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Sporty and well-priced, the Saab 9-3 SportCombi is a great alternative to German wagons. So why isn't it selling better?
The other day I was whipping along the autoroute in eastern France and couldn't help noticing how many cars on the road are almost exactly like the ones in the U.S.—Volkswagen Passats and Golfs, Honda CR-Vs, BMW X3s and X5s (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/6/07, "BMW's Exceptional X5"), and Ford's (F) Volvo XC90s (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/10/07, "Volvo's Exceptional XC90"). At one point I even saw a guy taking his family on spring break vacation in a gigantic white 1960s-era Oldsmobile station wagon. One model you see fairly often in Europe but rarely in the U.S. is the Saab 9-3, which comes as a sedan, a convertible, or the new SportCombi (a station-wagon-like crossover vehicle).
Now that Saab is owned by General Motors (GM), a lot of Americans suspect Saabs are little more than glorified Chevys. But the 9-3 is actually a global product with a genuinely European look and feel. The 9-3 SportCombi I recently test-drove (in the U.S. before I left for Europe) only had 1% U.S. and Canadian parts. Half its content was from Germany and Sweden, and final assembly is done in Trollhattan, Sweden. The car's smooth-running, turbocharged engine was made in Australia.
And a manual transmission is standard. You have to pay $1,350 to get an automatic transmission—a definite indication that Saab isn't totally abandoning its European roots and pandering to middle-of-the-road American tastes. All of which leads me to my basic point: The 9-3 SportCombi is much better than its marginal U.S. sales would indicate. If you have a family but also want a sporty, fast-moving vehicle in your driveway, this is a good compromise. It looks a little like a stylish Subaru, and handles a lot like a well-made European car. Saab's U.S. sales last were flat at 24,133 units, but boomed in Europe, jumping 11.1% in 2006 (on top of a 11% increase in 2005), to nearly 89,000 units.
In fact, Europe propelled Saab to record global sales last year. The 9-3 sedan is Saab's most important product, but a big driver of growth was the new 9-3 SportCombi, which comes in two versions: the basic 2.0T with a four-cylinder, 210-horsepower, 2.0 liter engine, and the much sportier Aero, which is powered by a 2.8 liter, turbocharged inline-six. The 2.0T starts at $28,465, and the Aero at $34,120. Naturally, I chose to test-drive the sporty Aero.
The Aero has sports-tuned suspension, sport seats, 17-inch wheels, and, compared to the 2.0T, a better stereo and more interior chrome. Standard equipment on both models includes stability control, full leather seats, and a power driver seat.
You can load up the 2.0T with a fair number of options, but you're basically just upgrading it to the level of the Aero, minus the big engine. The Aero has relatively few options. A navigation system goes for $2,145, OnStar telematics for $695, and a touring package that includes an auto-dimming mirror, rain-sensing wipers, rear parking assist, and driver seat memory for $1,195. The Aero SportCombi gets decent mileage on the highway, but not in stop-and-go driving. With a stick shift, it's rated at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway (the 2.0T with an automatic does best—it's rated at 22/30 mpg). In 447 miles of largely highway, I got 20.5 mpg with my Aero SportCombi. Premium gas is recommended.
Behind the Wheel
The SportCombi has rakish exterior styling. The rear window slopes at a sharp angle like a windshield, and the roofline swoops, curving down slightly toward the rear. The five-spoke alloy wheels and two big, chromed exhaust pipes on the Aero hint at the car's speed.
Slide behind the wheel, and the Aero SportCombi's performance matches its looks. My test car had a stick shift, but if you pay up for the automatic, you can also get paddle shifters that add to the driving fun. The Aero is quite quick: I got 0-to-60 times of 7.0 to 7.4 seconds. The owner's manual helpfully notes that if you happen to hit 143 mph, the turbo kicks off to slow the car down.
I could discern no turbo lag when I punched the gas. You would barely know the turbo is there if it weren't for a gauge on the instrument panel. However, this isn't a classic BMW-style driver's car because it has front-wheel-drive. The advantage is that front-wheel drive cars generally handle fairly well in snow and ice. The disadvantage is that there's some annoying torque steer when you accelerate fast in the SportCombi—a fancy way of saying that the steering wheel pulls a little to the left or right under the force of acceleration.
At 183.2 inches, the SportCombi isn't all that big. In fact, it's only an inch longer than the 9-3 sedan. However, folding down the rear seats still gives you a huge 70 inch-long, 45-cubic foot hauling space (vs. 40.8 inches and 14.8 cubic feet with the rear seats up). There's also a pass-through in the middle of the rear seat for carrying long items like skis when you have passengers in back. The SportCombi retains some traditional Saab styling cues. For instance, the keyhole—as is traditional in a Saab—is in the center console between the front seats, next to the emergency brake, rather than on the dash.
There are also some nice design touches. Up front, there's a conventional cupholder in the center console between the seats, but there's also a second, very cool cupholder that pops out of the dash at the push of a button. To reduce distractions when you're driving after dark, a "night panel" switch dims the instruments, leaving only the speedometer lighted. Saab has a good safety record and the SportCombi, as you would expect, is crammed with safety gear. Front, side, and side curtain airbags are all standard, as are anti-lock brakes with braking assist, seatbelt pretensioners, and active head restraints on the front seats.
Buy It or Bag It?
In North America, this is a niche vehicle for people who want something a little out of the ordinary. The 9-3's rakish exterior styling doesn't compromise interior space significantly, so it's practical while also looking distinctive and handling. Plus, GM has been offering $1,500 rebates on the model through Feb. 28, with an additional $1,000 off for buyers who already own a Saab.
The 2.0T falls toward the low end of the price spectrum for comparable vehicles, while the Aero is below its German competition. The average buyer pays around $30,000 for a Saab 9-3 SportCombi, according to the Power Information Network, which includes an average cash rebate of about $1,000. By comparison, a Subaru Legacy wagon averages about $23,000, Power figures, while on the higher end, the Audi A4 and BMW 328i wagons average about $38,000 and $39,600, respectively. (Like BusinessWeek, the Power Information Network is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).
The downside of the Saab is that it's not available with all-wheel drive, which is standard on a Subaru. It also doesn't have the third-row seats that you can get even in small SUVs such as the Toyota (TM) RAV4, so it's not a good choice for those doing heavy-duty carpooling.
However, if you want European handling but don't want to pay up for a German car, this is a good choice. That's doubly true if you live in one of those neighborhoods where every other car seems to be a Subaru, and you want something different.
Click here to see more of the 2007 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi.