Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Aero range
V6 power, sound and refinement, gearboxes (especially manual), seats, value for money, individuality, safety record
Room for improvement
Dull design inside and out, low-fi plastics, steering could be sharper, ride quality deteriorates on some surfaces
9 Dec 2005
THERE are quite a few theories of relativity hard at work within Saab’s impressive new 9-3 Aero V6 models.
Its in-between size (think of it as a sort of BMW 4 Series, or an Audi A5) means there is more space for your money when you compare it to most of its German rivals.
Yet Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Renault, Peugeot and soon Volkswagen offer roomier ritzy V6 sedans.
Here’s another one: Since Saab’s engine produces 184kW of power and 350Nm of torque, BMW can only match this with the $96,500 330i, so at $72,400 the 9-3 V6 auto is a bargain in contrast.
But that’s also a relative thing because Ford can offer you an FPV Typhoon sedan that blitzes both for $20K less.
What it all adds up to is that Saab isn’t really sitting squarely with any competitor in particular, and that this is progress because historically the Swedes’ relatively anti-establishment ways has always appealed.
That the 9-3 V6 is competent enough that it can be many things to many more people can also help Saab out of its sad sales funk.
And it should, even though the 9-3 – very loosely based on the Opel Vectra that Holden can’t seem to make sell well in Australia – cannot touch a BMW dynamically, Audi for quality perception or Mercedes for status.
This is because it doesn’t fall down badly either in any one area.
The big news is the new engine – and it is a very smooth and tractable V6 by anybody’s estimation.
Power is delivered with deceptively low-key force. Before you know it you’re streaking past the 100km/h mode with plenty of go left in reserve.
And there doesn’t seem to be any real turbo lag to speak of.
The six speed automatic gearbox makes a great partner thanks to smooth shifts, a happy spread of ratios that are well-matched to the V6’s power characteristics, and the Tiptronic-style manual shift interface.
Yet the six-speed manual is arguably the more enjoyable gearbox, with its excellent shift quality and ability to allow the driver to better access the V6’s repertoire.
The fact you can hold and control each gear as you see fit so as to hear the Alloytec’s aural performance is another manual bonus.
Steering that errs on the too-light side for keener drivers is a bit of a disappointment, but get over that and you’ll soon enjoy the sharp handling, calm cornering and surprising lack of lean or body roll.
A drawback here though is a very firm ride on certain road surfaces.
This needs more investigation because everywhere else the 9-3 V6 sedan was driven over roads around Adelaide’s beautiful wine country did not raise any ride issues at all.
And finally the question of torque steer remains.
In sunny weather of very dry roads there was barely a hint of tugging from the front wheels, but there is plenty of power going through them and some previous Saab 9-3 models have been notorious for it.
Superbly supportive seats, excellent instrumentation and good ergonomics – save for that stupid skin-pinching handbrake installation and cheap-feeling steering wheel – add merit to the cabin.
But Saabs do need to be more distinctive inside and out.
Pleasant styling might be enough on a Nissan Maxima but this generation 9-3 is too homogenised to even catch the attention of broad-minded luxury car buyers.
And too much plastic, surrounding a dashboard as non-descript as this, is a no-no. Saab’s GM overlords need to sit inside a pre-1994 900 for inspiration – or even a 2004 Maximum – for a hint of what people expect from this marque.
So, on the strength of a limited drive through lovely countryside and some demanding twisty bits, the V6 turbo sedan is swift, smooth and serene.
All are qualities essential for its role as a relaxing cross-country grand tourer.
In fact success is deserved, and not only because in this guise the 9-3 Aero is both capable and not German.
As the most Australian premium-branded luxury car you can buy (Holden makes the motor in Port Melbourne), it’s also quite literally a relative thing.
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