The 2008 Saab 9-3: My drive

2008 Saab 9-3Last 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.

Styling

People will flat-out know what’s about to happen…..

2008 Saab 9-3

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.

2008 Saab 9-3The 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.

Interior

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 πŸ™‚

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.

2008 Saab 9-3

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.

2008 Saab 9-3On 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!!!!!!

The TiD

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.

Saab 9-3 Convertible

The 2.0T

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.

2008 Saab 9-3Will 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.

conclusion

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.

2008 Saab 9-3

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13 Comments

  1. “some of Sweden’s billiard-table-smooth roads”

    Where did you find those? The roads here are generally horrible because of the “winter-proof tarmac”… πŸ™‚

  2. ctm,
    actually, Swedish tarmac’s poor sound dampening is not to achieve winter-proof tarmac, but that’s a different storry. What’s true is thatSwedish tarmac is a really really bad sound-damper. So bad that Toyota some years back had to withdraw an ad campaign for their cars as their statement that it was quiet wasn’t true here, and so bad that some car manufacturers have “Swedish tarmac” on their test tracks (I believe Toyota is one of them now)

  3. Spot on with that review Swade!

    My ’08 car is bedding in nicely at the moment. It gets a lot of attention too. Cars even slow down on the motorway to have a gander, and a lot of these are Audi and BMW drivers. I spot them in my mirrors having a good old look, and then they speed off ahead and slow down again once they spot the light pipes at the front. Methinks the styling may well win over a few sales from the likes of Audi and BMW.

    Let’s face it, the 3 series and A4 look so mundance they would put the creator of Red Bull to sleep. Even the new A4 looks boring, it’s just a slightly larger version of the old A4, with a slightly different light cluster at the rear.

    Agree again that interior quality has to improve. I really do not understand why Saab have not incorporated a HUD of sorts!! For a company that takes pride in its own aircraft heritage, it is madness not to incorporate a HUD. The technology already exists within GM, the Corvette already has a HUD. The current 5 series has this as well. It would help so much with sat nav directions and speed information. Keeping ones eye on the road surely means a safer drive?!?

    I must give kudos to the MP3 music navigator that you get with the sat nav system in Europe. The UI is fabulous, and it displays all of the relevant information.

    Two complaints I have about the sat nav, it doesn’t have a 3D/birdseye view and it doesn’t show your current speed calculated from the GPS signal (which is far more accurate than that of the speedometer in all cars). The re-routing functionality is superb, and it gives you the option to re-route rather than just doing it automatically like in my last Tom Tom sat nav when traffic gets bad (perhaps one could disable it in the Tom Tom, should really have checked πŸ™‚ ).

    I have to highlight the gearbox again, the 6 speed manual gearbox has improved immensely!! It is still as smooth as ever and one is confident of changing gear now. Gearboxes within the GM empire have always been poor, but this one, this one is as good as any I’ve tried in BMW and Audi cars.

    The leather steering wheel is also so much more welcome.

    I’ve taken the baby out a few times in the ‘vert with no issues, heck, even the buggy fits in the boot (hood up of course). The car seat fits easily into the rear too, the ickle bubba likes his Saab journeys. The ride is smooth, and this convertible is so much quiter than the last one!! On our last journey he was actually crying as I put the seat inside, but as soon as we were on the move, the journey relaxed him, don’t really think one can get a better endorsement than that for the cars ride comfort :).

    And the most amazing thing?!? All these improvements in ride comfort have not dented the new models handling ability! In fact, it is a sharper handling car than before, not much sharper, but still enough to detect a distinct imrpovement.

    The car is an absolute gem. GM, you have a jewel in your crown with SAAB, but I’m worried. The marketing seems to be lacklustre outside of the UK and some of the rest of Europe. The interior of the 9-3 needs a lot of work, I still think the carbon leather dash should be standard on the higher spec models such as the Aero and an optional extra on the lower spec ones. This one addition would almost bring the 9-3 interior in contention with the German players.

    Why not have a piano black finish too? It works well and is classy as well as cool. It is also something different from the German contingent.

    Heck, you could call the piano black option ‘Signature design’ and the carbon leather option purely just ‘Carbon’, just a thought.

    The indicator and wiper stalks REALLY have to be improved, they feel cheap when compared to their German rivals, heck, even the lowly Astra has better ones.

    Anyway, apart from these interior annoyances, the car is just fab! LOVE IT!! Saab, and lets not forget GM as people quite often do, have done a great job on this one. It just needs a little more interior quality to really make inroads into the 3 series and A4 domain.

  4. I found a few referenses to what I said above:
    “The Car [Avensis] will be upgraded with a kit for reducing the road noise. This has been a big issue here in Sweden since we have a special tarmac with very rough surface.

    This meant that Toyotas slogan that the Avensis was the quitest car in its class, simply was not true and Toyota had to back off and was actually buying back a new Avensis from a dissatisfied customer.

    Furthermore, Toyota shipped Swedish tarmac to Japan and built a special test track for reaserching the problem. This has resulted in an upgrade that Swedish customers can get if they complain enough.”

    I can also tell you of a problem I had in my first Alfa. While driving through Germany there was they very very quiet clonk-clonk-clonk-sound that was barely audible, but it was clealy there.
    Back in Sweden I had a VERY HARD time proving the sound was there as no tarmac was quiet enough for the mechanics to hear the clonking. I was therefor never able to get the error diagnosed, but I did hear it again during track-days – where the asphalt is smoooooooth.

  5. Agreed, Kaz – you’ve posted a review of your own there! I regret not having a chance to drive the V6 again, but I think they wanted the real motoring journos in that so as to impress – they don’t have to win me over too much πŸ˜‰

    ctm and Trakdah – they must have taken us over the better roads on the drive day in Sweden. I remember the 2008 being much quieter than the 2007 Combi we drove back to Stockholm in.

  6. Swade, if you get a choice of flight on your journey over to the Detroit show, ask for a UK stop over. You would be more than welcome at our place and you could drive my V6 to your hearts content πŸ™‚ Will show you some nice roads too.

  7. Kaz: Agree with you on the HUD. Some complain about the absence of the high-mounted SID but it’s no competitor to a good HUD. My 04 has the SID and it’s useless in the daytime. When the sun shines on it, it can’t be read even when at full brightness. When the sun’s not on it, it goes to dim and still can’t be read except at night. Even my wife’s 01 Aztek has a HUD which can be seen all the time. Now if it were green instead of red, with finer resolution pixels, it would be great in a Saab.
    And Saab always had nice, feather-light-touch to operate turn signal and high beam controls before the GM influence. The olds Saabs seemed to just operate a relay to do the heavy current handling, while GM seems to have put the whole clunky switch in the stalk.
    By the way, nice review.

  8. After the last few days, I needed a happy Saab article. This was it. Thank you!

    That gray SportCombi with roof rails, no sunroof, and nice wheels is a dream…

  9. I was stuck in a toaster/dishwasher/fridge ( sorry Camry) for a few days last week too so I can sympathise . Functional – yes. Involving – no. Ergonomic – no. I could go on but its too depressing.

    WRT BMW & the interior – you’re on the money here. Saab is just not in the premium game.

    Perhaps more realistic to compare with Volvo or Audi though? Volvo interiors these days are pretty good. The’re swedish too after all……

  10. Unfortunately to get the Saab interior on-par or exceeding the luxury of BMW’s you’d have to add the aforementioned Hirsch leather dash kit. In doing so, however, you’ll probably exceed the cost of a comparatively-equipped BMW.

    BTW, I am currently (for the next two weeks) driving a Toyota Camry rental car. I thought the interior materials in the Camry are actually nicer than in the Saab. The soft-touch plastics are better than the hard-touch plastics in the Saab. However, the horrible backlit plastic stereo and a/c controls are an unwelcome sight in the Camry. Heck, even low-cost Pontiac G5 have nicer soft-touch plastics than the Saab. This can’t be solely a cost issue!

  11. I can confirm that the 2008 models are much quieter to the ears. After all the good buzz on the newer models, I’m almost beating myself up for not waiting the extra month(s) to get the new look and kick a$$ accent-brow lights. But i’ll settle for the 2007 9-3 Anniversary edition.

    On a seperate note, can anyone tell me if the Anniversary Editions have the Xenon headlights? Some sources I read loong ago said they did, but I think they don’t. If not, what are the best/brightest bulbs to get for the best HID look?

  12. I am about to buy new Saab 9-3 2008. I’ve owned many Saabs in the past, my favorite 900Turbo Sport Package.

    If anyone has seen the 9-3 2008, any opinions on colors. I am torn between the Snow Silver and Titan Gray Metallic and maybe the Nocturne Blue Metallic..or Black.

    Thanks!

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