Though the 9-3 is the most mainstream car ever sold by Saab, it remains a niche choice among entry-level luxury sedans, wagons and convertibles. This works both to its benefit and detriment. On the upside, the Saab 9-3 has a distinct Scandinavian charm. Its styling looks as modern as any peer's, yet its design cues are a refreshing break from the mainline aesthetic. On the downside, its middle-of-the-road driving dynamics and interior furnishings are forgettable in a class that demands excellence. With a full redesign still a couple years off, Saab has attempted to extend the 9-3's shelf life by giving it an exterior makeover and an all-wheel-drive option for 2008.
A new grille, a more rounded hood and revised body-side moldings are the most noticeable components of the styling refresh. We suspect Saab fans will like how the grille's design pays homage to much-loved past Saabs like the 99 and 900. More interesting, however, is the all-wheel-drive system available on the 9-3 Aero sedan and wagon midway through the year. Saab calls its system "Cross Wheel Drive" and abbreviates it as XWD. At a steady cruising speed, XWD sends more than 90 percent of engine power to the front wheels. Under acceleration or in low-grip situations, the system's electronic brain sends torque rearward to enhance traction. Buyers also have the option of ordering a rear electronic limited-slip differential (known as eLSD) that further improves grip on slippery roads and tidies up the car's cornering line on dry pavement.
The sophisticated new XWD system is a bright spot, as it adds a level of driver involvement that has been absent from Saabs for years. Additionally, when equipped with XWD, the 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero picks up a higher-boost version of the turbocharged, 2.8-liter V6 rated at 280 hp. But even with its newfound grip and power, the 9-3 Aero XWD isn't hard-edged enough to be considered a true sport sedan or sport wagon. This could change with the Turbo X, which has the firmer suspension the 9-3 has always needed. We question Saab's decision to leave the 9-3's interior unchanged during this refresh. The cabin is attractive at a glance, particularly with the two-tone leather option, but closer inspection reveals low-quality plastics and inconsistent fit and finish.
These are critical weaknesses when you're up against meticulously executed cars like the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Lexus IS 250/IS 350 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Even slightly less expensive players such as the Acura TSX, Infiniti G35 and Volvo C70/S40/V50 edge past the 2008 Saab 9-3 in performance, ride dynamics and cabin quality. To be sure, the new all-wheel-drive system is capable and useful enough to make the 9-3 Aero XWD and Turbo X interesting dark horse candidates, particularly for buyers in wet-weather climates. But if you want an entry-luxury sedan, wagon or convertible that's buttoned down on every detail, we'd advise you to shop around a bit before buying a Saab 9-3.
The 2008 Saab 9-3 is a compact, entry-level luxury car available in sedan, wagon ("SportCombi") and convertible body styles -- all of which come in 2.0T and Aero trim levels. Front-wheel drive is standard on the 9-3, and later in the year, an all-wheel-drive system will be available on Aero sedans and wagons.
The 2.0T model offers 16-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, wood-grain interior trim, an eight-way power driver seat, dual-zone automatic climate control and a seven-speaker CD stereo with satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack. Sedans and SportCombi wagons have a split-folding rear seat, while convertibles come with a fully automatic power cloth top. In addition to a turbocharged V6 engine, the 9-3 Aero model adds 17-inch alloy wheels, firmer suspension tuning, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, front sport seats (with power adjustments for the passenger), metallic interior trim and an upgraded Bose stereo with an in-dash CD changer. Aero sedans and wagons have a sunroof.
Many of the Aero's features are available on the 2.0T via the options list. Options across both trims include a navigation system, rear parking sensors and seat heaters. Buyers who opt for a 9-3 Aero XWD can also get an electronic limited-slip rear differential.
Another alternative for buyers who want all-wheel drive is the limited-edition Saab 9-3 Turbo X sedan and wagon. It's equipped similarly to the regular 9-3 Aero XWD, but has 18-inch wheels; a lowered and firmer suspension with self-leveling rear shock absorbers; larger brakes; black leather seats and faux carbon-fiber interior trim.
The Saab 9-3's cabin offers decent ergonomics and very comfortable front seats, but neither materials quality nor fit and finish are up to par for this class. The sedan and wagon are sufficiently roomy, but legroom is tight for adults seated in the back of the convertible. Given the choice, we'd go with a Turbo X sedan or wagon, as those models have more aggressively bolstered front seats and a softer-grip steering wheel.
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 29.7 cubic feet of storage space with the backseat up, and 72.3 cubic feet with the rear seat folded flat.
Standard on Saab 9-3 2.0T models is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder that makes 210 hp and 221 pound-feet of torque. Front-wheel-drive 9-3 Aero models get a turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 capable of 255 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. All-wheel-drive Aero sedans and wagons get a higher-boost version of the turbo-6 rated at 280 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque.
A six-speed manual gearbox is standard on all 9-3s. A five-speed automatic is optional on 2.0Ts, while Aeros are eligible for a six-speed automatic. Both automatics offer separate sport and manual modes.
Both the 2.0T and the 255-hp turbocharged V6 deliver a healthy pull throughout their power bands, but performance is nothing special for this class. The higher-boost version of the turbo V6 on 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD models adds some excitement to the range, as it delivers noticeably sharper low-end response. The automatic transmissions can be reluctant with downshifts in "D," but they respond with reasonable haste in sport mode. The manual transmission is easy to shift, but the shifter's rubberiness through the gates detracts from a sporting feel.
The 9-3's ride is smooth and quiet over well-groomed pavement, but the suspension loses composure over bumps and ruts. Steering is light and accurate, but body roll around corners is excessive even on the more athletic Aero model. Enthusiasts would be wise to wait for a 9-3 Aero XWD or Turbo X, as the all-wheel-drive cars' exceptional grip makes for a more engaging driving experience.
Every 2008 Saab 9-3 features antilock disc brakes, stability control, OnStar telematics, active head restraints and front-seat side airbags. The sedan and SportCombi wagon come with full-length side curtain airbags, while convertibles get a rollover protection system. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rates the Saab 9-3 sedan and wagon at four out of five stars for frontal-impact protection. In the side-impact category, the 9-3 received five stars for front-occupant safety and four stars for the rear. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the 9-3 "Top Safety Pick" honors based on its "Good" ratings (the highest possible) in the agency's frontal-offset crash, side-impact crash and head-restraint effectiveness tests.
All 2008 Saab 9-3s benefit from an exterior refresh. Notably, all body trim is monochromatic this year. A more significant development is the January 2008 arrival of an optional all-wheel-drive system for 9-3 Aero sedans and wagons. These AWD 9-3s get a more potent, 280-horsepower version of the turbocharged V6. In addition, Saab will offer a limited-edition version of the AWD sedan and wagon called the Turbo X. Only 600 will come to the U.S. and they'll be identifiable by their black exterior paint, 18-inch wheels, lowered suspension, larger brakes and unique interior trim. The Turbo X sedan gains a rear spoiler. Other updates for 2008 include a 5-hp bump for front-drive Aeros and minor changes to the standard and optional equipment lists.