I’m elevating this to the top again for the benefit of those in the US and Europe that don’t check in on the weekend and want something to read on their Monday morning.
Well, it finally came. Saturday the 4th February – my time with the 2006 Saab 9-3 Aero. As soon as I got the call last Tuesday from my local dealer, Tony, I was anticipating the drive. And I can tell you: it was worth the wait.
When I called to confirm the drive I was pleasantly surprised to find out that one of my SCCA mates, Matt the fudgepacker, was coming along for a spin too. We call Matt ‘the fudgepacker’ as he and his Mrs make fudge for a living – nothing suggestive here folks, just the plain truth.
I had another house to inspect, so I picked up the car and the day started with a fairly sedate drive through the ‘burbs. This was my first introduction to the 6-speed auto transmission. It’s the tip-sen-whatever-tronic, which I’d had fairly limited exposure to. After taking a spin in Auto mode, I committed myself to learning the shift technique as the Auto in its natural stance provides little to write home about. It’s smooth enough, but appears a little confused at times. Maybe it has too many gears and doesn’t quite know which one to pick. If this is a mild criticism (and it is) then please don’t dispair as things got a lot more interesting later on.
Transmission vagaries aside, the 9-3 Aero cruises very nicely indeed. The seats seem much better that the 9-3 Linear Convertible I drove late last year and the feel on the road is second to none. The cabin is quiet with just the hint of a note from the twin pipes servicing the V6. This car is a signal of the market as it’s emerging. Tempered performance. A car that dresses like a fine, somewhat prudent citizen but has a reputation for being a monster between the sheets.
Please excuse the poor driving technique. The interior provides but one complaint – that god-ugly wheel! Click to enlarge.
If I’m allowed one complaint about the interior – it’s the steering wheel. It’s not an attractive item at all and the feel cheapens what is otherwise an absolutely magnificent driving environment. I’ve already mentioned the seats. The look and feel of the interior is sensational. The ergonomics are straight out of the textbook and I was able to find and operate all the functions I needed with little fuss – whilst driving. The switchgear has a reassuring soft-touch and all the points of contact feel….well….just right – except for that wheel.
The 9-3 Sports Sedan is Saab’s sales leader all around the world for a very good reason. The formula for this car is just right. Everything from the styling to the seating to the performance delivers exactly what you expect. And just a little bit more. I’d had my sedate drive through the ‘burbs. I’d seen the house (which was good, but probably beyond what we want to spend) and the Aero and I had become acquainted.
To extend the metaphor that began earlier, it was now time to get the gear off and see what this baby was really capable of. To do that, we needed some provocation.
Enter the 9-3 Viggen…..
The Viggen has remained, statistically speaking, at or around the pinnacle of Saab performance until the release of the new V6 Aero and the upgraded 9-5. The Vig was built purely to extract grunt from an engine block and transfer it to the road in the quickest fashion possible. It’s a road consuming machine. Like a fat guy with a bucket of fried chicken, it just eats and eats. When pushed, it’s a car that you drive by the seat of your pants. It feels as fast as it is. So it was always going to be a fun exercise to measure the two cars together.
One of the great bonuses that came out of Matt coming along today was the fact that we could both drive one of these beasties and compare notes straight away. We stopped frequently, deplaned and exchanged grins at the antics of the last 5 or so kilometers. We took to the twisties around Mt Wellington, here in Hobart. Matt drove the Viggen and I followed behind in the Aero – doing my best impression of the Saab Performance Team by trying to stay as close as possible to the rear of the Viggen without having to open the trunk. It was during this exercise that I learned how to manage the 6-speed in manual mode – and it makes an altogether different beast out of this well-mannered sporting sedan.
In manual mode, the 9-3 Aero proves its real capabilities. That flat, maximum torque line between 2000 and 4000rpm provides you with so much response – and it’s all but clear of turbo lag. Torque steer? Fuggheddaboudit. Seriously, unless you are pushing this thing to absolute breaking point, the torque steer is so negligible as to be completely non-existant. This car pulls hard and it pulls cleanly. The exhast sounds great too. Like everything else, it’s pretty subtle, but there’s just enough to appreciate.
The Re-Axs suspension setup on these cars makes the twisties a blast. This car is so reassuring in the tight stuff that you feel about as relaxed as you did on the drive through suburbia. There was Matt in front, flogging the Viggen within an inch of its life with me on his tail, changing gears with my pinkie finger!!
And right there is the primary point of difference with these two cars. In terms of power and torque, they’re fairly similar. It’s the way you feel the power and torque that makes these cars two vastly different cousins.
The Viggen is a car that lets you feel every pound of thrust. You have to concentrate when driving the Viggen. Not only does your 100% application to the task at hand provide the greatest rewards, but a lack thereof could literally be your undoing when the going is going really, really hard.
The Aero, on the other hand, is so well set up that you can go faster than the Viggen, turn tighter than the Viggen and still not spill a drop of your chardonnay as you do so. It’s a sophisticated machine that provides endless smiles, seemingly infinite power and it’s fair share of G-forces – and all this whilst gently couching your buttock in the finest-grade leather.
I finished the day by describing the 2006 9-3 Aero as a Viggen in a 3-piece suit. I appreciate my Viggen a great deal. It’s a superb piece of engineering and fitted out with heaps of character. It’s a perfectly well mannered road car but when provoked, it is pure Swedish aggression. The Aero, on the other hand, is an introvert in comparison. Even when it’s aggressive and pounding you within an inch of your mortal soul, you’re blissfully unaware and thankfully – in total control.
The new 9-3 Aero has been a long time coming to these parts. And it was well worth the wait. This driveline was sorely needed in the Saab range and it’s going to be responsible for a lot of Saab sales over the coming years.
My thanks to Tony for allowing me the pleasure of the drive, and to Matt for making the day all the better with his driving and his knowledge of the car.