Saab's newest wagon, the 2006 Saab 9-3 SportCombi, isn't going to set any sales records, and Saab knows it. Instead, the Swedish manufacturer, which is known for building fun-to-drive cars that are a little different than the typical BMW or Audi, hopes the wagon will introduce the brand to a younger demographic in California and the Northeast.
We think it will. The front-wheel-drive Saab 9-3 SportCombi packs performance, practicality and a load of safety gear in an attractive package. Plus it will cost thousands less than the Audi A4 Avant. Well-equipped four-cylinder models will start at $26,900, and a loaded 2.8 Aero will sticker at $32,900.
Not Just a 9-3 Sedan
The SportCombi is not just a 9-3 sedan with extra sheet metal. The car is all-new from the B-pillar back. The new roofline tapers down like the roof on the Dodge Magnum and the B- and C-pillars are blacked out to create a teardrop shape. We also like the way the standard Saab hockey stick swoosh is smoothly incorporated into the D-pillar.
Although the tailgate is made out of aluminum to keep weight gain to a minimum, Saab says the SportCombi is still 90 pounds heavier than its sedan counterpart. This certainly hinders the wagon's acceleration, but most of that mass is over the rear wheels, which actually helps balance the weight distribution.
Saab also says the SportCombi's structure is 6-percent less rigid than the sedans, but it felt as tight as any sedan we've ever driven.
Like the 9-3 sedan, the front-drive SportCombi rides on a MacPherson-strut front and four-link independent rear suspension. ReAxs, which is a passive rear steering system used on the 9-3 sedan, has also been carried over to the SportCombi. It allows the rear wheels to turn slightly when the car is thrown into a corner at high speed, increasing lateral grip and stability.
All SportCombis also come with traction and stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and 225/45R17 tires. Options on the Aero model include stiffer sport suspension and an 18-inch alloy wheel upgrade with R-compound tires.
We carved up a few Swedish back roads in an Aero model with a manual transmission, and the hunkered-down wagon gobbled up asphalt. The ride is sporty, but not jarring, the steering offers excellent feedback, and the ReAxs system works transparently to give the SportCombi a glued-to-the-ground feel in high-speed sweepers.
The Saab's brakes inspired us, too. The pedal is firm yet progressive, nose dive is minimal, and we didn't detect any ABS vibration or brake fade over several repeated hard stops.
Standard and midrange SportCombis come standard with a 2.0-liter turbocharged aluminum inline four that makes 210 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque.
The Aero, however, is powered by a modified version of Cadillac's all-aluminum 2.8-liter V6. If that sounds weird you've forgotten that Saab and Cadillac are both in GM's stable. Saab's engineers bolted a twin-scroll turbocharger to it, changed the pistons for added durability and revised the cylinder head design for improved heat resistance. As a result, the Saab makes 40 more horsepower than the Caddy (250 vs. 210).
The V6 also gets Saab's first dual exhaust, and the sound is pitch perfect.
While horsepower numbers impress your friends, torque is what you feel in the seat of your pants, and the V6 has lots of it. The engine pumps out 258 lb-ft from 2,000 to 4,500 rpm, which makes it a member of the flat torque curve club. Most amazing, however, is that the SportCombi puts that power to the pavement without any torque steer.
Two six-speed transmissions are available, a sport-shift automatic and a manual. Although the auto gearbox shifts were firm and precise, the manual transmission is much more entertaining despite its less-than-precise shifter.
The SportCombi feels fast. We don't doubt the company's claim of zero to 60 in the high 7s for the Aero. In comparison, we recently tested a 2005 Audi A4 Avant equipped with a 3.2-liter V6, and it ran zero to 60 in 7.9 seconds.
On the Inside
The SportCombi's interior is a study in Swedish minimalist design. Every surface is covered in leather or soft-touch material, and muted colors accented with occasional bits of brushed aluminum lend a subtle, classy look.
The Aero model has full power driver and passenger seats, as well as one-touch up and down windows on all four doors. Headroom is plentiful and the bolstered bucket seats are comfortable and supportive. There's also a full complement of front, head and side-impact airbags, which come standard.
In a rare concession to the lefties of the world, the SportCombi's rear hatch has handles on either side so it's easy to open for both right- and left-handed drivers. Open the hatch and the SportCombi offers 14.8 cubic feet of storage space with the backseat up, and 45 cubic feet with the 60/40-split rear bench seat folded flat.
Those numbers fall short when compared to the BMW 3 Series wagon, but the Bimmer is without the Saab's unique rear package tray, which incorporates a twin-floor system that folds up for two-level storage behind the backseat.
The Right Combi
In 1973 Saab introduced its first hatchback and called it the CombiCoupe. According to Saab, Combi meant the car offered the right combination of style and practicality. This fun-to-drive wagon not only takes its name from that little three-door, but also pays homage to that same solid combination.