2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X SportCombiPosted on September 29th, 2008
Updated sport wagon features available all-wheel drive
By Nina Russin
Three years ago, the Saab 9-3 SportCombi won our Active Lifestyle Vehicle award in the best value, on-road category. Athletes who test drove the Saab loved its sporty performance and ergonomic interior. Despite its small footprint, they were able to slip a road bike in back without removing either of the wheels.
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a new 9-3 SportCombi Aero on a road trip to California’s central valley. The twelve-hundred mile route included a combination of urban freeways around Los Angeles, and winding two-lane roads through the mountains near Sequoia National Park.
A late summer heat wave drove temperatures in the California desert over a hundred ten degrees, testing the car’s cooling and air conditioning systems. I also compared my average fuel economy with the EPA’s twenty-six mile-per-gallon estimate.
Turbocharging and all-wheel drive enhance performance
The upscale Aero grade comes with a turbocharged six-cylinder engine rated at 255 horsepower and a six-speed manual gearbox. Intelligent all-wheel drive is standard, improving traction on slippery roads.
Eighteen-inch wheels with low-profile Pirelli tires are great for driving at speed, but not well suited for dirt roads where rocks and roots could bend the rims. An aggressive chin spoiler that seems to get hung up on every driveway would not survive long in the wilderness.
Temperature changes of up to fifty degrees each day of the trip put the standard tire pressure monitoring system to the test: tires frequently fell below recommended inflation levels in the cooler morning air.
The turbocharged six-cylinder engine has exceptional low end torque. For those readers not familiar with how turbocharging works, blowers driven off the exhaust stream enhance power by improving airflow through the engine.
In the past, turbocharging got a bad rep for coking oil and reducing engine life. But modern turbochargers have more progressive boost patterns and better lubrication systems. Engineers have also eliminated the turbo-lag, that made for uneven acceleration.
Big overdrive gears on the six-speed automatic transmission allowed me to maximize fuel economy on deserted stretches of highway between Phoenix and Los Angeles. By keeping the car in sixth gear and making liberal use of cruise control, I was able to average about twenty-five miles-per-gallon.
Overdrive gears on manual transmissions can be anemic, but they’re not on the Saab. Because the turbocharger enhances the car’s low end torque, it’s possible to drive in sixth gear and maintain plenty of power for hills and passing. In fact, I was able to use the gear in most of the drive through the Angeles Crest mountains, while maintaining speeds of about eighty miles-per-hour.
Chassis tuned for performance
Driving the freeways in and around Los Angeles inevitably brings out the Mr. Hyde in me. It’s hard not to drive aggressively when surrounded by six lanes of traffic on a mission. The fact that I tend to forget which ramps exit to the left or right doesn’t help.
Fortunately, the 9-3 SportCombi makes quick lane changes easy. The rack-and-pinion steering has a very positive feel at speed, and the sport-tuned independent suspension makes it all but impossible to break the wheels loose in a turn.
Standard electronic stability program modifies wheel speed to prevent the driver from losing control due to excessive yaw. Standard four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel antilock braking help the sport wagon stop in linear fashion on a variety of road surfaces.
Better night vision
Xenon cornering headlamps, standard on the Aero grade, adjust horizontally in conjunction with the steering to improve visibility. A winding stretch of road near Three Rivers, California allowed me to put the feature to the test.
Three Rivers, which is a couple miles east of the Sequoia National Forest, was the site of the wedding my husband and I were attending. At night, the two-lane road between Three Rivers and the nearby town of Visalia is dark and treacherous. The mountains provide plenty of blind corners and decreasing radius turns.
Not wanting to blind drivers in the oncoming lane with high beams, I used the low beams for much of the drive. The headlamps provided a long and wide enough beam to safely negotiate the road while maintaining speeds of between fifty-five and sixty-five miles-per-hour.
The intelligent all-wheel drive system automatically transfers torque to the wheels with the best traction. In combination with the low-profile tires, gives the SportCombi an especially stable footprint. Saab’s “reaxs” system adjusts the caster of the rear wheels to enhance rear axle stability.
Good stalks, bad stalks
When automakers first came up with the idea of using stalks off the steering wheel to combine a variety of accessories, it was an improvement over the myriad of buttons and knobs they replaced. Since then, new and better ways of doing the same thing have emerged: controls that mimic the function of a computer mouse, and better controls on the steering wheel itself are two examples.
Though I usually like the way Saab designs driver controls, the stalks on the 9-3 are a big disappointment. The cruise control actuators are combined with the turn signals on one stalk. Every time I accelerated or decelerated using the cruise control, I mistakenly flashed the turn signals as well.
A second stalk that controls the front and rear windshield wipers is equally frustrating: not at all intuitive, and hard to use properly without taking one’s eyes off the road. I know that Saab has featured computer-style controls on some of its concept cars. I’d love to see something along those lines replace the outdated stalks on the 9-3.
With the exception of the steering wheel stalks, the SportCombi’s interior lives up to Saab’s people-friendly reputation. Simple knobs on the vents make them easy to adjust: dual-zone climate controls keep both the driver and front passenger comfortable.
Eight-way power seats, standard on the Aero, are easy to adjust, and provide excellent lower lumbar control. As a runner whose had more than her share of back problems, any car I can sit comfortably in for five or six hours earns my respect.
Redundant steering wheel controls allow the driver to adjust the standard satellite radio and other audio functions with a minimum of distraction. Audio and HVAC controls on the center stack are easy to reach from either front seating position.
The rear seats have plenty of legroom for two adults: the center console makes the middle rear position a little cramped. The rear seats fold flat to create an even longer cargo floor that easily meets our bicycle-friendly standards.
An airplane-shaped handle lifts up the cargo floor to reveal a small storage area underneath. The SportCombi’s low liftover height makes it easy to load large items in back.
The 9-3 SportCombi comes standard with front, side and side curtain airbags, and active head restraints. A cold weather package on the test car adds high pressure headlamp washers: a boon for drivers in snowy climates.
Base price on the Aero grade is $42,565, not including a $745 delivery charge. The cold weather package and a touring package that adds rear park assist, driver’s seat memory and an automatic dimming rear-view mirror with compass adds $1445 to the sticker price.
Saab builds the 9-3 SportCombi at its assembly plant in Trollhattan, Sweden.
Likes: Outstanding performance makes Saab’s versatile wagon as much fun to drive as a sport sedan. Standard all-wheel drive improves traction on wet roads, while the sport-tuned suspension keeps the wheels glued to the ground in the corners. A large cargo bay with a low liftover height makes the SportCombi a great choice for active buyers.
Dislikes: Stalks on the steering wheel are poorly designed and hard to use.
Model: 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi
Base price: $42,565
As tested: $44,755
Horsepower: 255 Hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 258 lbs.-ft. @ 2000 rpm
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: Yes
Fuel economy: 16/26 mpg city/highway
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