The 9-3 is one of a long line of small sedans and coupes from Saab. Although Saab has sold cars in the U.S. since the late '50s, it wasn't until the debut of the 900 in 1979 that mainstream car buyers really became aware of the Swedish carmaker. Sales grew throughout the '80s, as the 900's unusual styling and turbo power plants made it an offbeat alternative to the typically staid offerings from Germany. The original 900 enjoyed a long production run of nearly 15 years until it was finally replaced by an all-new version in 1994.
For the 1999 model year, the 900 became the Saab 9-3. Along with the name change came upgrades to the suspension, steering and interior furnishings, as well as a minor exterior freshening. This was also the year that GM took full ownership of the company. Minor enhancements over the next several years kept the Saab 9-3 fresh, but stiff competition in the entry-luxury segment called for an all-new design. The sedan got a roof-to-rubber makeover in 2003, and the convertible followed suit in 2004. For 2006, a wagon called the SportCombi joins the ranks.
Even though Saab's signature hatchback body style is gone, the 9-3 is still easily identifiable as a Saab car because of its familiar body lines to its aircraft-inspired cockpit. The tradition continues under the hood where the 9-3 relies on two turbocharged engines for motivation. There's a base 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 210 hp and a more muscular 2.8-liter, turbocharged V6 capable of 250 hp. Power is sent through the front wheels, but improved steering system design all but erases the torque steer that plagued previous models. When compared to the competition, the Saab 9-3 stacks up favorably as one of the better-handling front-wheel-drive cars on the market. With the arrival of the SportCombi this year, the 9-3's agile handling characteristics may now be enjoyed in a practical sedan, a utility-packed wagon, or a top-down weekend cruiser. The brakes on all three are powerful, and the steering is quick and responsive in the turns. The base turbo feels more powerful than its 210-horsepower rating would suggest, and the 2.8-liter boasts even greater athleticism.
On the inside, the Saab 9-3 offers a modern-looking design and plenty of high-tech features, including a rollover protection system in the convertible. The sedan and SportCombi wagon offer more passenger space than the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4, while the trunk is one of the biggest in its class. There's no doubt that the new turbo V6 provides a welcome boost to the 9-3 range, which was previously at a bit of a disadvantage against German and Japanese competitors. Whichever body style you choose, the 2006 Saab 9-3 is a distinctive alternative, with enough performance, style and practicality to keep all the smart money from leaning toward a 3 Series and A4.
The Saab 9-3 is available in sedan, wagon (called the SportCombi) and convertible body styles, all of which come in 2.0T and Aero trim. The 2.0T trim offers full leather seating, a 150-watt stereo, keyless entry, stability control, an eight-way power driver seat, dual-zone automatic climate control and 16-inch alloy wheels. The sporty Aero model adds bolstered sport seats, chrome instrument surrounds and interior trim, a lower body kit, a lowered sport suspension, a 300-watt stereo and 17-inch alloy wheels. Convertibles come with a fully automatic power top. Options across both trims include seat heaters, bi-HID headlights and a DVD-based navigation system.
Some climate and stereo controls can be difficult to operate, but a standard "profiler" system allows drivers to program a host of individual settings that can be recalled at the press of a button. The sedan and the wagon are sufficiently roomy, but legroom can be tight for adults seated in the back of the convertible. The Saab 9-3 can carry more than most cars in its class; it offers 15 cubic feet of trunk space in the sedan and 12.4 cubes in the convertible. The wagon offers 14.8 cubic feet of storage space with the backseat up, and 45 cubic feet with the 60/40-split rear bench seat folded flat.
Two engines are available on the Saab 9-3. Standard on 2.0T models is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four that makes 210 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. Aero models get a 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 capable of 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. All 2.0T models get a standard five-speed manual gearbox, while Aeros get a six-speed manual. A five-speed automatic with manual-shift capability is optional on 2.0Ts, while Aeros are eligible for a six-speed automatic.
The 2006 Saab 9-3 is one of the better-handling front-drive cars on the road. A stiff chassis translates into a car that's easy to place in the corners and satisfyingly precise on the highway. Still, we wish the sporty Aero model felt a little sharper when driven aggressively on twisty roads. Both engines deliver a strong pull throughout their power band. The V6 is especially impressive, though it does suffer from turbo lag at low rpm. The automatics downshift quickly but can be slow on upshifts, while the manual transmissions shift just fine but tend to feel rubbery through the gates.
The Saab 9-3 features active head restraints and seat-mounted side torso airbags. The sedan and SportCombi wagon come with full-length side curtain airbags, while convertibles get a rollover protection system that integrates pop-up roll bars, reinforced A-pillars and the front seatbelt pre-tensioners. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and traction and stability control are standard on all models. The Saab car was named a "Best Pick" in frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests conducted by the IIHS.
A new wagon body style called the SportCombi has been added to the Saab 9-3 lineup for 2006. Additionally, Aero models get a new, more powerful turbocharged V6, which packs 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Linear and Arc trims have been merged into a single base 2.0T trim, and the Aero's old 210-hp turbo four is standard on this model. Finally, all 9-3s now come with body-colored door handles.