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Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Aero 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Strong turbo engine, classy interior, hatchback versatility
Room for improvement
Torque steer, tight back seat

Saab logo30 Jul 2001

By MARTON PETTENDY and TIM BRITTEN

YOU won't see Saab's muscular but flawed 9-3 Viggen in Australian showrooms any more, so that leaves the 9-3 Aero as the most powerful model in the 9-3 lineup.

For Saab, this is not a bad thing. The 169kW Viggen was never really a favourite of the motoring press because it clearly had difficulties coping with the prodigious 350Nm of torque produced by its 2.3-litre powerplant. It gave new meaning to the word torque steer.

The 9-3 Aero's suspension and driveline are subjected to an altogether more driver-friendly power output. Only 151kW and 280Nm are to be dealt with. And the engine displaces just 2.0 litres, which is identical to the base 110kW powerplant used in ordinary 9-3 models.

This means that in most circumstances the Aero 9-3 feels steady and assured, faithfully responsive to steering wheel input and still quite rapid on the road.

In most circumstances. Tramp the accelerator when rounding a sharp corner on the other hand and you will suddenly receive a forceful reminder that this is still a front-drive car being asked to cope with a quite decent serve of torque.

That 280Nm may not be as much as the Viggen, but it's being produced by the time the engine is spinning at 2000rpm. This is great for quick manoeuvres in traffic, but it can surprise the driver who is not paying enough attention.

The result is that the Aero - like any car with athletic prowess - takes some time to get to know. Take that time and it will prove to be a faithful, reliable and trustworthy companion.

The Aero comes in three-door 'coupe', five-door 'sedan' (although it's really a hatchback) and convertible forms. The coupe remains the most attractive sporting proposition because it has a slightly lighter, slightly sleeker-looking body than the five-door, and is more structurally taut than the (also quite heavy) convertible.

Squatting purposefully on its six-spoke 17-inch wheels, it looks pretty aggressive for a factory car. The bodykit includes front and rear spoilers and side skirts, all in body colour, while Saab has managed to sit the car beautifully so that the wheel arches are nicely filled.

Inside, there's a pretty complete list of comfort gear, including climate-control air-conditioning, special, shapely, leather-trimmed and power operated seats (with memory on the driver's side), woodgrain on the dash and a six-disc CD stacker - but no sunroof.

The ambience is pure Saab. Passengers certainly feel secure and cosy in the Aero, partly because it's so appealingly Swedish, partly because it's all rather tight inside anyway. The fact that the 9-3 uses bigger, 9-5-based seats contributes to this.

The bottom line is that front seat passengers will be quite gleeful at the luxury and comfort provided by the big, shapely cushions while those in the back will feel a little claustrophic and short on legroom. It's not particularly easy getting into the back either, once again partly due to those big front seats.

But the feelings of quality, of substantial body strength, combine with the elegance of the interior design to compensate. And, of course, there is that massive luggage area behind, where a surprising amount of gear can be stored. Fold both the back seats down and a full-size mountain bike, with wheels intact, can be dropped straight in.

On the road, the Aero coupe proceeds with a calm self-assuredness. Remembering what the early 900s in this series were like, the steering is nicely weighted and relatively quick to respond. There is still the feeling that the car wants more steering lock than most just feeling its way around a corner, but it's a quicker-steering car than its predecessor, particularly in Aero trim.

The suspension is tied down a little tighter, but still feels reasonably compliant in the way it absorbs most bumps. We don't recall experiencing any of the front-end crash-through the 900 was prone to suffering on rough roads. The car feels strong and rattle-free, maybe as it should considering how long this model has actually been around.

The engine, as expected, is a delight. Sure, there is some turbo sluggishness if you try prodding the throttle hard at super-low engine speeds, but it doesn't last long and in just about all cases the Aero builds speed with a satisfying sense of urgency.

This is not just a version of the old 2.0-litre with a little more turbo boost either. It's based on the low-friction design introduced in the 9-5's 2.3-litre version and continued in that model's 2.0-litre engine. The 9-3 was a lot slower getting this latest Saab technology, but at least it's here now and it does give the engine more sparkle.

The brakes, all-wheel discs with electronic brake force distribution, are adequate for the task too. The Saab's brakes were modified early in the 900's life to produce stronger performance and there's no sign of any lack of ability with the Aero's system.

Gearboxes are a little out of touch these days, especially in this class where six-speed manuals and five-speed autos - with sequential shifting - are increasingly common. Both feel a little dated even though no real criticisms can be directed at their ability to deliver.

Saab says the Aero will reach 100km/h in just 7.3 seconds in manual form and will run out to a maximum of 235km/h if you happen to be a resident of the Northern Territory. Economy is not too shabby either with a city figure of 10.0 litres/100km and a highway figure of 6.0 litres/100km. On a cruise, it's often surprising what a powerful engine as efficient as this one can achieve.

Of course the Aero has a difficult task ahead of it competing with all the fresh product coming from its major competitors. One can climb into a BMW 320i coupe (with a 125kW 2.2-litre six-cylinder engine) for not a lot more than the Aero three-door and there are cars like the 154kW Audi S3 4WD to consider for a few thousand dollars extra as well.

A difficult challenge, but Saab management has its feet on the ground and will continue doing everything in its power to get the message across that this is a fast, solid, safe and eminently practical car with a touch of individuality some people will be only too glad to embrace.

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