Saab 9-3 car reviews

Review Notes: Saab 9-3 five-speed 2.0 turbo
Personality Docile, fun, civilized, but odd
Unusual features Night panel, odd customizations, safety features
Above Average: Safety, driving experience
Needs Work In: Nav system/radio operability, cruise
EPA gas mileage 21 city, 30 highway

It is easy to get so lost in the eccentricities of the Saab 9-3 that we would lose the main point of the review, so let's start right away: the Saab 9-3 provides a thoroughly enjoyable driving experience, as long as you don't use cruise control, fiddle with the stereo too often, or try to use the cupholders with almost-full containers. Then again, the "true driving experience" would almost seem to mandate not using the cruise, fiddling with the stereo, and drinking from almost-full containers, so that's probably not a big deal.

The Saab 9-3 has excellent cornering and handling, sticking to the road like glue despite the various ridges, bumps, and other imperfections all too common on Northeastern pavement; but it cushions most of the blows well, so that though you feel everything, not much is disturbing. The ride is firm but not overly so, and in the end it is enjoyable without being exhausting (as some performance-oriented cars can be). There is never any doubt as to whether the shock absorbers are still there. Acceleration is exciting despite being fairly mundane on paper; the 210 horsepower engine is hardly a powerhouse by today's standards, when the base Dodge V6 has 200 horsepower (and the various SRTs and GTs manage 240 from a four-cylinder), but the turbocharger is smooth and quick, and the engine is quiet and well-behaved. As a result, while getaway power is limited at lower revs, there is an exciting windup as the tachometer moves from low to high revs, gaining speed along the way, and the boost gauge jumps over to the orange stripes. This is one of those turbo engines that delivers more fun than a similarly powered V6, even if the six could sometimes deliver better numbers.

The manual transmission is a five-speed, losing out perhaps on the buzzword race, but delivering smooth shifts with an unusually easy driving experience. Reverse is far off to the right, with a lockout ring that has to be pulled up to avoid accidental shifts from fifth into reverse. The clutch is nicely weighted, not too stiff and not too sudden. An automatic transmission would take much of the fun value from the Saab, and not just because it would hurt acceleration and mileage. (Gas mileage, incidentally, is reported by the EPA as a decent-for-the-class 22 city, 31 highway -- not too bad but also not admirable for a fairly compact manual-transmission sedan.)

The Saab feels comfortable and solid in just about all driving conditions, handling both all-out acceleration and gentle driving with aplomb. It is, in short, a very enjoyable car for just plain driving.

Though the interior does not look especially impressive at first, despite the "wood effect trim" on the doors and around the gearshift, it does contain a number of innovative and helpful features. Yes, there are the usual expanses of nearly blank plastic; but the contoured dashboard cover is remarkably good at eliminating glare and reflection in the windshield, while providing space for large, clear-sounding speakers. In the middle of the dash cover is a large panel that displays, with unusually high resolution (in green-on-black), the time, the stereo status, and a single line from the trip computer with the temperature, distance to empty, arrival time (if you set a trip on the navigation system), average gas mileage (for us, 21 mpg), "Speed W" (we never figured this out, and it stayed at 150 mph), or the date. Our car had no compass. The display is easy to read and fairly non-distracting, unless it is displaying a warning; the normal information readings can be replaced by various warnings, such as door open, passenger not buckled, or our favorite, "rear seat not latched on left side." (That's more information than we normally get.)  The odometer area is also digital, which lets it warn you when there's an important message in the trip computer.

Other gauges are standard white-on-black with green backlighting, with a small tachometer, large 160 mph speedometer, temperature, fuel, and turbo boost. The boost gauge sits at 3 bars when the car is idling, making one wonder how it is calibrated and whether the turbo is really kept engaged at all times. Each gauge is surrounded by a thick dull chrome border rather than the more elegant small bright chrome border favored by Volvo. A "night panel" button darkens all displays other than the speedometer - and it can also be set to only illuminate the speedometer to 90 mph rather than the full 160. (The kilometers per hour display can also be darkened at night.)

That brings us to the customization dial, which allows easy customization of the car's features. While most follow Jeep's lead in making door locking and headlight behavior available to the driver, Saab takes a new tack, allowing the driver to set dashboard illumination options, climate control options (you can have it automatically turn on the seat warmers and rear defroster, and can control whether the car or the human sets fan speed, venting, etc.), and metric vs English scales -- but not locking or headlight delay. 

Headlights are controlled by a conventional but reverse-direction (on is to the left, not the right) dial; daytime running lights are always on. It seems that no matter what you do, a headlight indicator is always shown on the dashboard, though - a GM trademark. The Saab comes with both front and rear fog lights, which are safe in countries where people pay attention, but tend to blind other drivers in the US, where people simply leave all lights on, all the time.

The optional navigation system makes life much more complicated. While making a phone call is relatively easy, with a standard phone keyboard right in the center stack, the controls are confusing at best, and doing just about anything - even just viewing the map - requires diverting full attention to the console. There is no reason to have a setup this distracting and unsafe, and we strongly recommend that people who want a navigation system buy an aftermarket one instead, leaving the Saab with its standard, easier to use stereo. As an added incentive, we'll mention that Saab's maps tend to leave street names out for nearly all streets, making it less useful than it could be. That said, guidance is cleverly integrated into the top-of-dash display, with large arrows that slowly lose their fill color as you approach the turns. 

Vents use an unusual 3-dimensional, multilayer direction system which does not seem to work as well as standard systems or the more modern (if still rare) circular vents. The climate control itself, while very unusual in layout, is flexible and not hard to understand.

Interior storage is generally good, with a capacious glove compartment, map pockets in all four doors, two padded shelves under the center stack, ticket holder integrated into the center area, and immense trunk that includes both a pass-through for skis and such, and fold-down rear seats. The actual center console has a vent for a/c and a cigarette lighter, but is fairly small; the top slides forward to act as an armrest. Cupholders are all too cleverly designed; one folds out of the dash but overhangs the shifter, making spills highly undesirable and not inspiring confidence with heavy drinks, and one is integrated into the center console and can be hidden when not in use. (It can also be used as another storage area). Rear seat passengers get twin cupholders that fold out from the center of the rear bench seat. The rear seat itself provides enough seats for kids, but adults might find legroom to be rather cramped. Rear passengers do get their own climate vents and airbags.

Some of the eccentricities of the Saab come in the controls; we already mentioned the unconventional climate controls and customization, not to mention the clever night panel feature, but there is also the mounting of the mirror controls in the driver's door by the mirror itself; power locks that lock before unlocking when you press the unlock button, for no apparent reason; a very unusual and awkward cruise control stalk; a pointlessly hard to use (and slow) navigation system / stereo control; and a key like no other, with no metal showing (unless you take it apart for dead-battery emergency use), which plugs into the between-front-seats area and acts like a regular key there. Overall, that's not so bad -- for Saab, it's downright mundane.

Safety is normally a key feature of Swedish cars, even though Saab is now owned by GM and Volvo by Ford (a company more known for pyrotechnics than its concern for owner safety). The 9-3 comes with torso side airbags for both driver and passenger; side curtain airbags, front and rear; active head restraints (front only); antilock brakes and mechanical brake assist; cornering brake control; and anti-submarining seats, which are unusual but could be essential in a crash. The electronic stability program, slowly becoming a staple of cars at just about all price ranges, is also included; this system works subtly but makes its presence known long before tires have a chance to squeal, so that you can have fun with spirited driving and not worry about attracting attention from law enforcement officials. (At least not from tire screeching.) On a more pedestrian note, the large passenger side mirror shows a wider angle than usual, helping remove the blind spot; and on a more controversial note is the "blind people behind you" rear fog lights, useful in Sweden where people use them properly but somewhat more annoying here in the States.

Other standard features include 16 inch alloy wheels, burglar alarm with remote (integrated into the key), rear window defogger, automatic, filtered climate control, trip computer, 150 watt CD stereo, cruise, power windows (with express up and down on all windows), power heated outside mirrors, leather wheel with audio controls, adjustable steering (tilt and telescope), power driver's seat, leather, and projector-beam halogen headlights. The price tag with all these features comes in at a bit over $26,000, including destination; our test car, though, had a few options that raised the price up past $31,000. These included silver paint ($550), front heated seats and headlight washers ($550), and the navigation system and premium package ($3,890).

Overall, the Saab 9-3 is a highly enjoyable driver's car with quite a few friendly features and an almost ideal combination of ride, handling, acceleration, safety, and economy, for a price that won't break the bank of those cross-shopping Volvos, Lexus, or even high-end cars from normal brands. However, some buyers (particularly those with kids or carpools) may look to cars like the Chrysler 300C for more space and power (at the cost of some safety features and considerable gas mileage); but if you don't need the space, and if enough power is enough (and the Saab is indeed lots of fun even if it's not going to be challenging Camaros at traffic lights), the Saab puts quite a bit into a nice, easily parked package.