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Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Aero 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space, on-road competence, build quality
Room for improvement
Choppy low-speed ride, average performance of 1.6-litre version

30 Mar 2001

SAAB has made a concerted effort to add sparkle to the 9-3 range over the past 12 months with a number of sporting variants joining the line-up.

The limited edition Monte Carlo - launched in May, 1999 - was the first sporty addition to the 9-3 range and it was followed three months later by the Viggen, the fastest car produced by Saab.

The Aero continues the theme established by the Monte Carlo and Viggen, offering brisk performance in a refined, practical package.

Its performance and visual appeal are boosted by a tweaked engine, uprated suspension, full body kit and chunky alloy wheels shod with low-profile rubber.

Unlike the Viggen, which is available only in coupe or convertible form, the Aero is also offered in five-door configuration.

The Aero nameplate is not new - it first appeared on the original 900 in 1984 and subsequently adorned the larger 9000 from 1993 onwards.

The 9-3 Aero has a higher power output than any of its direct rivals, which may make it a popular choice with performance enthusiasts also seeking prestige and exclusivity.

At its heart lies a turbocharged, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine based on the powerplant introduced in the 9-5 last year.

Unlike the 9-5's engine, which features a low-pressure turbocharger, the Aero uses a full-pressure blower that boosts power to an impressive 151kW at 5500rpm and torque to 280Nm from 2200 to 4600rpm.

With a not too hefty kerb weight of 1363kg, performance is brisk although obviously not in the same league as the Subaru Impreza WRX.

The manufacturer claims the manual 9-3 Aero can accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in 7.3 seconds on its way to a top speed of 235km/h.

The Saab engine is undoubtedly one of the smoothest four-cylinder powerplants on the market. Exploring the upper reaches of the rev band results in a sporting thrum being emitted by the chrome tailpipe but there is no trace of harshness.

A surge of acceleration is on tap from the point maximum torque is developed at 2200rpm, but slip below this figure in the higher gears and the engine goes off the boil dramatically.

What this means is that you cannot dawdle around town in top gear if you want sufficient reserves of acceleration to take advantage of gaps in traffic. Not that this is an unusual problem with a high-output turbo engine the WRX, for one, suffers a similar problem.

Third gear in the Saab keeps the engine in the optimum rev range around town while fourth is ideal for 80km/h zones.

Given the need to use the gearbox reasonably frequently, it is just as well the five-speed transmission is a reasonably slick, user-friendly item. The clutch is also well-weighted and progressive.

Refinement levels are impressive with road and wind noise kept well suppressed.

Ride quality, always a bone of contention before the 900 model became the 9-3 in 1998, is also beyond reproach although the front suspension can get a bit crashy over some speed humps.

Although Saab says the Aero's suspension has been uprated to match its sporting aspirations, it still feels more oriented towards ride comfort.

Pushing the car through corners reveals slightly disappointing levels of body roll and a strong tendency to understeer.

The chassis certainly does not feel as taut and agile as the Audi A4 1.8 quattro - arguably the benchmark in the segment.

Hooking into tight corners results in the nose pushing wide and the body leaning over to a greater degree than expected in a performance-oriented car.

The power assisted rack-and-pinion steering is well weighted but the lack of feedback it provides compromises the level of driver involvement.

With up to 151kW driving the front wheels, torque steer is also not too far away should you choose to bury the right foot in first or second gear.

What this means is that the Aero does not encourage the driver to hustle through corners in the manner that, say, an Alfa Romeo 156 would. And it certainly is no handful like its 2.3-litre, 169kW sibling, the Viggen coupe.

Nevertheless, the Saab would probably be a better proposition on the highway where its refinement and effortless top-end performance would come into their own.

Occupants are cosseted by the beautifully crafted leather-lined interior, which is both comfortable and aesthetically pleasing.

The electrically adjustable driver's seat makes it easy to assume a comfortable position behind the wheel, which is adjustable for reach but not height.

The leather upholstered seats - from the bigger 9-5 model - offer sufficient lumbar support and would, no doubt, prove comfortable on long trips.

Rear-seat passengers have ample headroom but thanks to the big front seats, legroom is at a premium, particularly if locked in behind a tall front-seat occupant.

The cabin layout is standard Saab with a clean, simple instrument display featuring the "night panel" design in which the driver can shut down all but the most important illumination, while the ignition key, as usual, is located between the two front seats.

Rear visibility is not one of the car's fortes and the high rump means reverse parking requires a bit of guesswork on the part of the driver.

Boot space is huge, measuring 451 litres with the rear seat upright. The rear seat folds down completely to swallow a bicycle without qualms, or can be split 60/40.

There is little lacking in the standard equipment list which includes dual front and side airbags, automatic climate control, a six-stack CD player, cruise control, trip computer, remote central locking, power windows and mirrors, heated front seats, leather steering wheel and leather upholstery.

An anti-lock braking system with electronic brake force distribution is also standard.

Externally, the car is distinguishable from its lesser siblings by its front and rear spoilers, side skirts, rear bumper extension and 6.5x16-inch alloy wheels.

The modifications are low-key, perhaps in view of the conservative tastes of most Saab buyers.

Overall, the 9-3 Aero is a refined package that excels on the open road. Its build quality is beyond reproach and it provides the security of Saab's renowned safety levels.

On the downside, the newcomer lacks the flair, agility and sure-footed cornering capabilities of some of its rivals - most notably the Audi A4 1.8 quattro and Alfa Romeo 156.

Nevertheless, if it is comfort, understated style and effortless cruising capability you are after, the 9-3 Aero may fit the bill perfectly.

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