Saab 9-3

With so many entry-level luxury car choices from Germany, Japan and America, it's easy to overlook the Swedish Saab 9-3. But the truth is, the Saab 9-3 could be a great match for buyers looking for a spacious, safe and comfortable automobile with a proven safety record and a distinctly modern attitude.
Today's 9-3 lineup is the latest in Saab's long line of near-luxury cars dating back to the 1970s. Offered in a variety of body styles, with abundant cargo space and frugal yet powerful engines, it has always represented a competitively priced, character-laden alternative to the me-too near-luxury offerings from other manufacturers.
Though the unique and practical 9-3 hatchbacks were discontinued after the 2002 model year, the 9-3 family continues to be offered in multiple body styles: a four-door sedan, two-door convertible and four-door wagon, the latter called "SportCombi." All utilize small-displacement, turbocharged engines that extract big power while salvaging respectable fuel economy. Recent examples have been made available with V6s as a step up from one of Saab's traditionally lively four-cylinders. Furthermore, the Saab 9-3 tends to be priced aggressively, at least in sedan and wagon form. Convertible models have always been a bit less of a bargain.
Among the Saab 9-3's chief shortcomings are its lower performance thresholds and somewhat cut-rate interior in comparison with German and Japanese competitors. Still, it remains a good bet for near-luxury car shoppers seeking something different in a class of look-alikes.
Current Saab 9-3
Today's Saab 9-3 is sold in three body styles: sedan, SportCombi wagon and convertible. Sedan and SportCombi models feel spacious, with low floors, upright windows and seating for five, though three in the rear seat can be tight. Legroom in particular is a sore spot. Convertible models have a rear seat for two adults of small-to-average size. Cargo room in all models is generous.
The 2.0T trim is only available with front-wheel drive and is powered by a turbocharged 210-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. When equipped with front-wheel drive, the Aero trim comes with a turbocharged, 255-hp 2.8-liter V6 mated to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, and rides on a sport-tuned suspension. The all-wheel-drive Aero XWD gets a higher-boost version of the turbo-4, making 280 hp and 295 pound-feet of torque. We'd suggest driving enthusiasts opt for this choice. Another option is the Turbo X limited edition of the Aero XWD, which features larger wheels, lowered and firmer suspension with self-leveling shock absorbers, larger brakes and sportier trim.
Inside, dramatic two-tone color schemes with lots of matte-black finishes create an intense, distinctly Scandinavian ambience. Longstanding Saab-isms remain, including a floor-mounted ignition switch and a "Night Panel" button that darkens all non-essential dashboard lights to reduce eye fatigue. However, the climate and audio controls are now generic, ergonomically friendly GM units.
One of Saab's strongest suits is safety. Thus, the 9-3 offers two-stage side seat-mounted airbags, curtain airbags on sedan and wagon models, whiplash-reducing head restraints, stability control and antilock brakes with Brake Assist.
Editorial reviews have praised the Saab 9-3 as one of the better-handling front-wheel-drive cars on the market, while taking note of its comfortable front seats and cavernous cargo areas, even in the convertible. The Aero in particular, although expensive, has a lightweight, agile feel missing from many of its competitors. Complaints focus on a sometimes harsh ride quality, turbo lag and a sense of quality far short of its German and Japanese competition.
Past Saab 9-3 Models
Shoppers interested in a used Saab 9-3 should note that the vehicle has changed some since 2003. Originally, the vehicle was available in three trim levels. The base Linear and more luxurious Arc shared a turbocharged 175-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and nearly identical styling. The Vector wore sportier clothes, rode lower and offered a 210-hp version of the same engine, which was also optional on the Arc. The 9-3 Convertible appeared in 2004, followed by the SportCombi wagon in 2006. In 2005, Vector models were renamed Aero.
In 2006, the base Linear trim level and its weak motor were dropped, while the Arc was renamed 2.0T and gained the 210-hp engine as standard. The Aero received the 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 that year. All 9-3s got an interior freshening for '07, including less bizarre climate and audio controls. The all-wheel-drive Aero sedan and wagon arrived for 2008, along with the limited "Turbo X" edition.
The original Saab 9-3 debuted in 1999. Less a new model than a new name, the 9-3 took over for its Saab 900 predecessor and featured a mildly upgraded interior and revised chassis turning. Other than that, this 9-3 was pretty much the same as the 1994-'98 years of the 900. It was available in three body styles: a two-door hatchback, a four-door hatchback and a convertible.
The first-generation 9-3 is considered one of the last true Saabs. Designed before General Motors took over Saab in 2000, the 9-3 possessed all the eccentricities and quirks that Saab-o-philes consider sacred: temperamental keyholes in the floor, rounded, jet-fighter-like wraparound windshields and bustle-back styling on the hatchbacks.
Early 9-3s were offered with lively turbocharged four-cylinder engines. In 1999, base models produced 185 hp, while next up the ladder were the SE models with 205 hp and 9-3 Viggen models with 230. By 2002, base models were dropped, leaving the SE as the entry-level 9-3.
The most extroverted of the original 9-3s was the convertible. One of the first convertibles to offer a completely one-touch power top, as well as the ability to open and close all four windows with one button, the Saab 9-3 convertible also boasted one of the largest trunks in its class and a generous amount of side glass for good outward vision.
First-generation 9-3s generally provide a decent amount of feature content and safety. Their body structures are built to last, but due to spotty assembly quality, their interiors may not be. Editors at the time couldn't overlook the original 9-3's numerous shortcomings, but nonetheless were smitten by the 9-3's charm and dare-to-be-different packaging. As long as a broken-in 9-3 isn't a broken 9-3, it could be a compelling used-car option -- just be prepared for the generally high maintenance and repair costs that come with owning a European import.

Saab 9-5

The midsize Saab 9-5 is meant to appeal to buyers desiring a midsize entry-level luxury car with a strong theme of Swedish design. Through the years, the 9-5 has been available in several trim levels -- the high-performance Aero being the most familiar -- and in both sedan and wagon body styles.
Our editors initially thought pretty highly of the Saab 9-5 at its debut in 1999. But as the years have gone on, other manufacturers have redesigned their entry-level luxury cars for better performance and comfort and more advanced features. In an entry-luxury sedan comparison test conducted about five years ago, we ranked the 9-5 last in a group of six cars.
The Saab 9-5 has not been redesigned since its debut, though it did receive a recent update for the 2006 model year that included an exterior face-lift, a retuned suspension and a new control layout. However, we still find fault with the 9-5's choppy ride quality on uneven pavement and unrefined power delivery from its turbocharged, 2.3-liter engine. In addition, wind and road noise levels are higher than they should be in an entry-level sedan and wagon.
While the 9-5 SportCombi wagon is still a reasonable choice for family use or as an SUV alternative, given its sizable cargo capacity, in general the 9-5 is outclassed by its competition when it comes to what's important: refined luxury and engaging performance.
Current Saab 9-5
The entry-level luxury Saab 9-5 midsize sedan and SportCombi wagon are available in 2.3T and Aero trim levels. A turbocharged 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder rated at 260 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque powers all 9-5s. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; optional is a five-speed automatic with Sport and Manual modes.
Although the standard 2.3T equipment list includes most major luxury amenities, including heated leather seats, dual-zone automatic climate control and Harman Kardon sound, the Aero trim level is a worthwhile upgrade. It fits the car with a sport-tuned suspension that improves the car's handling capabilities. All 9-5 models feature active head restraints and front-seat side-impact airbags (that protect both heads and torsos), antilock disc brakes and stability/traction control. Unfortunately, the midsize Saab offers no airbag protection for rear-seat occupants.
Most drivers will find the Saab 9-5's seats exceptionally comfortable, especially those equipped with optional heating and ventilation. Materials quality could use improvement in some areas, but passenger room is excellent all around. A split-folding rear seat and nearly 16 cubic feet of trunk space give the 9-5 an added level of versatility; the SportCombi wagon supplies up to 73 cubic feet of cargo space for those with lots to carry.
Recent chassis upgrades provide perceptively improved handling, and together with a relatively low curb weight, give the Saab 9-5 a nimble feel through the corners. Competitors have sharper reflexes, though, and torque steer remains an issue under hard acceleration due to its front-wheel-drive layout. Ride quality is reasonably smooth, but still a little harsh over bumps.
Past Saab 9-5 Models
The Saab 9-5 sedan debuted in 1999 as a replacement for the 9000 and has undergone a few revisions since then. The 9-5 retained much of its predecessor's distinctive lines, but replaced the 9000's five-door hatchback design with a more traditional four-door sedan arrangement. The wagon variant followed a year later. In the beginning, the 9-5's lineup consisted of a base 9-5 model, an SE version packed with amenities and a performance-oriented Aero model.
The standard 2.3-liter turbo four-cylinder in the Saab 9-5 base models produced 185 hp (170 hp for '99) and was mated to a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission. The 9-5 Aero versions featured a 230-horse, 2.3-liter turbo four with a manual transmission. Initially, the 9-5 SE could be powered by either the light-pressure 2.3-liter (170 hp) or a 200-hp, 3.0-liter turbo V6, but starting with the 2000 model year, all SEs had the V6 and the four-speed automatic.
Although it looked similar, the 2002 9-5 underwent extensive reworking. Three distinct models (Linear, Arc and Aero) now had their own style and equipment specs: The previous year's base model became the Linear and offered the 185-hp turbo four, while the SE became the luxury-oriented Arc and had the turbo V6. In addition, a new five-speed automatic was available across the line, and the 9-5 Aero got a power boost to 250 hp. Revisions to steering and suspension helped dynamic performance, while electronic stability control and adaptive front airbags further improved safety. From a used-vehicle purchasing standpoint, going with an '02 or newer Saab 9-5 is probably a good idea.
Detail changes carried through to 2004, when feature content was shuffled. The Linear model was made a wagon-only trim level and the Arc model dropped its 200-hp V6 in favor of a 220-hp turbo-4. DVD-based navigation was added to the 2005 options list, and in '06, the 9-5 received updated exterior styling, a revised suspension and a slight hp boost to the high-output 2.3-liter turbo-4. Additionally, the wagon was renamed the SportCombi, and the familiar Linear, Arc and Aero trim levels went away in favor of 2.3T and Aero for both the sedan and wagon.
Saab 9-7X

When is a Saab not a Saab? Certainly, the 9-7X, the company's first SUV, has Saab's signature grille, requisite badging and floor-mounted ignition. But underneath the Swedish veneer is General Motors' midsize SUV platform, which means that the 9-7X shares its core mechanicals with GM's aged truck-based midsize SUV family (including mostly defunct models from Buick Chevy, GMC, Isuzu and Oldsmobile).
The Saab 9-7X thus feels like a trucky GM SUV that was taken to Sweden to get an infusion of Saab character, which -- no surprise -- is exactly what it is. It's like putting Uncle Sam in a Viking helmet. In spite of Saab's best efforts at altering the interior and exterior styling and revising the vehicle's suspension tuning, it can't hide the fact that the 9-7X is limited by its heritage. As a choice for a luxury SUV, it's mediocre. We feel most consumers will be happier with other choices, such as Acura's MDX or Mercedes' M-Class.
Current Saab 9-7X
The Saab 9-7X is available in three trims: 4.2i, 5.3i and Aero. The 4.2i comes with a 4.2-liter inline-6 engine with 290 horsepower. The 5.3i has a 300-hp 5.3 V8 with considerably more torque than the 4.2-liter. The Aero gets a 6.0-liter V8 good for 390 hp and 395 pound-feet of torque. The only transmission available on the 9-7X is a four-speed automatic. All-wheel-drive, a limited-slip differential, traction control and stability control are standard.
All trims come loaded with standard features such as leather seating, heated front seats, a premium Bose stereo with six-CD changer, satellite radio and OnStar. Side curtain airbags are also included. The only major options are a navigation system and a rear-seat entertainment system. The Aero gets a performance-tuned chassis, 20-inch wheels and sport trim.
The fact that the 9-7X doesn't come with a turbocharged engine is one good clue that the vehicle isn't a real Saab, and the layout of the interior is another. Despite some classic Saab features, such as the cockpit-style dash, the soft-touch knobs and a center-console-mounted ignition, the interior still looks very GM. Wood-grain trim and leather upholstery give the cabin a Euro-inspired upscale look, however.
The 9-7X seats five. Third-row seating, a feature becoming more common on vehicles in this class, isn't available. There is plenty of cargo space, though, with 80 cubic feet when the rear seats are folded.
In reviews of the Saab 9-7X, we found that this SUV's positive attributes include a smooth ride and well-weighted steering. The Aero, in particular, offers a surprising level of performance. One strong criticism we had was regarding the four-speed automatic transmission, which can't match the efficiency or smoothness of the five- or six-speed transmissions in other luxury SUVs. Otherwise, our affection for the 9-7X is only slightly greater than that of its GM SUV platform mates -- which isn't very high.
Past Saab 9-7X Models
The Saab 9-7X debuted for the 2006 model year. The introduction of the Aero model for 2008 is the only significant update.

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