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Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Aero sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Value, equipment, ergonomics, comfort, safety, performance, handling, styling, luggage accommodation
Room for improvement
Loss of Aero sedan bodystyle, handbrake operation, cruise control position, trip computer logic

23 Dec 2003

HEROES come and go, but Saab’s top muscle car, the Aero, has enjoyed something of a charmed, extended life since it first appeared in the 1980s as a highly desirable variant of the then 900-series coupe.

So good was the Saab Aero that it appeared on many top-10 lists. Even today, it is seen as something of a fringe-market collector’s item.

The Aero badge has never been applied lightly by Saab. It has always implied a balance of power and suspension agility and has been seen on not just the original 900, but also on 9000, previous 9-3 and current 9-5 models.

Consistent with the careful integration philosophy, the name was not used on the 165kW 9-3 Viggen that shrieked and torque-steered its way onto Australian roads in 1999.

Now, we have a new Saab 9-3 Aero and it virtually goes without saying it’s a far better package than any previous 9-3 version.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about it is that it’s a sedan, not a coupe, not even a hatchback, and therefore looks pretty mild compared with some previous Aeros.

But it could never be said the running gear is not balanced engine, transmission and suspension are better matched than any high-power Saab we’ve yet driven.

The overriding sense is of a harmony of suspension and engine ability, based on the theory that one should never overstep the other.

This works particularly well with the latest 9-3, notwithstanding its non-coupe status. As we already know, the new chassis is a massive advance over the previous car, which is really no surprise because that little-lamented platform dated back to the early 90s.

The new, all-independent suspension is a thoroughly modern design with absolutely no connection with what went before, and offers a combination of a good ride, and lively, responsible handling. It also feeds back far better steering feel to the driver.

The 2.0-litre engine is new, too, although based on similar design concepts. It is, though, now all-alloy, meaning it contributes to the 9-3’s improved overall balance.

The Aero’s power output is close to that of the previous - also 2.0-litre – 9-3 Aero engine, with 155kW at a very conservative 5300rpm. A larger turbo, which bumps the boost from the 0.70 bar of the 129kW Arc/Vector 9-3 engine to 0.85 bar, as well as more aggressive camshafts, heft the torque figure to no less than 300Nm – again at a pretty low 2300rpm.

So the power-weight ratio of the Aero 9-3 contributes to a fair turn of performance. Saab claims a 0-100km/h time of 7.5 seconds for the manual version, which is reasonable, although the auto barely makes the grade at a claimed nine seconds for the same sprint.

The manual transmission, by the way, is a Saab-built six-speeder with a tighter set of ratios than the five-speed gearbox used in other 9-3s.

The Aero’s suspension is a more tied-down version of the system that has transformed the way a Saab with 9-3 badges drives. Up front it’s a MacPherson strut design, like before, but it has no relationship other than the base concept.

With a wider track and different geometry, as well as de-coupled top mountings that separate shock absorber and spring loadings, and a hollow section sub-frame mounting the lower control arms, the system is combined with a new four-link, independent rear-end (the previous model used a solid beam axle) with passive rear-wheel steer and is something of a revelation compared to what went before.

All this is backed up with advanced electronic systems that include – as on all 9-3 models – dynamic stability control, cornering brake control (maintains stability if the brakes are applied hard in mid-corner), traction control and the usual ABS system incorporating brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution.

The Aero is dressed up lightly, quite subtly in fact, but its lower stance and larger wheels help give it a more authoritative look. Bi-Xenon headlights and parking sensors are standard.

Inside, it gets "premium" leather sports seats (it’s the top model in the 9-3 range, after all) and a splashing of matt chrome on the doors and centre console.

The sound system is also better than other 9-3s, with three amplifiers and 13 speakers as well as a six-disc, in-dash CD stacker. A sunroof is standard, both front seats are heated and power-operated and there’s a car phone, too.

That’s all fine for the top model in the 9-3 range but, perhaps what is more important is how the Aero goes.

To be sure, it’s not the most extroverted Saab Aero yet as far as its looks are concerned, but it keeps the flame burning in terms of dynamic ability.

As you might expect with a larger turbo and more aggressive camshaft profile it’s not as flexible as the lower-power engines. Getting off the line in first gear (in manual models) requires some attention, otherwise the Saab will tend to feel a little sluggish as it winds up boost.

It’s nothing like the turbo lag that afflicted early forced induction designs – particularly Saabs – and it’s certainly not unusual when you’re forcing so much power out of a relatively small engine (ask any Subaru WRX driver) but the driver needs to be prepared if a quick getaway is required.

Under way, the 300Nm of torque begins to assert itself and the Aero begins to pile on the revs – and acceleration.

The six-speed gearbox is smooth changing, and so is the clutch, so getting the Aero to proceed in a dignified manner is not difficult. The ride also proves to be quite absorbent, a little firmer than regular 9-3s but not unpleasant if you remember this is supposed to be a sports model.

The payoff is even sharper steering and even more road grip which, once you’ve got the hang of extracting the most from the engine, makes the Aero a fast, agile, point to point car.

Nine-Three brickbats, such as the silly handbrake lever that pinches the fingers when released, a hideaway cruise control on a left-hand steering column stalk that takes some getting used to and a new trip computer system that virtually outsmarts itself by being less than intuitive to use, are offset against bouquets for things like the practical split-fold rear seat controls in the 425-litre boot and the generally simple and easily understood instrument display.

Like the rest of the new 9-3 range, the Aero offers practicality as well as space and comfort and, of course, high safety standards.

The Aero, like all 9-3s, gets dual front airbags, side front airbags and side curtain airbags.

It was a wise thing, really, to refrain from overpowering the Aero. The concept of restraint is well adhered to, although it seems a pity that the coupe look is a thing of the past.

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