Last week I jumped on a plane to Melbourne to participate in the press launch for the 2008 Saab 9-3. I’d driven the car once already, a TTiD back in June at the worldwide launch in Sweden. But I couldn’t wait to get back into it again. I was very keen to finally get my hands on a gasoline version – and I wasn’t disappointed.
The Saab 9-3 has to be good. It supports the Saab brand at the moment, with around 70% of worldwide sales coming from its three body styles – Sport Sedan, SportCombi and Convertible. From my previous experience in Sweden I was convinced that the 2008 version was better, much better, than the 2007 model it replaces. But five months later on a cold spring morning in Melbourne it dawned on me that this drive day would be a much more sober experience than the whirlwind that was a press day in Sweden.
Would the car live up to my own expectations and memories?
I’m pleased to say that it definitely did in most respects, though there was still one important area where I was left wanting.
Click on any of the photos to enlarge.
People will flat-out know what’s about to happen…..
I love the new look of the Saab 9-3. I think it’s much more distinctive and adds a touch of purpose, almost to the point of aggression, that the 9-3 was missing. Whilst I enjoyed the stance of the previous model, the front was just beginning to date in my eyes and I think this more deliberate front end will stand up to the two or three years it has to serve quite well.
Some have been critical of the new door handles and the removal of the rubbing strips, but I’m not personally fussed by either of them. The door handles are a matter of no importance to me personally, providing they’re still as strong as the previous ones, which were part of the safety makeup of the car. I don’t know if that’s the case so I can’t comment on that. I do have a more considered opinion on the removal of the rubbing strips, however, and from a visual point of view I think it looks a lot better.
The new tail lamps are always going to be a matter of personal opinion. I think they look better with some colors than with others (and great on black convertibles!), but over all I feel quite sure that like the 9-5 as a whole, this element of the re-design will definitely grow on me. All the best Saab designs have taken some time to mature and be accepted, and I have a feeling that it’ll be the same with the bolder elements of the 2008 Saab 9-3.
Getting back into the Saab 9-3 was like coming back to a favourite holiday destination. I can’t say it was like coming home because I don’t own one, but I’m definitely happy to visit at every opportunity.
I’ll still count myself as one who favours the button dashboard that was used on the pre-2007 models. That said, I’ve grown accustomed to the new controls and there’s little argument that just about every feature of the car is easier to access and operate now. It just won’t look anywhere near as good at night 🙂
The seats are Saab seats, so there’s no reason for complaint there. Both vehicles that I drove during the test drive – a TiD and a 2.0T – had leather interiors. One in black and the other in parchment. I’m particularly fond of the black seats, though there’s still something missing from the 9-3 interior, and that’s my major bug with the car.
I love the layout of the 9-3. The driving position is great and I’d even get accustomed to the non-button dash without too many issues. But to me the interior is one of the most important parts of the car as it’s where the driver spends the vast majority of his/her time.
I had the distinct displeasure of driving a Toyota Camry shortly after my return home. The Saab 9-3 interior materials are definitely a step up from those used in the Camry and the design is light years ahead. But to properly measure where the 9-3 is at I went and checked out our local BMW Autohaus today. Whilst I still much prefer the cockpit layout of the 9-3 over the BMW 3-series, I can’t help but give the 3-series the nod because of two crucial things: quality and variety.
On quality: The Saab 9-3 dash materials are better than the Camry but not as good as the BMW. The sad part for me is that they’re closer to the Camry end of that scale. This is an issue that has to change. On variety: BMW offer around seven different textile finishes with a number of trim finishes as well, from 2 aluminium finishes to a number of timber finishes. Saab offer parchment or black for the seats and the dash is all black all the time.
Minimalist? Yes. As interesting as it could be? No.
I’d be quite satisfied if I’d spent my $43K on a Linear Sport version, but if I’d splashed out around $70K for an Aero then I’d definitely be looking for something different and better. The Saab tops both of them in terms of layout and design. It performs all the functions that the BMW performs plus more. The value for money is outstanding compared to other European cars.
It just doesn’t make you feel quite as special as it should. If I purchased a Saab 9-3 I’d move heaven and earth to get my mits on one of those Hirsch carbon leather dash kits to add some class to the inside.
Layout – top marks. Materials – C’mon!!!!!!
Modern diesels are a wonderful thing and it’s no surprise that Saab Australia’s 15%-plus rise in sales this year has coincided with the introduction of the diesel powerplant in the 9-3 model range.
The SportCombi that I drove for two out of the three legs of the drive was a TiD, using the 1.9 litre common rail four cylinder diesel unit that’s been available here for most of the year. It was coupled with Saab’s six-speed sentronic transmission, which in 2008 has the added bonus of a sport mode button. I found it a little odd that the button was mounted on the dashboard, but it’s still a welcome addition.
The diesel runs as smooth as I remembered from my first drive back in January. The addition of the sport mode does give it a tad more aggression, however, and it’s a great little performer. The low-end torque is just amazing and the car seems like it’ll pull forever. The diesel runs quiet and the only real difference you notice from inside the car is that it doesn’t rev quite as high as it’s gasoline powered counterpart. Outside, you’ll still hear the clickety-clack of the engine, but the quiet package has worked some wonders and from the inside, it’s all …. quiet.
This convertible has nothing to do with this review. I didn’t drive it. But it looks so good in white I just had to show it.
This was the engine I was dying to drive, and it was the only one with which I had no prior experience. Given that this is the base engine in the US, and the old Aero engine, I was hanging out to give it a whirl.
And it didn’t disappoint.
The 2.0T is consistently rated by members of the automotive press as the most suitable unit for the 9-3. It has that Saab 4-cylinder character to it and once it spools up – minimal delays apply – it really is a lot of fun.
I noticed the sport mode a lot more with this engine than what I did with the TiD. There’s a marked difference in the character of the engine. Sport mode with the 2.0T really is for some aggressive driving. We carved through some of the curves outside Healesville and it really was a joy to see this modern Saab acting like older Saabs I’ve driven over the years.
Will it understeer? Yes, if it’s pushed. But have some fun around the twisties and stay within your limitations (the car’s limits are likely to be much higher than yours) and this car will reward you again and again.
And did I mention that the 2.0T that I drove was a SportCombi as well? This body has really been well designed and the only thing that lets you know you’re driving a Combi rather than a sedan is the amount of stuff you can pile into the back.
Sport mode in the 2.0T really is for attacking the road. I left it on as we cruised through Melbourne’s peak hour traffic (albeit we were headed inbound rather than outbound) and found it searching for the right gear from time to time. Perhaps the electronic wizards underneath needed a little time to learn my footwork? Cruising traffic in normal mode, as I did later in the trip, was a bit more relaxing.
Every change they’ve made to the 2008 Saab 9-3 has proven to be worthwhile. The car looks better, it rides better and over all, it’s a better car for the money – as new models should be.
The added insulation – that’s the quiet package to you Americans – is a welcome trickle-down from Cadillac (thanks for something). Whilst it wasn’t as quiet as I remember from driving on some of Sweden’s billiard-table-smooth roads, it made for a very relaxing environment.
The one thing they didn’t touch much, the interior, still leaves me wanting in terms of materials, but it makes up for this in terms of design, equipment and functionality.
The one thing you have to do is go and drive the 2008 Saab 9-3 for yourself. I find it a more rewarding experience every time I do.