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2006 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi

Finally A Saab To Be Proud Of?

    It’s been anything but smooth sailing for Saab since being acquired by GM in 1990. The quirky Swedish automaker has often been criticized for relying on outdated, back-of-the-pack products that cause it to lose money on a scale that impresses even Mike Tyson—and that’s not easy to do. Most of the time Saab opponents seem to outnumber supporters 100 to 1. The latest death threat came from Jerome York, a newly appointed GM board member and investor Kirk Kerkorian’s right-hand man, who called for the company to cut its losses and dump the brand. The latest rumors suggest York has since warmed up to Saab and now believes, as many others inside GM do, that the future business case for the troubled brand might be enough to turn the dim light at the end of the tunnel into a new dawn for Saab. The 9-3 SportCombi we recently tested suggests Saab’s sun may rise sooner than expected.
     We’ll be honest; the 9-3 sedan doesn’t do much for us. It’s perfectly decent in every area, but it competes in a class where decent doesn’t get a second look. There are simply far better cars available for the same money, and until a revised 9-3 shows up our opinion won’t change. Luckily, the new-for-2006 SportCombi faces far less competition in the $30,000 sport-wagon ballgame. It shares everything ahead of the B-pillar with its not-exactly-groundbreaking sedan cousin, but from there back Saab turns up the style a bit. The greenhouse is pinched toward the rear while the roof cuts down to add some dramatic flair, and it works very well. We think the SportCombi is one of the better-looking wagons on the market. It doesn’t hurt that the rear is setoff by a spoiler extension on the top of the liftgate, the taillights are distinctive, and the dual-exhaust tips are neatly integrated into the rear valence.
     That said the design is not without flaws. We don’t understand Saab’s desire to put black plastic rub strips on every car it sells. The SportCombi wears the strips along the side and on both the front and rear bumpers, and it degrades an otherwise clean, European design. On top of that all 9-3 models are hampered by a truly uninspired lower front fascia. Seriously, is this the best Saab designers can do? After the recent debut of the gorgeous Aero X concept, we know the answer is no.
     Turbo power is a Saab tradition, so it’s no surprise to see a small V6 using 9 pounds of boost at the front of the SportCombi’s drivetrain. The all-aluminum engine is shared across the GM family and also powers the base Cadillac CTS sans the turbocharger. It’d be unwise to consider that fact a detriment, however, because this is the most sophisticated turbo engine Saab has ever used, with upgrades like sodium filled exhaust valves, piston oil cooling jets, and stronger connecting rods. It all combines to produce 250 hp at 5,500 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at just 2,000 rpm.
     On top-of-the-line Aero models like ours, a 6-speed manual is standard. We haven’t sampled the available 6-speed automatic, but this might be one of those rare times when we don’t outright endorse the manual just because it’s available. A well-sorted 6-speed auto might outshine the manual’s ropey, disconnected feel. Don’t confuse ropey with difficult. The manual actually works with the soft clutch to provide smooth shifts around town. Most buyers will like that, but it’s our duty to let drivers with an enthusiast itch know this manual isn’t going to scratch that itch like an RX-8 will. We don’t often complain about super smooth engines, but this one is a bit too muted for our tastes. When we’re running hard in the upper range of the tach we like some audible verification that we are indeed running hard in the upper range of the tach.
     Those seeking a responsive, European driving feel will find it in this wagon. The MacPherson strut front and 4-link coil spring rear suspension feature anti-roll bars and the rear even utilizes what Saab calls Re-Axs rear-wheel steering system. It is suffice to say that it works well and the SportCombi never wallows or feels heavy when pushed. The 235/45 17” all-season tires do a fine job in everyday driving and almost everyone liked the 5-spoke alloy wheels on our test car. Large disc brakes and Electronic Brake-Force Distribution are responsible for stopping the 3,285-pound SportCombi and they do a fine job.
     Interior design is another area where Saab does a fine job. The SportCombi uses premium materials throughout the cabin and the doors and seats are finished in a particularly fine grade of leather. Brushed aluminum is another element that combines with the two-tone décor to keep the cabin looking airy and modern. We can’t think of a single complaint about Saab’s interior material selection.
     That doesn’t mean everything is perfect inside. It’s probably not news to you that Saab is known for its questionable ergonomics. It’s here that the Silver Swede falls victim to some truly disastrous components. Yes, the key is between the seats, but that doesn’t bother us a bit. Even the climate controls use large, clearly labeled buttons. But when you work your way to the top of the center stack and find the stereo and “Saab Car Computer” you’ll discover the true meaning of stupidity. There’s no redeeming feature. We can only hope this system dies with this generation of the 9-3 and something far simpler replaces it. The same could be said for the over-engineered lone cupholder that springs forth from the dash in a dazzling display of plastic ballet. We’re pretty sure this cupholder would meet its match at the first Biggie Pepsi to come its way. On the other hand the Nightpanel button is a neat idea that shuts down all the interior illumination except for the speedometer. The standard Xenon headlamps are also worth their weight in gold if you do a lot of driving at night.
     Saab’s SportCombi doesn’t offer all-wheel drive, an important feature these days, but a fully loaded Aero model like ours starts at just $32,900. Add the $550 heated seats and headlamp washers and pony up a little extra for the handsome $550 Parchment Silver Metallic paint and for $34,720 including destination you’ve got a first-class sport wagon. Owners will also enjoy the 28-mpg highway rating, the four-year, 50,000-mile warranty, and the three years of free scheduled maintenance included with every SportCombi. We think it’s safe to say, this is finally a Saab we can be proud of.

The Good:
Smooth V6, distinctive wagon style, top-notch interior materials, 28-mpg on the highway, free scheduled maintenance.
The Bad:
Frustrating stereo, inadequate cupholder, no all-wheel drive, boring front fascia.
The Verdict:
The best Saab for sale today and worth a look for would-be wagon owners.


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