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Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Tractable turbo V6, silky gearchange, wagon styling, a degree of that Saab individuality
Room for improvement
Aero’s harsh low-speed ride, V6 only in top-spec Aero model

6 Feb 2006

THE premium European wagon segment may not figure largely on everyone’s radar, nor for that matter on VFACTS industry sales figures.

But marques like BMW, Volkswagen, Volvo, Alfa Romeo, Peugeot, Audi and Mercedes-Benz have realised for several years that not everyone wants a juggernaut four-wheel drive wagon when all they need is extra load carrying capacity with a bit of panache offered by a Euro badge.

Now it is Saab’s turn.

The company has unveiled its eagerly awaited 9-3 SportCombi, essentially a wagon version of the capable 9-3 sedan.

Depending on how you describe it, the SportCombi is a wagon or sports hatch and Saab Australia director, Ralph Stevenson said it is whatever you want it to be - how Ikea.

By Stevenson’s own reckoning, the Euro wagon market is growing – up 13 per cent last year and 44 per cent in 2004 - admittedly off a very low base.

That’s got a lot to do with more brands offering wagons, but there is obviously a need and it is one Saab is ready to address.

Importantly too, Saab buyers are a loyal lot so the SportCombi should strike a cord with many who have stood by the brand through thick and thin and are now looking for something with that little bit extra behind the rear seats.

Saab Australia has modest sales expectations of just 200 wagons this year with 80 per cent of buyers tipped to hop into the entry 110kW/240Nm 2.0-litre 9-3 Linear SportCombi, which at $45,400 for the six-speed manual, represents a $2500 premium over the sedan.

If you want to spice things up a tad, a Linear Sport pack is an extra $4000 and offers parking sonar, 17-inch alloys, colour-matched bodykit, foglights and an electric driver’s seat.

The only other model available is the hot turbocharged 184kW V6 Aero, which features an impressively smooth and eminently capable worked version of Holden’s Alloytec V6. However, it is a big jump in price from the Linear 2.0-litre.

With the six-speed manual Aero starting at $72,400 there is a hefty price hike between the four and the six and we cannot help but wonder why no mid-range V6 is offered around the $55,000 mark.

Saab says depending on demand there were options to widen the wagon footprint. Globally there is a 154kW version of the four-cylinder available, a lower-boost V6 that develops 169kW as well as a diesel, but for the time being we will have to contend ourselves with the four or top-end six with nothing in between.

Visually the new Saab is virtually identical to the sedan from the front doors forward.

At the rear the wagon has a stricking wedge-like profile, rising belt-line and Saab’s signature "hockey stick" D-pillar. From the rear the car has a dramatic and impressive looking high-mounted frosted LED tail-lights that run right up to the roofline.

As expected, the SportCombi’s forte is the extra luggage carrying capacity.

The compact rear suspension, carried over from the sedan, delivers 419 litres with the rear seats upright and 1273 litres when folded.

The shape of the luggage area is also largely free of intrusion from the suspension and the rear door opens wide and high, allowing easy loading.

Of course being Swedish there is a degree of practicality to the car as well with the usual 60/40 split fold mechanism that also includes a ski-hatch.

An optional fold flat passenger seat on the Linear can increase load length for long objects and like many Europeans a rear luggage net makes sure loads remain contained under severe braking.

The nifty aircraft-shaped handle in the luggage floor accesses more secure storage areas under the floor.

As your would expect of a $70,000 car, the Aero SportCombi is well equipped and should acquit itself reasonably well against the Audi A4 Avant, Mercedes-Benz C-class wagon, Alfa Romeo 156 Sportswagon and BMW 3 Series Touring, as well as the Volvo V50 and Peugeot 407 Touring.

However, many of these vehicles also hover in the $50,000 to $60,000 price-point so the Saab Linear SportCombi should be something of a bargain for many buyers.

As expected of the high-performance Aero V6, it comes with the appropriate bodykit, 17-inch alloys, expected safety gear of ABS with EBD, brake assist, corner brake control, traction control, and electronic stability control plus. A full-size spare is also included.

A full surfeit of airbags and impressive strong body complete the safety sell while inside there are hip-huggin’ sports leather heated seats and steering wheel, cruise control, Saab’s effective night panel function, automatic climate control, refrigerated glove box, electric windows and mirrors, six-disc in-dash CD stereo, foglights, rain-sensing wipers and sonar park assistance.

Although the Linear is likely to be the most popular model we spent all of the launch drive in the more powerful V6 Aero.

The V6 delivers impressive power and torque. With 184kW on tap at 5500rpm and 350Nm from 1800rpm it behaves like a large V8 with the free-revving ability and quietness of a Japanese six.

The V6 turbo has already acquitted itself well as one of the world’s best engines, winning the Ward’s 10 best engine awards 2006 for its "outstanding mix of performance and refinement".

With almost 30 years experience in turbocharged engines you would expect the turbocharged V6 to be a well-sorted engine and it is.

Firstly, for the technically minded the engine is a lightweight aluminium design with twin-scroll turbocharger for smooth response without turbo-lag.

Variable cam phasing allows improved breathing and low emissions while the twin-exhaust offers the appropriate sporty engine note.

The twin-scroll, water-cooled Mitsubishi turbocharger operates at a relatively modest 0.6 bar boost with intercooling and integral bypass valve. It is mounted centrally above the transmission and fed by both banks of cylinders to deliver impressive mid-range response rather than outright low-speed performance.

Despite that, the Aero will hit 100km/h in 6.9 seconds and sale on to a top speed that will put you in front of the magistrate but it is the impressive mid-range acceleration that never fails to impress.

The $2500 six-speed Aisin automatic, with steering wheel mounted buttons, is impressively silky and perfectly matched to the engine’s characteristics. A close-ratio six-speed manual is also available.

The auto is of the latest-generation thinking, which means it will adapt to driver usage patterns and road conditions, thus eliminating that irritating in-gear "hunting" that besets some automatics when faced with increased load or changing road conditions.

The engine, transmission and impressively strong body tick all the right boxes and once under way, the V6 almost hides its capabilities until you stomp firmly on the accelerator.

Around town you’d barely even think the quiet wagon is any different to the Linear SportCombi.

The ride, however, is firm - almost harsh for a daily commute - with a fierce bump rebound that will unsettle the cabin on anything but ultra-smooth surfaces.

The low-profile tyres also contribute to the firm ride, the tyres slapping over concrete expansion joints and making the ride feel generally fidgety at low-speeds until you start building up pace.

At this point the Aero comes into its own. The firm suspension, pin-sharp steering and fine handling characteristics mark this Saab as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The Aero can be punted into corners and hustled with confidence, knowing the powerful discs will slow the car appropriately and the free-spinning turbo six will dispense with slower traffic in the blink of an eye.

For the enthusiastic driver the Aero is a rewarding drive but there is a trade-off for the precise handling, and that’s the somewhat aggressive suspension settings.

Some other brands manage to dial in some compliance and suppleness into their wagon offerings – Audi comes to mind – while at the same time delivering the sort of performance enthusiasts enjoy.

The Aero may be at the top of the wish-list for many but we await a drive of the more sober 2.0-litre Linear wagon, which forgoes the Aero’s sports suspension and hot V6.

Practicality may then outweigh outright performance.

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