Saab still has the charm to perform

Saab still has the charm to perform

Saab advertising likes to remind us that its automobiles are “born from jets” – first built in 1947 by aircraft engineers when the company began diversifying after crafting planes for the Swedish Air Force during World War II.

According to Saab bumph, its first car, the 92, had “streamlined, teardrop-shaped bodywork clearly the work of aircraft engineers and radical for a small production car of the time.”

Well, if you can picture the 92 (which wasn’t sold in Canada), radical it certainly was, using a two-cylinder engine and front wheel drive in an era when few other manufacturers other than Citroën in France had figured out how to make it work.

But streamlined? Maybe by the standards of the day. The 92 certainly didn’t resemble anything else on the road, looking like it had been styled by the same Hollywood model makers who’d created Buck Rogers’ spaceship in those 1930s’ movie serials starring Buster Crabbe. By today’s standards, both the 92 and that rocket ship look, well … rather clunky.

But you can’t say that of Saab automobiles today. As time passed, Saab’s designers really did learn how to streamline a car and the latest generation of the 9-3 sedans and wagons, introduced in 2003 and updated last year, is the most flowing and aerodynamic yet.

As proof, I submit this week’s test car, a 2008 9-3 Sport Sedan – even though it was painted black, not the best colour to show off the new lines inspired by the Aero X concept revealed at the 2006Geneva Motor Show. All new 9-3 models get a semi-wraparound hood and new headlights and the even slipperier Aero versions get unique front and rear bumpers.

Unlike the more expensive Aero models, which come with a choice of V6s, the regular 9-3 employs a four-cylinder turbocharged engine. Based on GM’s ubiquitous Ecotec “four”, the 2.0T produces astounding amounts of torque – 221 lb.-ft. at just 2,500 rpm – and 210 hp at 5,500.

You can order a 2.0T with a five-speed automatic, but our test car came with the smooth-shifting six-speed stick. Not only does this combo produce exhilarating performance – 0-100 km/h in 7.0 seconds – it also delivers outstanding fuel economy for a performance sedan. In 1,200 km of driving, our 9-3 sipped gas at the rate of 8.6L/100 km.

The ride is firm, although I really think the suspension has been softened a bit for North American tastes. Handling is neutral, without the torque steer that once plagued small, turbocharged Saab engines. The steering is light – and quite sensitive. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it twitchy, it does seem to want to follow the dips and rises in the road, wherever they may lead.

The cockpit (what else would you call the cabin of a car “born from jets”?) is still pure Saab with those ventilation grate-type air vents, minimalist Scandinavian design and ignition located on the centre console rather than on the dash or steering column. The prominent gauge showing turbo boost is still fun to watch when you hammer the throttle.

The 9-3 is the entry-level Saab, and aspires to be a luxury sport sedan competing in one of the market’s toughest segments. To give it a boost, extra equipment also has been added for 2008. XM satellite radio, OnStar, a tire pressure monitoring system, rain-sensing wipers and a quiet tuning package are now standard.

Of course, you also get standard amenities such as automatic climate control, power windows/locks/doors, leather seats, 8-way power driver’s seat, tilt/telescopic steering, cooled glove box, an electronic stability program, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake- force distribution and a premium audio system with seven speakers.

For Saab, like the “other” Swedish automaker, safety is paramount. Using safety cage construction techniques and impact-absorbing side panels, the 9-3 also comes equipped with six airbags, active head restraints for driver and front passenger, break-away pedals and anti-submarining front and rear seats.

No wonder the 9-3 has been a top safety pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the U.S. for three years in a row.

Verdict

In 1995, General Motors bought 51% of the auto division from Saab Group, which today specializes in aerospace and defence systems. GM assumed full control of Saab Automobile AB in 2000. Being wholly owned by the U.S. automaker has taken some of the quirkiness out of today’s Saabs, but they’re still distinct from anything else on the road and still designed and built in Trollhattan, Sweden on the site of the original Saab aircraft factory.

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