Grab the Akvavit and construct your flat-pack Ikea furniture -- Saab is alive! Dutch supercar maker Spyker made a last-minute purchase of the brand in early 2010 before former parent company General Motors shelved Saab for good. Sweden and Holland: It seems like a match made in fair-haired heaven. Yet even if Saab is still alive, its volume-selling product -- the 2010 Saab 9-3 -- is hopelessly stale.
The current 9-3 dates back to 2003, when GM-owned Saab decided to ditch the previous car's unique hatchback design for a more conventional sedan layout to better compete against top sellers like BMW's 3 Series. Unfortunately, it couldn't compete with the BMW in terms of driving dynamics or customer desire; additionally, the 9-3 had been greatly stripped of the uniqueness that served as a selling point. Fast-forward seven years, and the 9-3 has been merely updated while all of its competitors have been completely redesigned.
For 2010, the Saab 9-3 Aero's 280-hp turbocharged V6 has been eliminated and replaced with the base trim's 210-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4. While it's true that Audi also dropped its A4's V6 for 2010, the A4's remaining 2.0T engine has a significant torque and acceleration advantage over the Saab's. Saab points out that the new Aero comes with a price reduction of roughly $5,000, but given that the 9-3 Aero was grossly overpriced to begin with, this doesn't seem like much of a deal.
There is a bright spot, however. The 9-3 SportCombi wagon has always been a more appealing alternative to other entry-level luxury wagons. Its unique styling and copious cargo space are draws, and in Aero trim, it handles reasonably well for a wagon. For 2010, a new trim known as the 9-3X SportCombi also debuts; basically an answer to the Subaru Outback and Volvo XC70, it features a raised ride height, a limited-slip differential and special black lower body cladding.
The current 2010 Saab 9-3 is simply outclassed. Aside from its powertrain, the 9-3 has unimpressive interior quality for the class, a lack of high-tech electronic features and nothing to really make it stand out in a crowded field with such stalwarts as the Audi A4/A5, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G37 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, or cheaper premium cars like the Acura TSX, Nissan Maxima and Volkswagen's CC and Eos. Saab may be alive, but its long-term survival likely won't be the result of this 9-3. Thankfully, a new model is expected to arrive in early 2012.
The 2010 Saab 9-3 is available in sedan, convertible and wagon (SportCombi) body styles. Each is broken into 2.0T and Aero trim levels, while the SportCombi is available in an additional all-wheel-drive trim known as 9-3X. Front-wheel drive is standard on all, but both sedan models can be equipped with all-wheel drive (dubbed XWD).
The base 2.0T sedan comes standard with 16-inch wheels, automatic wipers, cruise control, keyless entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-way power driver seat, a 60/40-split rear seatback, leather upholstery, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and a seven-speaker stereo with CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The all-wheel-drive 2.0T XWD sedan gets 17-inch wheels, dual exhaust outlets and upgraded brakes. The 9-3X SportCombi also gets those items, plus an elevated ride height, an electronic limited-slip differential and different exterior and interior trim. The 2.0T Convertible gets a power-operated soft top, auto up/down windows and 17-inch wheels.
The Comfort package adds a sunroof, heated front seats, headlamp washers and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. The Premium Sound package on the 2.0T Convertible bundles an 11-speaker stereo with a six-CD changer and satellite radio. The 2.0T Convertible Special Edition package adds xenon headlights, a special leather-wrapped steering wheel and satellite radio. Also optional on all 2.0T models is OnStar, which also includes Bluetooth.
The 9-3 Aero includes the Comfort package and OnStar, plus 17-inch wheels, xenon headlights, front foglamps, an eight-way power passenger seat, upgraded leather upholstery, sport seats, different interior trim and a 10-speaker Bose surround-sound system (optional on the 2.0T sedan and SportCombi) with a six-CD changer and satellite radio. The front-wheel-drive Aero features a sport-tuned suspension, while the Aero XWD (sedan only) gets a limited-slip differential and a self-leveling suspension.
Optional on the Aero is the Premium package, which includes driver memory functions, power-folding and auto-dimming outside mirrors and rear parking sensors. The 9-3X Premium package adds many of the items from the Aero. Eighteen-inch wheels are optional on all 9-3s.
The Saab 9-3's cabin offers comfortable front seats (especially in the Aero) and good ergonomics, but the quality of the interior materials doesn't measure up to that of competitors in the class. Fit and finish also leaves something to be desired. The sedan and wagon are sufficiently roomy, but rear legroom is limited in the convertible.
Stereo and climate controls are a model of simplicity (a welcome departure from past Saabs), but in a class where topping the other guy's high-tech features is commonplace, the 9-3 is practically standing pat. There's no iPod interface, the navigation system is antiquated, there's no real-time traffic and Bluetooth is packaged with OnStar. At least there are few remaining 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.
The Saab 9-3 does 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. That's more than most compact crossover SUVs.
Every Saab 9-3 is now powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder good for 210 hp and 221 pound-feet of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard on all, while all-wheel drive (XWD) is optional on the sedan models and standard on the 9-3X SportCombi.
On the front-wheel-drive 2.0T models, a six-speed manual is standard and a five-speed automatic is optional. On the XWD sedans and 9-3X, a six-speed automatic is standard. Aero FWD models come standard with a five-speed automatic transmission. The six-speed manual is a no-cost option on all models with a standard automatic.
With the manual and front-wheel drive, the 9-3 sedan and SportCombi return an EPA-estimated 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined. Getting all-wheel drive results in a drop to 17/27/21, while opting for the automatic or convertible returns fuel economy somewhere in between.
The Aero's old turbocharged V6 wasn't exactly a heavyweight in its class, but at least it gave the 9-3 a fighting chance. The remaining 2.0T is really only capable of knocking out the underachieving engine found in the Acura TSX.
The 2010 Saab 9-3's ride is smooth and quiet over most surfaces, though the suspension can lose composure over especially bumpy pavement. The steering is a bright spot, as it is light and quite accurate. Body roll around corners is excessive with the base 2.0T model -- so much so that the term "mushy" could be applied. The sport-tuned Aero model improves things considerably -- as does the added traction of XWD all-wheel drive -- though it can't quite match the athleticism of its rivals.
The 2010 Saab 9-3 comes standard with antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, active front head restraints and side airbags. The sedan and SportCombi include side curtain airbags, while the convertible features taller side airbags that cover the head of each front occupant. OnStar is optional on the 2.0T and standard on the Aero.
In government crash tests, the 9-3 sedan and SportCombi received four out of five stars for frontal and side rear crash protection. They got five stars for driver side protection. The convertible was not tested. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the 9-3 sedan the best rating of "Good" in the frontal-offset and side crash tests.
Saab is now under new ownership, but more important for consumers is the significant price drop for the 2010 Saab 9-3 sedan, convertible and wagon. Unfortunately, that price drop on the Aero models comes along with the elimination of last year's 280-horsepower V6 engine. New is the 9-3X SportCombi, a wagon model with a higher ride height, an electronic limited-slip differential and unique exterior trim.