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New Car Test - Saab 9-3 Aero

An extremely capable and attractive sports prestige vehicle...

By Michael Knowling

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"Used to have a bit of lag didn't they, those turbo Saabs?" queried the bloke having a good perve at the new 9-3 Aero as we stood filling it with fuel.

Boy, if only he'd been in the car just a few minutes earlier.

"Nah, mate, not this one," we fire back. "This one drives like a big six-cylinder; it's got instant get up and go." The fuel filler clicks. "The only difference," we add, "is it's a lot more economical..."

As ever, the 9-3 Aero brings Saab's trademark turbocharging technology together with tremendous open-road capabilities, safety, strength and distinction.

Much unlike the first Saab Turbos, though, the new 9-3 Aero has a fabulously flexible and responsive engine. Throttle sharpness is nothing out of the ordinary, but the low and mid-range rpm punch is what you'd expect if Saab had stuffed a dirty big six under the bonnet. If you don't reckon a 2.0-litre turbo can give big-cube punch at low revs, you're in for a surprise!

So how does Saab do it?

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Well, the all-alloy 2.0-litre, DOHC, 16-valve transverse four maintains a remarkably high (for a turbo engine) 9.5:1 compression ratio, which certainly goes a long way to providing the great all-round efficiency. Saab claims to have also fitted a larger-than-previous turbocharger to deliver a maximum of 0.85 Bar (12.5 psi) boost pressure and a front-mount air-to-air intercooler serves to reduce charge-air temperatures.

From seat of the pants, full boost arrives at very low revs - and that makes sense when you consider the engine's torque curve. Torque doubles between 1000 and 2500 rpm, with a strong 300Nm plateau held from 2500 to 4000 rpm. Its no wonder open-road overtaking is so effortless - just squeeze the throttle and you're steaming ahead.

Note, though, the Aero uses an electronic throttle to give a sleight of hand; the throttle is briefly opened more than desired for low rpm acceleration in order to provide spritely performance. We certainly noticed the factory vacuum/boost meter flaring considerably with only slight throttle applications.

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With turbocharged 2.0-litre engines now widely capable of generating 200-ish kilowatts, the Aero's peak power is pretty unremarkable. Its 155kW at 5300 rpm output is, however, enough to scoot along quite swiftly - especially with all that useable mid-range torque. Just don't expect it to pin your ears back at wide-open throttle - not in auto form at least.

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The 5-speed 'Sentronic' automatic transmission fitted to our test car performed well at all times and there was no discernable torque converter flare (which is common in heavy-ish cars with comparatively small engines).

A tiptronic-style manual shifting mode - where up-changes are made by pushing the selector forward - allows enhanced control when tackling your favourite section of road or when simply decelerating down a hill. In addition to the central gear selector, the Aero also has a pair of up/down-change switches sitting proud on steering wheel spokes; the central selector is easier to use, though.

With its optional automatic transmission, we hand-timed our test car as a 9.2-second 0 - 100 km/h machine (with two people on-board). Officially, Saab claims the 1514kg auto can crack 100 km/h in 9.0-seconds and the 1493kg 6-speed manual in just 7.5-seconds; a surprisingly large gap considering the 5-speed auto never lets the engine really fall off steam.

In any case, its real world driving performance - in 1500 to 4000 rpm zone - is much stronger than the performance numbers would suggest.

Fuel economy on test was quite reasonable. The car returned a 9.7-litres per 100km average after an extended 115 km/h cruise (which included a few big overtaking manoeuvres) plus a bit of aggressive point-and-squirt urban driving once we'd arrived at our destination. The new Australian Standard for fuel economy - AS81/01 - quotes 10.2-litres for combined city and highway driving. Note, though, the 6-speed manual version manages a combined AS81/01 figure of 9.0-litres - over a litre less than the auto.

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As mentioned, the Saab 9-3 Aero really shines on the open road; its effortlessly grunty engine and overall refinement are appreciable about town, but when dribbling along at 50 - 60 km/h you can't really get a feeling for its roadholding, aerodynamics, stability and lack of wind noise...

Compared with the base 9-3 models, the Aero boasts major improvements in aerodynamic downforce. According to Saab, the Aero sedan has a massive 70 percent reduction in front and 40 percent reduction of rear lift. These improvements come from the fitment of 'ground effects' lower extensions and a slim rear spoiler to ensure a clean airstream separation. The 9-3 shape is already very slippery to begin with - it has excellent attached airflow from the leading edge of the bonnet to the trailing edge of the boot. With its low Cd (an official figure is unavailable) it's no surprise that a top-speed of 230-235 km/h is claimed.

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Ride quality is pretty well on the money for a performance prestige sedan. Our only gripe is a slight jiggle over some road surfaces when travelling at urban speeds - no issues at higher speeds.

Unfortunately there is also some tramlining, which is most noticeable over B-grade urban roads. The power-assisted rack and pinion is otherwise fine aside from a small indirectness at straight-ahead; off-centre steering is very accurate.

With the assistance of ESP (Electronic Stability Program), CBC (Cornering Brake Control) and TCS (Traction Control) the Saab Aero won't bite when being flung nor when the conditions get dangerous. There's just a trace of understeer - characteristic of a front-drive chassis - but chassis stability is exceptional overall. Grips levels are ample thanks to a tasty set of 225/45 17 Pirelli P-Zero Rossis.

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In terms of design, the 9-3 Aero rides on MacPherson front struts and a four-link rear suspension arrangement incorporating 'ReAxs' - Saab's passive rear-wheel steering system, which includes a so-called toe control link.

The braking system, meanwhile, comprises 312mm ventilated front and 290mm solid rear disc brakes. The latest in ABS, EBD and brake assist technology ensure powerful stopping power while also allowing you to swerve without risk of upsetting chassis balance. We tested it and can vouch that it works.

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The 9-3 chassis and body is very stiff; we never heard even a slight creak while entering driveways that have many other late-model cars twisting and groaning. You know in your boots this is a car with considerable crashworthiness.

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With six airbags (driver and passenger, front side and roof rail) the Aero offers exceptional active safety. Active front head restraints also minimise the risk of neck injuries.

The interior is spacious and unmistakably Saab with a relatively high dashboard and distinctive two-tone Aero sports seats - these offer excellent long distance comfort. Unfortunately, though, the Aero's myriad of dashboard controls almost requires that you complete a training course. From its central key location, hidden cruise control stalk, twin information display screens and clockwise turning headlight switch, it all takes some getting used to.

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The features list extends to a glovebox cooler (which is capable of keeping drinks and chocolate bars cool), park assistance (a reversing proximity beeper), rain-sensing windscreen wipers, electrically-adjustable front seats (with a 3-position memory for the driver's seat), heated retractable exterior mirrors, auto-dimming interior mirror, dual-zone climate control and 3-setting adjustable front seat warmers - these really are a Godsend when the leather seats are cold on those frosty mornings!

The more run-of-the-mill stuff includes power windows, a leather wheel and selector knob, remote central locking and alarm, cruise control (which performs seamlessly), illuminated vanity mirrors, an adjustable centre front armrest, split-fold rear seat and plentiful storage facilities.

A 'Prestige' 300W 13-speaker sound system - with a 6 CD in-dash stacker - punches out plenty of quality noise and a large pair of rear deck Pioneer woofers produces ultra-low frequencies. We did find radio reception marginal at times, however.

Our test car had also been optioned with a $2000 electric tilt'n'slide glass sunroof. No problems with its operation, but the pop-up wind deflector does cause an aerodynamic rustle at speeds above about 60 km/h; hold the deflector down just a few millimetres and the rustle goes away...

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Parked at the bowsers, in a shopping centre and driving past pedestrians, the Saab 9-3 Aero attracts lots of looks. Even a rowdy bunch of V8 ute lads gave it a big thumbs-up!

The Aero's slightly aggressive appearance comes from a lower ride height than the rest of the 9-3 range, unique Aero 17-inch rims (which look fantastic) and a subtle body kit.

Another option fitted to our test car was the $1500 Xenon headlights with retractable washers; these provide absolutely top-level lighting intensity and spread.

Certainly we very much like the 9-3 Aero - there's not much not to like. But is it priced inside or outside of the ballpark?

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Well, starting at $66,900 for a 6-speed manual or $69,400 for the 5-speed auto (as tested) we reckon it is within the fence... You only need to consider the price of the Euro opposition - about half of them are dearer and the other half is cheaper.

An Audi A4 3.0 costs $81,700, a BMW 330i is $91,200, a 3.0 Jag S-Type begins at $78,500 and a Mercedes C320 is almost 100-large. On the other hand, an Alfa 156 starts at $57,500, a Pug 406 SV cost upward of $53,800, a VW Bora V6 can be had for $54,800, a Volvo S40 T4 for $56,950 and a Citroen V6 Exclusive can be yours for $56,990.

With its excellent real-world acceleration, sturdy body and a host of features - including six airbags - the 9-3 Aero is quite decently priced. We reckon it's just the thing to stand out from the Audi, BMW and Merc brigade - especially if you're a regular open-road driver.

Why You Would...

  • Drives like a punchy big-cube V6...
  • But with decent fuel economy
  • Very rigid body
  • Stable at high speed with very little wind noise
  • Excellent safety - six airbags
  • Extremely comfortable over long distances
  • Good list of interior features

Why You Wouldn't...

  • Tramlining can be annoying on some roads
  • A bit more top-end power would be welcome
  • Bewildering array of dashboard controls - takes some getting used to

The 9-3 Aero was supplied for this test by Saab Australia.

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