The 2006 Saab 9-3 Aero: My Drive

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.

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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.

2006 9-3 Aero rear driving.jpg
The V6 doing what it does best. Click to enlarge.

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.

9-3 Aero interior.jpg
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.

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The 2006 9-3 Aero. click to enlarge.

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…..

Viggen 9-3 Aero mountain front.jpg
Friend or foe? The yardstick and the newcomer. Click to enlarge

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.

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Derrieres abound. click to enlarge

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.

Viggen speedo 9-3 Aero.jpg
100 kmh into a bend, whilst holding a camera – no problemmo. Click to enlarge

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.

Click to enlarge
Viggen pursuit 1.jpg

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16 Comments

  1. Great review–one that I can put a lot more trust in than from some journo wanna-be-rwd-racer-it’s-not a BMW type.
    Hope you haven’t spoiled it for yourself so you don’t enjoy your Viggen as much as before.
    Hopefully, I can afford a used one before I’m too old to drive.

  2. Love the website! I have an ’06 Aero Sportcombi and it is just an awesome car. I have one of the first few Aero Sportcombis that arrived in the US (first batches arrived in December). The Sportcombi still has limited availability here (especially in Aero guise), although I wish I had hard numbers.

    I’m not bothered by the steering wheel as much as you were-although I must admit that I didn’t like it initially.

  3. Nice car, I’m sure, but a small, fun one — albeit SAAB-tuned for extra fun. But if you want to drive a real thrill of a car — as I keep telling all of you — then you MUST drive the incredible 9-5 Aero — any model year since 2002. It is the true successor to the original 900 Turbo, 30 years later and updated accordingly. Learn to drive the ultra-rewarding 9-5 Aero, and I promise any of you — you’ll NEVER look back to a 9-3.

  4. Your review was well written and would go a long way in showing non-Saab believers what it is that makes the marque great! I agree with the other comment regarding the 9-5. I own a 2004 9-5 Aero 5-speed. It has adult room inside and an adrenelin pump located below your right foot! The BEST long distance machine around. I’m sorry you didn’t get to test a 6-speed manual tranny 9-3 Aero. That is the REAL driver’s car. If it doesn’t have 3 pedals, count me out! Great review!

  5. The steering wheel isint THAT bad, its been improved for 2006 with some thumbrests which I like. The big aluminum inserts probably moving Saab design wise towards their 9-x concept. You are right about the seats, they have to be the best in the world. I know people who are looking for totaled Saabs so they can take the seats out and put them in their non-saab cars. I cant wait for future model years of this Aero, I can only hope they will tune the ECU better and give it a bigger boost so that they can utilize the power capacity of this engine straght out of Trollhattan.

  6. Swade: What about the brakes? I seem to have one with “brake issues” that the US dealer says are working as designed. They say SAAB says the rears do 60% of the braking and the fronts 40%. The result is poor braking under most normal driving. Normal as in with the 2 year old boy and pregnant wife (thank-you) in the car. Poor in the sense that you have to jam the pedal to get it to really stop, where as in my wife’s 2004 9-5 Arc SportWagon, you can peg your eyeballs to the inside of the windscreen with just the pressure from 1 toe. Car & Driver who seriously dissed the 9-3 Aero big time also had the same complaints about the brakes (70-0 mph in 198 feet… that’s bad). Anyone else have any opinions about the 2006 9-3 brakes based on actaul driving experiance? I have a 2006 Aero SportCombi (US Model) with 1800 miles. Goes like stink, but I still have issues with my brakes!

  7. You bring up a point that I’ve noticed as well comparing the old (pre-2003) 9-3 and the current model. The old car feels more lively, whereas the new car feels much more stable. I find that this makes me like the old car more, if only because you don’t need to drive it quite as fast to have fun.
    I find that the new 9-3 feels about a foot wider, although the actual difference is just over two inches.
    Going with the “born from jets” theme, the Viggen feels like it was descended from, appropriately, a Viggen, whereas the new car might also have a touch of Airbus in its bloodline.

  8. Spike, you know the “aluminium” insert on the wheel that makes it so non-likeable for me? I found myself constantly rubbing my thumbs against the sharp inside edges of it (a fit n finish issue??). It just seems quite unnecessary to me as it adds nothing to the interior other than distraction.

    Steven – I noticed that the brakes definitely didn’t have enough ‘feel’ to them. I didn’t notice a problem with stopping distance or anything but I initially thought it could probably do with the slotted discs like those in the Viggen.

    Bernard – great analogy. The Aero was still great fun to drive, just less of a wrestle – and sometimes wrestling is fun.

    And everyone else, believe me – as soon as I can get into a 9-5 Aero, I will.

  9. I am hoping to buy one of those in near future. I tested an automatic 210 PS and the shift change really looked ..a bit random. I read reviews stating the manual gear is not good eaither. Can anyone help me on this.

  10. Nice Review!! I am a proud owner of one of the first 2006 Aero Verts (6 speed manual) in the US. I have allowed a few of my friends to drive (2006 Mustang vert owner and 2005 GTO owner), they both agree that this car is absolute fun. The Mustang owner likes how it sticks to the road and the GTO guy likes the “extras” you have in the car. Being it is winter here, I told them both (and they agreed)that this car is a lot of fun now, wait till the top is down!!! Next test drive, you may want to ask for the topless AERO version with the manual transmission to get the ride of your life!!

  11. A good succint review. I have two MY01 9-5 Aero and believe me they are a blast in the past of Saab. Nevertheless, the fact that you did not warm to the steering wheel aluminum inserts should not spoil an overall entertaining drive neither the overall objective of the vehicle. The reason why I bought Saab in the first place is similar to design: individualist and not following the norm and therefore your not liking the steering wheel really should have no bearing to a prospective or current buyer of the 9-3. Taste differs and so does the aluminum inserts in the steering wheel. i.e. I do not like the carbon fibre inserts in the dash of some 9-5’s, but other people will die without it or the woodgrain finishing. Otherwise a brilliant review bar the rear-wheel drive brigade. Ironically, my two MY01 9-5 Aero sedans are being traded in as we speak for the 250bhp/350Nm 9-3 Aero with the just released Hirsh upgrade! The upgrade is not official in South Africa, but am taking the plunge.

  12. So how was the 6-speed Auto w/ manual mode? I’m getting ready to buy a 9-3, but I can’t decide whether to get the auto or manual.

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