Saab has always attracted a slightly eclectic and literate fan base. The official stamp of brand quirkiness, the late Kurt Vonnegut, was the owner and manager of “Saab Cape Cod”. Saab has come a long way from the oil-gas mix, two-stroke, two-door sedans Vonnegut blames for robbing him of a Nobel Prize for Literature in, “Have I Got a Car For You”. Luckily for us, we’re not in a temporally twisted parallel universe where Vonnegut sold the equivalent of a 2008 9-3 Sport Sedan 2.0T, otherwise his excellent non-Nobel literature may never have been penned.
From nose to windscreen this is undoubtedly a Saab, with the 9-3 borrowing cues from the Aero X concept. There are nice touches; a larger more predatory front grille flanked by smaller grills, a V-shaped hood, a front spoiler that slips neatly over curbs unscathed, and touches of chrome accent the design. At night the already predatory bi-xenon low-beams are browed menacingly by LEDs. Head on it conveys a fantastic sense of style and purpose.
Reach the windscreen and you’re confronted with a steep aerodynamic rake. If you were stuck in the 80’s with the Saab 900 that might seem distinctly un-Saab. Cast back further and you’ll find the aerodynamically smoothed 92 and 93 of the 50s, a backswept windscreen well ahead of its time, and drag coefficients to make modern cars weep.
Still, I miss the iconic and useful Saab hunchbacked hatch. True, the 9-3’s trunk is capacious (425L/15 cubic-feet), but from behind the 9-3 could be any number of platform cars. Despite the “ice block” inspired taillights for 2008, the 9-3 has lost some Saab uniqueness and authenticity.
That would all be bad news. Except, with sleek and rapacious coupe-like lines, the Saab 9-3 2.0T is a handsome car, especially clad in the deep luxuriant black paint of our tester.
Is the 2008 9-3 2.0T’s interior “from jets” as the banner ads say? No, and that’s a good thing – have you ever been in a cockpit? The shotgun spray of buttons wrapping around confused pilots that has graced previous generations of Saabs has been tidied. Everything is in easy reach, the design is clear, and never once did we need to hunt through the manual searching for buttons with mysterious icons. Are you taking notes BMW and Audi with your Sci-Fi user interfaces?
It takes more than an ignition key by the handbrake to make a Saab, though, there needs to be a sense of liberal up-market to the beast.
Last year a used 1992 Saab 9000CD Turbo incurred into my space, delectably priced at $1,200.00. I would have had it too; the engine bay was clean, over 50% of the options worked, when the turbo kicked in it went like a rhino that’d sat on a hornet’s nest, and the entire package had the solidity of a brick. I was smitten, until I found the passenger door wouldn’t open and a history of six accidents.
Compared to the 1992 9000CD, this modern Saab has lost a sense of opulence to its idiosyncratic style. Soft-touch surfaces are scant, but the switchgear is affirmative and attention to usability clear. It’s not the design or materials that bother, so much as a bargain execution that cheats the 9-3 of competing with Audi, Volvo or BMW.
The handbrake merging into the center console would be slick, if it lined up properly. The driver’s cup holder unfolds out of the dash with what could be lubricity, but instead pauses short of full stop and is delicate enough to invite breakage. The XM radio cuts out every few turns in the city, and the “premium” sound system is more Britney-Spears than Pavarotti.
Our pet peeve? A cruise control implementation that leaves you signaling with every adjustment of the speed.
All that completely fails to matter as soon as you press the throttle. The 2.0 turbocharged inline four is Saab in heart and soul.
This engine is an absolute gem.
Putting out 210hp at 5,500 rpm and 221 ft-lbs of torque from a low 2,500 through to 4000rpm, it’s nearly perfectly matched to the car. Point, press, squirt!
The turbo comes in smooth and pumps the midrange nicely, so the 9-3 briskly accelerates, has ample usable power off the line, and is fun to work through its entire free-revving range. It’s a lovely smooth little power plant with a beguiling balance of power and usability.
It’s even frugal, boasting 9.1l/100km over the course of exuberant testing on both city streets and highways. Engines like this four-cylinder, which feel as potent as a V6, help moderate, in Vonnegut’s words, our “making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels.”
In a world of horsepower gluttony the Saab reminds you how good a “just right” portion can be. Old time Saab-ites might miss the torque steer as the turbo kicks in, but the rest of the world won’t. The smooth operation of the near lag free twin-scroll turbo delivers an easy boost of power, which would be its point.
The only downside is that the brakes don’t feel sharp enough to match the engine’s punt. Stealing some “sport” from the 9-3 Sport Sedan.
The engine is mated to a 6-speed manual transmission, which feels a bit notchy from first to second until it warms up. After that the throws are fluid and easy, if a bit long for a car with sporting pretensions, and complemented by the Astro-glide smooth clutch.
This feeling of liquidity extends to the suspension and handling. A friend once put it that “A Saab is a Volvo that thinks it’s an Alpha Romeo.” The 9-3’s handling bears this comparison blithely.
The suspension balances comfort and handling in an excellent manner. Without resorting to the tooth chattering rigidity of a BMW 3-series, the 9-3 does an excellent job of smoothing out the road.
With a light accurate feel at the wheel, cornering is approached with a carefree loose-limbed confidence and minimal body roll. This is in part thanks to Saab’s “ReAxs”, a multi-link rear suspension setup that allows passive rear-steering through slight deflection of both rear wheels in the opposite direction to the steering input. This helps prevent understeer as the tail of the car more closely follows the direction of the front wheels.
That handling lets the Saab romp through the traffic crowd like a social butterfly hopped up on amphetamines. Aided by good visibility, the 9-3 will gamely slip into slots between vehicles other larger sedans couldn’t even entertain.
Of course we’re Canadian, so winter driving looms on the seasonal horizon. So let’s fire up the heated seats, which put Volvo’s anemic bun warmers to shame, and head north. The rear seating isn’t so congenial to taller passengers, so shorter folks to the back please.
In snow, I like the security of all wheel drive, but eroded fuel economy is the price for lugging that extra insurance around. With the front Continental ContactPro all-season tires scrabbling, and traction control keeping power in check, the front wheel drive 9-3 doesn’t cope, it excels. Demonstrating mountain goat surefootedness, this sweet Swede knows the all weather drill. AWD? Pah!
Vonnegut’s Saab enterprise only ran from 1957 to 1961, failing largely thanks a vehicle that “had a two-stroke rather than a four-stroke engine. So every time you filled your tank with gas you had to pour in a can of oil as well.” Fail to add the oil and “the car would then become fireworks.” That makes us lucky on two counts.
One, the world has known a great author, rather than a successful car dealer.
Two, Saab has matured, and produced the 2008 Saab 9-3 2.0T Sport Sedan. It may not carry the same mystique of previous generations, but it’s a mature and charismatic drive that embodies attainable European flair, solid value, and playful character.
In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut wrote, “Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything.”
A pity Vonnegut never had a chance to drive the new 2008 Saab 9-3 2.0T Sport Sedan, where maturity is no disappointment, and you’ll be laughing through the traffic, straights, and the corners… especially the corners.
2008 Saab 9.3 Sport Sedan 2.0T In Detail:
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0L DOHC four-cylinder
Power: 210 hp @ 5,500 rpm; 221 lb-ft of torque @ 2,500 rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Brakes” Four-wheel disc with ABS
Tires: P235/45R17 (optional)
Price: base/as tested: $35,950/$41,230
- Destination charge $1,400
- Grand Total: 42,630.00
Transport Canada Fuel Economy: 10.7 L/100 km City, 6.9 L/100 km Hwy.
Automatic climate control with electrostatic filter, power windows, door locks and heated mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, heated front seats, leather seats, eight-way power driver’s seat, tilt and telescopic steering column, AM/FM audio system with seven speakers, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, auxiliary audio input jack, leather-wrapped steering wheel, gearshift knob and shift boot, Night Panel, glove box with cooler, OnStar, tire pressure monitoring system, tool kit, fold-down rear seatbacks with 60/40 split
Options as Tested:
17”x7.5” 5-Spoke Alloy Wheels – $995.00
Premium Package – 1,590.00
Xenon headlamps (low beam only), front fog lamps, 8-way power front passenger seat, wood effect trim, rear parking assist.
Audio Package – 995.00
Prestige AM/FM Stereo with 6-Disc CD changer, seek & scan, radio data system, auto tone control, clock, anti-theft feature, 11-speaker Bose Surround Sound w/ Digital Amplifier, XM Satellite Radio with 3 months of free service.
PWR Glass Sunroof – $1600.00