinions are probably stronger than yours!

  • avatar
    RiddleFox

    Probably too late for anyone to see/respond to this post, but what the hey.

    Some STi’s suffer from a similar problem as the 9-3, where when you abruptly lift off of the throttle (push in the clutch), revs will continue climbing. Some people suspect that it’s a gremlin from the electronic throttle/drive by wire system. The 9-3 has an electronic throttle too; maybe the sensors or ECU mapping needs some recalibration. There’s a thread on NASIOC about it.

  • avatar
    wsn

    To Andy: Regarding sorry as a history major, I hate to quote wikipedia, but i have to prove my point. Forgive my persistence.

    Then you would know most researchers believe human (ape?) originated from Africa? Are you an African then?

  • avatar
    wsn

    P.S. I suppose Honda can soon join the “jet connection” club :)


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