Sometimes it pays to view a car in its home location. Just as Hyundais look strangely conservative in South Korea and Land Rover Defenders look authentic in Tanzania, so Saabs make sense in Sweden. Take a stroll in Saab's quiet, understated hometown of Trollhättan and you start to understand why someone could prefer the subtle, cultured appeal of the Saab 9-3 to the more obvious charms of BMW's 3 Series.
Scandinavian conservatism is at the heart of everything Saab does, including the 2006 Saab 9-3 Aero. According to the PR blurb, this is the fastest accelerating road car that the carmaker has ever built, but the Aero doesn't so much shout it from the rooftops as whisper it in a quiet sing-song voice. Only the new alloys and revised twin exhaust pipes will inform the dedicated Saab spotter that the hood hides a new 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 and not one of Saab's familiar four-pots.
The Joy of Six
This new engine owes its existence to the U.S. market, where 64 percent of "entry luxury" cars boast six combustion chambers. The 2,792cc unit is based on GM's new global V6 architecture, but as GM's designated center of excellence for turbocharging, the engineers at Trollhättan played a significant role in the unit's genesis.
Boasting all-aluminum construction, the engine is fed by a single twin-scroll Mitsubishi turbocharger operating at a maximum boost pressure of 0.6 bar. There's also electronically controlled variable valve timing on the inlet camshaft for a more flexible, efficient power delivery. The mechanics are governed by Saab's own engine management software that's capable of limiting the engine's torque in slippery driving conditions. That could come in useful given that all 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque are fed through the front wheels.
That torque figure is the key to this car's personality and its role in life. Ninety percent of peak torque is available at just 1,500 rpm and that healthy maximum is on offer all the way from 2,000-4,500 rpm. Not even BMW's 3.0-liter six can match such unwavering flexibility.
Saab claims a 0-60-mph time of 6.9 seconds for the manual and 7.9 seconds for the six-speed automatic, but more significant is the revelation that it will pull from 50-75 mph in sixth gear in 8.3 seconds. In the real world, this translates into impressive overtaking potential.
The roads around the Saab plant in Trollhättan are irritatingly smooth. If you really want to test a powerful front-driver's ability to deploy its power, then you want pockmarked blacktop, not curves that could have been pinched from a racetrack. We'll therefore have to reserve ultimate judgment on the Aero's dynamics until the first cars arrive Stateside in October.
Initial impressions, though, suggest that Saab has learned its lessons since it unleashed the 9-3 Viggen in the late '90s. That car was to torque steer what Michael Jackson is to facial surgery, but the new Aero is dramatically better. Make a lunge for the gas pedal and the 9-3 propels itself straight toward the horizon with undisguised glee. There's little tire scrabble — in the dry at least — and impressive composure at higher velocities.
Our test car was an automatic sedan and although the Asin AW transmission slipped smoothly from cog to cog, the upchanges felt slightly tardy under full acceleration. The auto also features a sequential shift facility but the enthusiast's choice may prove to be the six-speed manual. Neither gearbox will improve the engine note, though, which remains disappointingly flat, despite Saab's exhaust tuning exertions.
Same Again, Sven
The rest of the Aero experience will be familiar to drivers of the existing 9-3. The ride quality on these smooth roads felt predictably good and the pleasingly quick steering lends the car a direct, easy-to-point feel. It is fun to drive, although the Saab's aging GM chassis and the limitations of front-wheel drive mean that it lacks the ultimate finesse of a 3 Series, or Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The interior remains a haven of good taste, and detail improvements to the trim have given the quality a welcome boost. It might lack the elegant simplicity of an Audi cabin, but the Saab's busier design has a distinctive, contemporary feel. And some of the detailing is terrific — the novelty of "joystick" air vent controls will take a long time to wear off. Add ultracomfortable seats to the mix and the 9-3's cabin becomes an appealing place in which to spend time.
More Than One Way to Cook a Swede
Cabriolet and sedan versions of the Aero go on sale here in October, with the new Sport Combi wagon joining the mix in December. Prices are yet to be confirmed but Saab is predicting a $1,000 premium over the existing four-cylinder Aero, with the sedan starting at under $35,000.
There can be no doubting that the new turbo V6 provides a welcome boost to the 9-3 range and Saab US expects the Aero mix to grow from 11 percent to around 20 percent of total 9-3 sales. The 2006 Saab 9-3 Aero is a distinctive alternative, with enough power-at-a-price to keep all the smart money from leaning toward a BMW 3 Series.
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