James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
Everyone has that fun ex-girlfriend you keep going back to even though you know she's all wrong for you. Or that reality show you can't stop watching even though you know it's rotting your brain. You like them, but doing so doesn't make any rational sense.
Well, welcome to the 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X Sport Combi, a really fun car with a really long name that makes as much rational sense as Jenny and America's Got Talent. It's a sport wagon with Mt. Denali high points and Death Valley low points. We walked away liking it, but knowing that we could only recommend it to a guy named Sven who has two kids and lives at the top of Latigo Canyon Road.
Of course, the 9-3 Turbo X is only going to be produced for 2008 in teeny-tiny numbers -- 600 sedans and Sport Combi wagons, to be precise -- which might make you wonder why we're even bothering to road test it in the first place. Well, for most folks, the sorta-mass-produced 9-3 Aero Sport Combi XWD will seem mostly identical to the Turbo X edition. The added bits and pieces between the two cars can really only be appreciated when tearing through a serpentine road. A firmer and lower suspension, self-leveling rear shocks, larger 18-inch alloy wheels and larger-diameter brakes all do a tremendous job of turning the 9-3 into a true sport sedan/wagon with superb handling potential. Of course, if you can't enjoy said potential, the Aero and its more comfortable ride should do you nicely, while still offering the same turbocharged V6, smart all-wheel-drive system and communicative steering.
So does that mean the Turbo X is the ex-girlfriend, while the Aero is the gal you should take down the aisle? Well, no. All of the Turbo X's major low points are actually shared with the Aero -- cramped backseat, disappointing fuel economy, chintzy interior and most of all, an absurdly high price. According to Edmunds True Market Value® pricing for August 2008, both the 9-3 Aero and Turbo X on average sell for $2,000 below invoice, but at about $41,000, that would still make our Turbo X test car too expensive given similarly priced competitors. The Aero is no different.
If we were to buy a 2008 Saab 9-3, there's no doubt that we'd track down one of the very few Turbo X Sport Combis. But that's a pretty unrealistic if. No amount of adept handling, wagon utility and Saab funkiness can make up for such huge drawbacks. We just couldn't marry Jenny.
Under the hood of both Turbo X and Aero models resides a GM-sourced 2.8-liter V6 turbocharged to produce 280 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque that shows up mostly in the midrange. While the engine is on the quiet side, the droning exhaust gets tiresome, particularly since it's louder at lower rpm. Saab estimates the sedan version with a six-speed manual will go from zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, but we clocked the Sport Combi wagon at a much less impressive 7.4 seconds. Perhaps our test car's six-speed automatic transmission had something to do with that. Shifts in full-auto mode are far from smooth, while using the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters produces gearchanges that are inconsistent in responsiveness and generally slow.
Also common between Aero and Turbo X is the XWD all-wheel-drive system that apportions power fore and aft depending on driving conditions. In the Aero, this should appeal more to snowbelters, but in the Turbo X, XWD teams with the myriad performance improvements to create a truly compelling driving experience. You emerge from every mountain corner more impressed than when you emerged from the last, as the Saab keeps begging to go faster and faster with its wonderfully communicative steering and impressive grip. Body roll is kept in check (unlike in the Aero) thanks to the lower and firmer suspension, bigger wheels and XWD system that sends more power to the rear on such occasions.
Surprisingly, stability control will rarely kick in during such hurried driving, doing a Ferrari-like job of aiding your progress rather than prematurely saving your bacon. In fact, track-testing Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot reported that the Turbo X managed to go through our slalom faster (67.3 mph) with stability control activated -- a true rarity. The brakes are also impressive, producing a 60-0 stopping distance of a scant 109 feet.
But as is so indicative of this car, a high point is immediately followed by a low point. The EPA estimates fuel economy for the 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero and 9-3 Turbo X to be 15 mpg city/24 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined: numbers we managed to duplicate. By comparison, the BMW 328xi is about as quick as the Turbo X and gets 2 mpg better, while the much quicker Infiniti EX35 rates about 1 mpg better. In other words, not exactly awful, but still disappointing given the Sport Combi's compact size and so-so acceleration.
Swedes are good at producing many things: cheap modern furniture, attractive blond people and supremely comfortable car seats. Just climb in and sink into their firm but deep padding that hugs you like Great Aunt Helga. They aren't super-snug racing seats by any stretch of the imagination, but on long distances, few do it better on the comfort-and-support-o-meter. Seat adjustment is also quite good for a variety of driver sizes -- including tallish Norse people -- although an inch or two more of telescoping steering column would be nice.
The backseat is a different story. It has the Aunt Helga seats, too, but legroom is on the cramped side, particularly when you have to sit behind one of those tallish Norse people. There's more to be found in the Audi A4 Avant, although the Infiniti EX35 is about the same. Headroom is excellent for anyone, however.
Quite surprising is the amount of wind noise -- or rather lack thereof -- from inside the 9-3's funky cabin. Even at high speeds, things remain quiet, with only the exhaust's incessant droning blocking out the tunes. On the other hand, with its firmer suspension and bigger wheels, the Turbo X clip-clopped over L.A.'s concave concrete slab freeways: the clear trade-off for such controlled body motions and grip. Those looking for something a little cushier should find the regular 9-3 Aero more to their liking.
Gone are the days when we'd admire Saab for its kooky interior design, then damn it at the same time because those same design quirks impeded a car's basic functionality. While purists will say the GM-sourced audio and climate switchgear dilutes the 9-3's Saabness, we say they make the car's controls a snap to use. They are well-spaced, well-marked and easily reachable thanks to the driver-canted, high-mounted dash design. There's still plenty of quirky Saabness to go around, though, like the console-mounted ignition and Night Panel light dimmer. The Turbo X comes with a surround-sound audio system, which is excellent in CD mode, but quite poor in all others.
Even if its backseat isn't the largest in the world, expect lots of cargo space from the 9-3 Sport Combi. We fit a load of laundry, a huge suitcase and a bunch of stuff from Costco in the spacious cargo area, all under the multidirection cargo cover. Thanks to the relatively upright hatchback, taller items will fit quite easily. Naturally, several golf bags are an effortless fit, while the 60/40-split rear seats can be folded easily to expand stuff-hauling capacity even further. The Turbo X's mixture of driving fun and utility reminded us why we love sport wagons so much.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X sets itself apart from the 9-3 Aero Sport Combi with matte-gray metallic exterior trim (a particularly nice improvement), unique 18-inch wheels (ditto), trapezoidal exhaust finishers and a color palette to make Henry Ford proud: You may get it in metallic black or metallic black. The interior gets faux carbon-fiber trim, which we certainly could live without.
Although its materials aren't bad, the 9-3's cabin quality is far from worthy of its inflated sticker. Perhaps at $36,000 we wouldn't be complaining, given the Turbo X's performance capabilities and utility. But at $46,000, it had better be as nice or nicer than its competitors from Infiniti and BMW. It isn't.
Who should consider this vehicle
Somebody who yearns for a slick-handling car with loads of cargo space and an ample dose of quirkiness. It also helps if you don't mind paying too much money for things.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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