The 2009 Saab 9-3 XWD, good car, uncertain future

It’s hard to say what will become of Saab over the next year or so. What we do know is that the Swedish automaker has cut ties with GM and is currently in a state of financial recovery. Will Koenisegg, its new owner, will keep those cars on our market ? But the fact remains that the 9-3 has continued to improve over the years and is now considered a first-rate vehicle in terms of handling and safety. Although its reliability may appear uncertain, the 9-3 is actually recommended by the prestigious Consumer Reports magazine, something that cannot be said for several highly reputable Japanese automakers.

Now before we get to the 9-3 V6 XWD we test drove a few days ago, let me just say that I hope Saab remains on the market and continues to grow as a company. Granted, they don’t make the sexiest cars in the world, but they certainly are practical and have only a few brand-specific eccentricities. What’s more, since Saab introduced the AWD models last year, the 9-3 has become an even more attractive option here in North America, where we have to deal with snowy and icy conditions for several months of the year.

Subdued exterior, clever interior

I don’t know whether it’s the arctic night that sets in during the winter months in Sweden, or the founding company’s background as an aircraft manufacturer, but you have to admit that Saabs are easily recognizable, thanks in large part to their signature grille and raised rear section that makes for a more aerodynamic vehicle. What’s more, this body style is also very practical, as it makes for ample head room and a large-sized trunk. Contrary to many of its competitors’ models that appeal to us at first glance, only to lose their charm as time goes on, Saab seems to stand the test of time thanks in large part to its timeless design.

Saab is proud of its background in aeronautics and they endeavour to leverage this expertise as often as possible. Incidentally, all of Saab’s models have received excellent safety ratings, proving that Volvo isn’t the only Swedish automaker equipped with solid safety features. The 9-3 features a dashboard that does not seem to have been conceived with aesthetics in mind, as everything has been positioned for optimum ergonomics and user friendliness. Though Swedish engineering is known for being very practical, Saab engineers did something a little different by adding a nostalgic touch to the 9-3: the ignition key is located on the center console just like they did way back when. In the past, the ignition key was installed in this rather unusual location to lock the gear-shift and deter thieves. This is no longer necessary today; Saab devotees continue to be particularly fond of this feature.

There are a number of upsides to the Saab 9-3, including a very spacious interior, a comfortable driving position and a clever dashboard layout. The indicators are easy to use and the air vents are equipped with a raised control button that allows you to direct the air in all directions. However, I should mention that the air-conditioning can be a little finicky, so I would advise you to select the desired interior temperature first and then push the “Auto” button. And while the sound quality of the 9-3’s audio system is good, the AM reception is average and we noticed a fair amount of interference on FM.

The fit and trim is impeccable, from the quality of the materials to the comfortable front seats. Even the back seats are decent considering they don’t provide a lot of room. Lastly, it’s worth noting that you can turn off the night lighting for the auxiliary indicators, leaving just the speedometer lighting on. And make no mistake about it, if the vehicle detects that there is something wrong, the corresponding dial will light up automatically.

A V6 AWD engine

Saab’s big move last year was introducing AWD, an area in which they have been overshadowed by Volvo for many years and realized they needed to improve upon. Just as Volvo had, Saab engineers turned to a Swedish company called Haldex for their AWD system. Haldex offers its services not only to Swedish automakers, but also to many other car manufacturers around the world such as Ford. Like other similar vehicles, the 9-3 is in FWD mode until the front wheels begin to lose their grip. When this happens, the additional torque automatically reverts back to the rear wheels and then to whichever wheels have the best traction. The system developed by Saab and Haldex is a more sophisticated version that is able to detect the loss of traction before the wheels start skidding. When put to the test, the system proved to be transparent and effective. Referred to as XWD, it is also equipped with an electronically controlled limited slip rear differential.

The XWD is coupled with the 2.8 litre V6 turbo engine producing 280 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. It comes with a six-speed manumatic transmission, although a six-speed manual transmission is also available.

An executive car

It would be very unfortunate if Saab had to bow out at some point in 2010, because even if the 9-5 is a little outdated, the 9-3 is a modernized vehicle that’s comfortable, good on gas and a pleasure to drive. With the 2.0 litre turbo engine, you’re assured of decent performance and great fuel economy. The V6 has a lot more zip while still maintaining a reasonable fuel consumption rate (an average of 11.8 L/100 km). I should point out that these numbers are quite impressive for a vehicle in this particular class.

But on top of talking about the 9-3’s responsive engine, I should also mention a few things about the handling and steering. The 9-3’s steering remains neutral on turns and you can’t even feel the corrections the AWD makes. What’s more, the suspension has been fine-tuned and makes for a more comfortable ride. It appears that the people at Saab have finally clued in to the fact that our roads are in terrible condition. At any rate, the steering is a little light, but the driver gets some relatively good assistance from it. To wrap things up, the 9-3 has shown that it really can play in the big leagues. What makes things even better is that there are currently some great deals out there that you can take advantage of. However, the bottom line is that Saab’s future is still quite uncertain and the depreciation factor falls into the “I hate to even think about it” category.

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