Although the 9-3 is Saab's best-selling model, this entry-level luxury car still mainly appeals to a small niche group of buyers. This could be a good thing for those looking for a unique alternative to the German and Japanese choices that seem to be common on the road. The Saab, though aging, still appears somewhat modern, and it's one of the few choices in this segment to be offered as a sedan, wagon or convertible. Unfortunately, mediocre driving dynamics and interior furnishings make the 9-3 a compromised competitor in a class that is increasingly offering more features and better quality with each model year.
While mostly unchanged for 2009, the Saab 9-3 gets new intermediate trim levels between the base and the sporty, more powerful Aero models. Those trim levels make many of the Aero's handling and performance upgrades available on the 2.0T, including all-wheel drive. All 9-3s get standard Bluetooth phone connectivity this year, which is a welcome addition as more states impose hands-free cell phone laws.
Still, the 2009 Saab 9-3 is up against some stiff competition, including the newly redesigned Acura TL and Audi A4, the always impressive BMW 3 Series and the well-regarded Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Even the slightly less expensive Infiniti G35 edges out the Saab in terms of performance, ride dynamics and cabin quality. The 9-3's best performers -- especially in wet or snowy climates -- are the Aero XWD models, which use the Saab AWD system introduced in the middle of the previous model year. But those looking for a precise driving experience and a luxurious cabin are advised to shop around a bit before buying a Saab 9-3.
The 2009 Saab 9-3 is a compact entry-level luxury car available as a sedan, wagon (dubbed "SportCombi") or convertible. It comes in a copious number of trim levels -- five each on the sedan and SportCombi and four on the convertible.
The base sedan and SportCombi (1SA) includes 16-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, faux wood interior trim, cruise control, an eight-way power driver seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 60/40-split rear seat, Bluetooth and a seven-speaker audio system with satellite radio, a CD/MP3 player and an auxiliary audio jack. The next trim level up (1SB) comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels and adds a sunroof, heated front seats, power express-up windows and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a compass.
Step up to the 1SC trim level and Saab adds roof rails, a rear integrated antenna and genuine wood interior trim. In addition, the sedan gets self-leveling rear shock absorbers; the SportCombi gets a lowered, sport-tuned chassis and Saab's XWD AWD system. The even-more-feature-packed 1SD trim level doesn't have the special shocks or XWD, but the sedan at this trim level also gets the lowered sport-tuned chassis, xenon adaptive headlights, foglights, rear park assist, an 11-speaker Bose surround-sound system with six-CD changer, sport seats and an eight-way power passenger seat. The top-of-the-line Aero trim level includes all of the 1SC's handling features and 1SD's luxury features, plus a limited-slip differential.
On the convertible, there are a few notable equipment differences: The 60/40-split rear seat is not available on any trim, and a fully automatic cloth top replaces the roof. (A sunroof, not surprisingly, is not available.) Also, the intermediate 1SC trim is not available in a soft-top version. All other trim levels are largely comparable to their hardtop counterparts. A navigation system is also available on all trims except the base in each body style.
The Saab 9-3's cabin offers comfortable front seats and good ergonomics, but the quality of the interior materials can't measure up to competitors in the class. Fit and finish also leave something to be desired. The sedan and wagon are sufficiently roomy, but rear legroom is limited in the convertible. On the upside, stereo and climate controls are a model of simplicity (a welcome departure from past Saabs) and are located up high and readily at hand. There are also plenty of kooky Saab features, like the console-mounted ignition and the "Night Panel" function that dims most instrument lighting (except most of the speedometer) for nighttime driving.
Also on the bright side, the Saab 9-3 can carry more cargo than many 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 an impressive 72.3 cubic feet with the rear seat folded flat.
Standard on all trim levels except Aero models is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder that makes 210 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. Saab 9-3 Aero models get a turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 capable of 280 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual gearbox comes standard on the base Saab 9-3, and a five-speed automatic is optional. All other 9-3s come with either the five-speed automatic (1SB and 1SD) or a six-speed automatic (1SC and Aero) as standard. You can also order a manual transmission on these sportier trims as an option. The Aero and the 1SC send their power through an AWD system; all other 9-3s are front-drive only.
Fuel economy ranges from a low of 15 mpg city/24 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined for the automatic Aero sedan or SportCombi to 19/29/23 mpg for a manual 2.0T sedan.
Both the 2.0T and the turbocharged V6 deliver adequate power, but performance is nothing special for this class. Models with Saab's XWD system are more capable -- especially with the additional power coming from the Aero's V6 engine. But even with the additional grip and power, the 9-3 Aero isn't hard-edged enough to be considered a true sport sedan or wagon.
The 9-3's ride is smooth and quiet over smooth surfaces, but the suspension loses composure on bumpy pavement. Steering is light and quite accurate, but body roll around corners is excessive, even on the trim levels with the lowered, sport-tuned chassis. Enthusiasts considering the 2009 Saab 9-3 would be wise to skip the base and intermediate trim levels and go straight to the Aero XWD.
Every 2009 Saab 9-3 comes standard with 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 rear-occupant protection. 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.
For 2009, Saab has expanded the 9-3's trim levels, while the 2.0T is now available with all-wheel drive and some of the Aero trim's performance enhancements. Much of the equipment is the same as last year, although Bluetooth phone connectivity is now standard on all models. Last year's limited-edition Turbo X sedan and wagon have been dropped from the lineup.