C-D on the Sport Combi

Car & Driver frequently go by the initials C & D. Based on the initials alone and forgetting the “and”, I like to refer to them occasionally as the Confederacy of Dunces. Being an Aussie, i’m not a regular reader of this long-established tome, but I got my first real taste of their style last year when they did a comparo of $35,000 sedans, ripping the guts out of the 9-3 Aero V6 in the process.

The Confederacy are chiefs among BMW’s flag-bearers, more than willing to take a literary dagger to an upstart such as Saab. Actually, they just love anything German, but BMW in particular. On the front of their web page right now (29 June) there’s seven stories concerned with German cars, 4 of which are BMW’s.

Differences are dismissed as deficiencies. Engineering adequacy will be summarily cancelled by poor cup-holders or some such irrelevancy. If it ain’t Bavarian, then bring it back when it is.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in 1967, C&D tested the Saab 96 and said “push it for several hours, preferably on mountainous and less-than throughway type, and you tend to be absolutely thunderstuck”. But that was then, this is now.

I should be nicer actually, as the Confederacy have just published a new article on the 9-3 SportCombi and in comparison with the lashing they gave the 9-3 Sports Sedan in that $35K comparo, this write-up is positively glowing. It’ll appear in your August edition of C&D, which may not even be in the news stands yet for all I know.

So let’s read just a little and deal with it. The writer in this instance is Tony Swan.

First, the setup. Many articles that you read will have a hook at the beginning, one that’s meant to not only draw you in further, but one that also acts as a point of resolution at the end.

Tony?

Semantic bulletin: “SportCombi” is not yet another attempt to avoid the term “wagon”. Saab’s publicity materials don’t dance around the w-word, refreshing in the age of station-wagon euphemisms.

What the term does attempt is to conjure up the days when Saabs were quirky Swedish creations with a big cult following, rooted in a performance rep built on rally achievements.

OK, pretty standard start. Saab’s not Saab anymore……

I have almost no idea what he means by this:

The ignition-key location, down between the front seats, is one manifestation of this wistful remembrance of things fast, when Saab defiantly mounted its ignition locks in the floor.

Perhaps he meant “things past”. Maybe he’s saying the cars are slower than they used to be, or the current floor-mount is deferential rather than defiant, if it ever was defiant anyway. I think the Swedes saw it as “safe”.

Let’s skip ahead a little…..

Shorn of marketing attempts at reviving that old black magic, what we have here is a premium wagon version of the mid-size 9-3 sedan, a car that owes a lot to Germany (read “Opel”) and very little to Sweden.

I knew they’d get Germany in here some how!!

Yet another motoring scribe that doesn’t do his homework. Epsilon debuted with the Saab 9-3 and there are many common parts, but the Saab is a separate and distinct vehicle. Go ask Peter Augustsson or Carl-Peter Forster about the fibre optics etc.

But I digress. This is about the 9-3 SportCombi and eventually they talk about it:

That going-away view is important, because that’s central to the car’s concept – pulling away from the herd. A key part of the SportCombi’s allure, according to Saab, is that it combines a sporty persona with wagon utility: SportCombi. Get it?

We confess we had doubts about the sport part. The suspension is on the soft side, and this, plenty of suspension travel, ads up to more body roll than we associate with sporty rides. But we were pleasantly surprised by this wagon’s high cornering speeds, brisk directional changes, and accurate steering.

It may even be that some drivers will appreciate the uninhibited body motions, which enhance the sense of back-road drama. At the same time, we have no doubt that any driver will appreciate the car’s smooth ride quality.

And now the important bit. The part where C&D start to prove to an angry Saab blogger that perhaps they’re not that Confederacy of Dunces after all.

Maybe, just maybe, they get it.

In a way, these dynamic traits provide a stronger link with the past than hoary old touchstones like the console ignition switch.

This is the way the old 900 Turbos behaved, right down to the front-drive power delivery: hints of turbo lag, slightly rubbery shifting, but plenty of willing spirit at the apex, when the driver summons everything the engine’s got to pull out of a corner.

Well, they’re sort of getting it. Saabs weren’t actually built for the track, they were developed for safe, spirited motoring. Yes, they’ll take to the twisties with aplomb, but a Saab’s testimony and real character comes out on the open road, where it eats up the miles and gets you around any obstacles, be they vehicular or otherwise, with consumate ease.

They’re not on the money, but they’re getting closer.

They go on to praise the engine and the cargo space, then deal with the pricing….

But the bigger reservation is the price. The base four-cylinder edition starts at $27,620, undercutting the Audi A4 and BMW 325Xi wagons, which both come with all-wheel drive that’s not available on the front-drive SportCombi.

But with a base of $33,620, the SportCombi Aero begins to look a little pricey, even with a substantial array of luxoid standard features. You could strap yourself into a Hemi-powered Dodge Magnum RT for less.

You could get yourself into a Dodge Magnum, but then you wouldn’t be as safe or as well equipped and your car, that one that you see all over the place, would still look like a Dodge in 5 years time, meaning the rest of the world would have well and truly passed it by. Saab owners know that nearly all Saab designs not only look sensational, but they transcend fashion rather than following it.

They finish well. And of course they get out that GM-Saab-ain’t-Saab-anymore hook:

Then again, Saab’s tradition has always been transportation that rolls to a slightly different beat. We have to say that in this, at least, GM’s stewardship has been benign.

I’d encourage anyone with access to pick up the August Car and Driver and have a read of the full report. Despite my willingness to sink the slipper on this occasion, it’s a much more genuine assessment than the last look they took at the 9-3.

The SportCombi is one heck of a vehicle. Fantastic to look at, better to drive and genuinely practical as well. C&D managed to draw all three out and put them to print.

Credit where credit’s due.

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5 Comments

  1. Swade: Another great post. I was a Car & Driver subscriber until the mid-1990’s when the magazine started to wane in size and technical content. I enjoyed the clever humor and blunt talk (except that blowhard Brock Yates). As Wikipedia.com puts it:

    The magazine once had an irreverent tone and habit of “telling it like it is”, especially with regard to underperforming automobiles, which endeared it to readers. However, this has diminished in recent years, and the magazine’s writing is no longer dramatically different editorially from other car magazines.

    I’ll buy the August issue to study up.

    P.S. If the key between the seats is an ‘hoary touchstone’ then what should they be saying about the current Ford Mustang and Mini Cooper? (Eye roll.)

  2. I agree that C & D has lost its touch. I, too, used to subscribe but let it lapse. Part of it was I could never recognize the cars I loved in the magazine when they wrote about them (i.e., Saab).

    Of course, the height of absurdity was that desert comparison, testing a turbocharged car in 116 degree heat and then complaining about performance, while ranking a 3-series BMW first when it broke down and IIRC nearly caused serious injury during the test (explained away as insignificant flaws in a new iteration).

    And the Dodge Magnum? Great concept, but it’s too aggressively styled (and it’s more aggressive in person than is captured in pictures). The 9-3SC will be around in its present form long after the Magnum is dead and buried. There’s a reason classic styles persist.

  3. Swade, you say: “Epsilon debuted with the Saab 9-3”

    The Epsilon platform actually debuted with the Opel (Vauxhall) Vectra. It was intended to debut with Saab, but Saab the Saab 9-3 actually came to market a little after the Vectra.

  4. Just got the new issue of C/D and went straight for the 9-3 story. My reaction: I’m drafting a letter to Tony Swan and it’s not going to be very complementary. True, it’s a rather positive review, and he was surprised with the car. But he just doesn’t understand that the ignition is more than nostalgic, and the car itself is not just an Opel in drag. And what really bugs me is the fact that it’s unlikely someone who looks at a Magnum with a Hemi will also look at an 9-3 Aero. They’re two different cars with two different personalities for two different drivers. Oh well.

  5. Actually, C & D loves to bash Mercedes-Benzes as well. Though, you are quite right they have ritualistically torn apart most every Saab in comparison tests against Audi and BMW.

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