Your first clue that something's up on the 2008 Saab 9-3 sedan and SportCombi wagon will be the conspicuous lack of Saab's traditional black body-side moldings. Your second clue is the new face inspired by the Aero X Concept.
To find your third clue, bend down on the ground and have a look underneath. Ya sure, that's a rear differential.
Come January 2008, the 9-3 will apply power to all four wheels. And while it represents a break with tradition, the all-wheel-drive 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD could save this brand from sales obscurity.
Only the Swedes Say It This Way
Saab says XWD should be pronounced "Cross-Wheel Drive." It hardly rolls off the tongue, but this fourth-generation Haldex-engineered system breaks some new ground.
Like other electronically controlled, on-demand all-wheel-drive (AWD) systems, this one has its own computer that talks to not only the AWD system but also the stability control and the engine. The actual torque transfer between the front and rear wheels comes courtesy of fast-acting clutch plates.
At a steady cruising speed, more than 90 percent of engine power still goes to the front wheels. As soon as you dip into the throttle, the XWD brain starts fiddling with the power delivery and sending torque rearward to enhance traction. And in the corners, the XWD brain uses input from the stability control sensors to balance the car's handling by varying power delivery to the rear wheels, and it also raises the threshold at which the stability system will intervene.
What makes Saab's XWD most worthy of interest, however, is its optional rear limited-slip differential. Known as eLSD (electronic limited-slip differential), this clutch-type unit can distribute up to 40 percent of engine torque between the rear wheels. Since it uses both wheel speed and yaw sensors, eLSD can both improve traction on slippery roads and also help hold your line while cornering.
Together, XWD and eLSD will add $2,000 to the bottom line of the 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero sedan, raising its base price to about $35,000. The 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi wagon will start at about $36,000 with the XWD option. Other 9-3s, including all convertibles, share the '08 cosmetic changes but remain front-drive only. For 2009, however, the 9-3 2.0T sedan and wagon, which have a 210-hp turbo inline-4, will also get the XWD system.
Didn't Saab Practically Invent the Turbo?
Every 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero has a turbocharged 2.8-liter V6, but the extra $2 grand that gets you XWD also buys you more power. Thanks to an increase in maximum boost pressure from 7.3 psi to 11.6 psi, the turbo helps produce 280 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque — increases of 30 hp and 37 lb-ft respectively.
This is a pretty nice engine, with an integrated intercooler, a twin-scroll turbocharger, a forged-steel crankshaft, sinter-forged connecting rods and exhaust manifolds with stainless-steel liners.
The front-wheel-drive Saab 9-3 Aero continues with the regular-strength version of the turbo V6, though it has been rerated 255 hp, an increase of 5 hp.
With either Aero, you have your choice of a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic. Saab says a manual-shift 9-3 Aero XWD sedan will accelerate to 60 mph in the low 6-second range.
Entry-level 9-3 2.0T models have the same transmission options, though the automatic has just five forward gears. A sport mode is new for both five- and six-speed automatics in 2008, and it noticeably quickens downshifts.
No Snow in Sweden During Summer
There's actually no snow in southern Sweden in the summertime, so Saab officials had to improvise. Our test loop at the Stora Holms test facility near Gothenburg was one part damp gravel trail, one part dry road course and one part wet autocross course.
This loop isn't a WRC-caliber rally stage, but our manual-shift 9-3 Aero XWD SportCombi sucked us into the experience, permitting early and sustained doses of throttle. In a front-drive 9-3, such behavior would assure spectacular understeer and perhaps a trip into the brush. Therein lies the fun of XWD: If your eyes are up and the steering wheel is pointed in the right direction, you can get away with almost anything.
Aside from engineering a new rear subframe to carry the XWD components and revising the rear-wheel geometry, Saab hasn't made any significant suspension changes for the '08 9-3. Wheel and tire sizes haven't changed either, as the Aero still wears 235/45R17 all-season rubber.
This could be a missed opportunity. The Saab 9-3 Aero XWD remains a relatively lightweight car at 3,288 pounds, only now it has sharp throttle response off idle, an easily adjustable cornering attitude and lots of grip. There's a lot of potential for performance here, and we think Saab should take advantage of it.
All Quiet in the Swedish Countryside
We had a front-wheel-drive Aero sedan with an automatic transmission for the hour's drive from Stora Holms to the fishing village of Lysekil. It took only minutes to reacquaint ourselves with everything we like about the current-gen 9-3 — the light but accurate steering, the quiet and composed ride (especially on ultrasmooth Swedish roads) and the supportive front seats.
Unfortunately, the 9-3's mediocre interior materials continue to be a liability in a price bracket where the standards are set by Audi and BMW.
On the equipment side, rain-sensing wipers, XM Satellite Radio and OnStar telematics are now standard across the board. Midway through the year, Saab will offer an upgraded, surround-sound Bose audio system. Adaptive bi-xenon headlights, capable of swiveling 15 degrees in either direction, are standard for all 9-3 Aeros.
XWD Is the Right Formula
Front-wheel-drive 2008 Saab 9-3 sedans and SportCombi wagons will arrive at U.S. dealers in September 2007, followed by the convertible in October or November. But if you want a car that's really about driving, wait until the 9-3 with XWD arrives in January.
It goes beyond the grip and balance you get with any all-wheel-drive system. The 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD engages your emotions when you're at the wheel. It makes you care that it's a Saab, something not just uniquely different but also uniquely good.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2008 Saab 9-3 in WA is: