Saab Vs Volvo

I’ve been inviting all comers to send in their stories about experiences they have with other brands of automobile, and if/how they relate to their Saabs. It’s made for some pretty good reading so far, with a number of people gaining a enw appreciation for their Saabs.

It’s also been one of those confirming things. The press don’t often understand how great a daily driver a Saab is, or how fantastic the performance/comfort/safety/utility combination is.

This latest instalment comes from David N. My thinks go to David for taking the time to write up this entertaining review.

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My family and I have always been GM folks. My Father, now retired, had worked for GM since he graduated High School. At the time GMI (the university GM created to train more engineers to design cars, called the General Motor Institute in Flint Michigan) was a co-op University, so he literally worked at GM his entire career except for a stint in the Navy. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, the son of an engineer, so I’ve always been a car guy.

In 2000 I was given the opportunity to move to the UK for year long expat, so I jumped at the chance. Before I left, my boss, who is also a car guy, made sure to find out what cars we’d be driving once we were on the other side of the pond. I was told a Volvo V40 was in my future. So I drove to a local Volvo dealership and had a good look because I wasn’t too familiar with the Swede’s lineup, having had an eye for the offerings from Detroit.

It looked good, a bit small, but I was bringing my bike and was planning on doing a lot of traveling so I thought it’d be handy to have the little station wagon. So I told the boss that the V40 would be fine for the year.

Well, a year turned into 18 months, and I put well over 20,000 miles on it in that time, driving it nearly every day, to nearly every nook and cranny of England, Ireland, and Wales. I only missed Scotland because I was lazy and took the overnight train instead, but my co-worker took it up there a couple of times, so this little Volvo got around.

When I came back to the States, having been out of the domestic market for 18 months, I wasn’t aware of what cars were available, and ended up buying one of the last Oldsmobile’s built (nearly identical to the one that I sold 18 months earlier!). Unfortunately one snowy night in northern Michigan on our way home to Chicago, my wife and I, and 52 other cars, were in an accident. We were both unhurt, but the Olds was written off.

Time for a new car from the GM stable.

At the time, the Holden-built-rebadged-as-Pontiac GTO had recently come out, and had caught my eye. But I didn’t like the idea of paying the “Gas Guzzler” tax on it. Not to mention buying gas for it a couple times a week. But it was on the table. I had read about the Subaru-built-rebadged-as-Saab 9-2x, and thought: 244hp and AWD, and MUCH better gas mileage than a GTO, plus the mini-station wagon platform like the V40, how could I go wrong?

So I ended up at the only Saab dealer I knew of in the area (next door to the Volvo dealer!), and took a 9-2x automatic out for a test drive. It should have been a great test drive, because it was lightly snowing, cold, a bit slippery, etc. I was very excited. Pulling into traffic on the test drive, I’m thinking “244 all-wheel-drive horsepower…Wheee!”.

We almost got hit when I pulled out of the lot.

This was not the Aero version with 244HP that I’d heard so much about. This is the Linear with the lethargic auto. I suspect that the turbo still hadn’t been woken up since it’s long trip from Japan. There was no get-up-and-go to be found. Plus the wife complained that there wasn’t much legroom in the backseat, which sealed the deal.

The salesman, being the good salesman that he was, suggested that we take the 9-3 for a quick test drive, which we did. Night and day difference, and that was driving the 9-3 Linear.

To make a long story short, I eventually parked my brand new 2005 Chili Red 5-speed 9-3 Aero (with nearly every bell and whistle) in my garage. Thank you GM Employee/Family discount! This was March, 2005. Since then I’ve put just over of 38,000 miles on the Saab.

To this day, I still want to take a picture of it every morning and send it to your website because I think it’s that good looking. I still love it that I can be lazy on the highway, and not take it out of 5th gear to pass. I still love it that if I really want to make a show of it on the highway, I can drop it to 4th or even 3rd, while I build boost before dropping the clutch and rocketing away. I love it that when I took it to a race track last year, my friend in his V6 Infinity G35 Coupe, had trouble keeping up with the Saab. Good times. And the Stage 1 BSR kit didn’t hurt on the track… but it killed cruise control (another story).

Having said all that, I think I’ve made a pretty good case as one who could compare a 2005 Saab 9-3 Aero to an unknown year RHD Volvo V40 2.0l. I’m guessing that the Volvo was a 98 or 99.

Now onto the comparison!

Interior fit and finish:

The Volvo had a nice feel to it, the leather seats were quite supple, and very comfortable. The ergonomics of the controls were good, although the radio was a bit confusing. Everything was pretty good, but nothing very impressive. The knobs and buttons did their job, and that was it. The build quality was very good, especially considering that this car had been beaten by a number of previous expat drivers, including me. No rattles or squeaks while I had it. The audio from the radio was disappointing. The interior space was good, no problem dropping the rear seats and throwing 2 filthy bikes in. Materials of the dash and drivers area were nice, if somewhat plastic, but of good quality both visually and tacitly. Volvo likes their big chunky-looking buttons and switches, which I find similar to the 9-5’s controls. The radio controls and a couple of other switches were clearly designed for LHD cars and were slightly awkward for the driver to reach, but I guess that’s the way of the world.

The Saab has a great sporty feel to the interior. Although some complain about too many buttons on the ’03-06 radio and climate controls, I like it that way. I think that the SID is a great idea and I wish the Volvo had had something like that so I wasn’t staring at the radio trying to figure out what it was doing while driving. However the Saab’s interior build quality probably isn’t as good as the Volvo, as I’ve had to fix a couple of squeaks and rattles. The interior materials of the Saab are generally of better quality in both look and feel. I like that the buttons have a nice non-slip feel to them, are responsive, easy to reach, and self-explanatory, while not being distracting. The seats are comfortable, but sometimes I think they were designed for people taller than my 5’8″ frame (tall Swede’s maybe?). I think the lumbar support is too high for somebody my size. The Saab definitely has more bells and whistles than the Volvo, and the use and enjoyment of those is really a personal taste. Personally, I enjoy all the bells and whistles I can get my hands on. Bells and whistles aside, the interior is quite comfortable, and infinitely adjustable, and the ride is quiet, and controlled.

Road manners and handling:

The Volvo, although peppy, can not really be called quick. It was always felt solid at highway speed, but anything above 65MPH, and it had absolutely unbelievable wind noise. I thought that this might be due in part to the tires, which I had changed, but that did not help. It was just wind noise. To overcome this wind noise, I would turn the radio way up, which only pointed out the shortcomings of the audio system. So there I am rocketing down the motorway, feeble radio cranked too far up, trying vainly to drown out the awesome wind noise! The Brits probably all thought I was crazy.

In the handling department, the understeer of the Volvo was amazing. It would simply push through roundabouts, even at relatively modest speeds. This made it feel very heavy, and tank-like. And the 2.0l wasn’t enough to pull out of the apex smartly, which added to the feeling of weight. My boss was driving a base model FWD 1.8l turbo Audi A4, and he could take the round-abouts considerably faster than I could. In my mind the Volvo is a good around-town/grocery-getter kind of car. It could have been a very nice tourer if they did something about that blasted wind noise.

I can’t say how the Volvo performs in winter or snow. I know it did not have traction control because I once got stuck in Ireland on a sheet of ice.

The Saab is quick, and has no problems passing on the highway in any gear. Some might say that the downside to this is a bit of turbo lag. While there is a touch of lag, I really enjoy it. I have had the Saab well past the legal speed limit of several states, and it’s always felt rock-solid, and very quiet. A little too quiet sometimes when the windows are up, as I find myself watching the tachometer during downshifts.

On the race track, the Saab is a solid performer, and although I know it will eventually understeer, I didn’t have the nerve to push it that hard. In other words, the car had more to give than I was willing to ask for. On the track, the only issue was coming out of the apex when the weight shifted to the back, the front-inside tire would lighten up to the point where I could hear it starting to spin. That is more a testament to my (poor) driving skills than the quality of the car.

The only issue I’ve had with the Saab on the road is with winter driving. The stock Pirelli P6’s on the Aero are poor performers in the snow and cold. The lowered stance and extra skirt puts the Aero in contact with a lot of snow and ice, which sometimes worries me. However, the ABS and TCS do a good job of keeping me out of trouble both in the snow and on the track.

The Aero has a stiffer suspension that the other 9-3’s , so the ride in the Saab is a bit harsher, especially over rough pavement, than the V40. But the same could be said about the Aero verses the Linear and Arc, so it really comes down to a personal preference. On rough highways, the V40 is a bit of a nicer ride. On smooth twisty roads, the Saab wins hands down. The Volvo doesn’t communicate enough of the road feel to the driver, and the 9-3 communicates plenty without being overly harsh.

Did I like the V40?
Yes, because it always tried to do everything I asked for, it just couldn’t always deliver.

Would I trade my Saab for another V40?
Hahahah…Don’t make me laugh!

Were there things about the V40 that I liked better than the Saab?
I didn’t have to pay for it, and a pretty big trunk.

Would I change something about the Saab to make it like the Volvo?
Get the sport-combi and endure my wife calling me an old man.

Would I like to see the Saab bring back the hatch?
You bet. Maybe not on the 9-3, but on a new Saab designed 9-2 or new 9-1.

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11 Comments

  1. One should keep in mind, that the previous S40/V40 never received any praise for the dynamic qualities. It was also named the Volvo Carisma, sharing the underpinnings with possibly the dullest Mitsubishi ever…

    Entertaining read, though.

  2. A couple of reasons, Adam.

    1. Because we can.

    2. Because the Olds was written off and that really wouldn’t have been a fair comparo.

    3. Because David really loves his 9-3 and that’s a good thing.

    There’s a mild comparison with the 9-2x in there as well and basically it’s just a well written piece.

  3. A well written report of a Saab lover. But this comparison to the old fashioned Volvo doesn´t tell us which brand owns the first position.

  4. I’ve driven the current S40, and it kinda covers the same ground as the old one.

    Although that floating console is quite nice.

    It understeers too much, and is not as much fun as the 9-3. It’s also MUCH MUCH smaller inside. To the point where it feels claustrophobic.

    The S40 is based on the Focus, so really shouldn’t even be sold in the same market segment as the 9-3. This is poor show from Volvo, who are just fleecing their customers, selling them a small exec family car at large exec family car prices!

  5. I’ve recently driven the Mini S, 9-2X Aero, Mazdaspeed6, V50T5, G35X, and Jetta GLI (all ’05/06). However, the last time I drove the new 9-3 was ’03 and it was the 2.0t. My friend has a new 9-3 Aero but I haven’t driven it. My car is a Viggen. If anyone is interested I could put together a few notes.

  6. For a car guy, he doesn’t actually know very much about the 9-2x. The Aero was never 244 horsepower, it was 227. And the Linear’s sluggish-ness wasn’t due to a turbo – it didn’t have one.

    What likely happened is that he drove an automatic Aero, which is definitely sluggish – you have to be kind of rough on the car to get it up into a range where the turbo does something interesting, which the auto doesn’t do.

    But that kind of intro is the kind of thing that makes you folks doubt Saab reviews… in this case, it’s making me doubt the other way :).

  7. Adam, yes, put something together Swade. Better yet, get your friend to hand over the keys of his Aero. Nothing wrong with another comparison or two!

    Perhaps I’m the only one, but I wasn’t really impressed with the same Ovlov floating console that everyone else soils themselves over…

    I took an ’07 S80 for a spin, and the only tangible benefit was that the buttons were closer within reach. Great, but so does my ’02 9-5. And if you put anything behind the console in that little nook, you’ll have a hell of a time groping around blindly for whatever you put back there. Imagine searching for a small object like another set of keys or spare change! You’d nearly have to stick your head under the steering wheel to find what you’re looking for…

    But like I said, maybe it’s just me.

  8. No, it’s not just you!
    I’ve driven some s40 and v50 during the last 12 months. And I have never ever driven such noicy and plastic car in that price segment.
    Premium my ***!
    I’ve also driven the Ford Focus (the cousine) and it sonds even more. The Focus MY05 is much better than the MY06 and MY07 in this regard.

    The floating console is a good advertising gimmic, nothing else… I my mind.

  9. I’m deciding whether it is for sale. The problem is, it is 7 years old and since 115,000 miles it has been giving me a lot of problems. Right now, it requires about $5000 of work (new tranny, new shocks, new brakes, some other work) and I’ve put about $2k into it in the last year and a half. For a car worth about $8500, it seems excessive, even though I love the car, so I was exploring my options. I’m stuck where I can’t really afford to fix the Viggen but I can’t afford anything new either. Damn educational loans.

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