Full 2011 Saab 9-3 Review
What's New for 2011
There are no significant changes for the 2011 Saab 9-3.
The Swedish word for roller-coaster is "berg-och-dalbana," which is a pretty good way of describing the past two years for Saab. The brand was scheduled to be sold by parent company General Motors, but the deal fell through. GM was ready to completely pull the plug on Saab, but then Dutch supercar maker Spyker made an 11th-hour save. Spyker is now promising a bright future that involves an entirely new car lineup bolstered by an all-new Saab 9-3.
Unfortunately, that all-new car is still at least a year away, and the 2011 Saab 9-3 you can buy today is simply the eighth year for a car that was never that impressive to begin with. Among entry-level luxury cars, the 9-3 is the equivalent of an aging Epcot ride in a segment filled with really cool berg-och-dalbanas.
The 2011 Saab 9-3 has a 210-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder as its sole engine offering; most of its competitors offer more vigorous performance and/or an engine upgrade of some sort. Its interior is a significant step below its competitors, and it lacks many of the electronic features that have become de rigueur the past few years. There is no iPod interface, for instance, and Bluetooth is bundled with optional OnStar telematics. Despite standard leather upholstery and wood trim, the 9-3 simply doesn't feel like the luxury car its price implies.
If there is a bright spot, it is the SportCombi wagon with its unique styling, copious cargo space and, in 9-3X guise, elevated ground clearance. In Aero trim, the SportCombi even handles reasonably well with sharp steering and controlled body motions. There is a dearth of competition nowadays for such a vehicle, which is something the 9-3 sedan and convertible do not enjoy.
However, there aren't enough wagon buyers left in this country to help the 9-3 ease Saab up the steep, precipitous hill it's beginning to climb. Until the new 9-3 arrives, Saab loyalists and compact luxury buyers should instead consider the Audi A4 and A5, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Volvo S60 and C70. Non-luxury-branded cars like the Subaru Legacy and Outback and the Volkswagen CC and Eos are also worth a look. In other words, there is an abundance of better rides than the 2011 Saab 9-3.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2011 Saab 9-3 is available in three body styles: sedan, convertible and a wagon known as the SportCombi. Each is broken into 2.0T and Aero trim levels, while the SportCombi is available in an additional all-wheel-drive trim known as 9-3X. Front-wheel drive is standard on all, but both sedan models can be equipped with AWD (dubbed XWD).
The base 2.0T sedan comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear foglamp, heated mirrors, automatic wipers, keyless entry, cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-way power driver seat with lumbar adjustment, leather upholstery, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and a seven-speaker sound system with a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack. The convertible adds 17-inch wheels and a full power soft top. The 9-3X gets different 17-inch wheels, front foglamps, a taller ride height, roof rails and unique trim inside and out.
The Comfort package available on all 2.0T trim levels adds headlamp washers, heated front seats, an eight-way power passenger seat and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Other options include a sunroof, OnStar, Bluetooth and a Bose surround-sound system with a six-CD changer and satellite radio. The convertible has a different 11-speaker upgraded sound system that also includes the CD changer and satellite radio.
The 9-3 Aero gains 17-inch wheels on the sedan, while all body styles get adaptive xenon headlamps, front foglamps, two-tone leather upholstery and the 2.0T's optional features. The Premium package adds rear parking sensors, power-folding and auto-dimming mirrors and driver memory functions. A version of the Premium package is available on the 9-3X and adds the Aero's adaptive xenon headlamps and power passenger seat. A navigation system is optional on the Aero and 9-3X.
Powertrains and Performance
Every Saab 9-3 is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder good for 210 hp and 221 pound-feet of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard on all but the 9-3X, which is all-wheel drive. AWD is also optional for the sedan.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the front-drive 2.0T models, and a no-cost option on the Aero, 9-3X and AWD sedans. A five-speed automatic standard is standard on the front-drive Aero models and optional on the 2.0T models. A six-speed automatic is standard on AWD models and the 9-3X.
With the manual and front-wheel drive, the 9-3 sedan and SportCombi return an EPA-estimated 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined. Getting all-wheel drive results in a drop to 17/27/21, while opting for the automatic or convertible returns fuel economy somewhere in between.
The 2011 Saab 9-3 comes standard with antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, active front head restraints and side airbags. The sedan and SportCombi include side curtain airbags, while the convertible features taller side airbags that cover the head of each front occupant. OnStar emergency telematics is optional on the 2.0T and standard on the Aero.
The 9-3 has not been rated using the government's new, more strenuous 2011 crash-testing procedures. Its 2010 ratings (which aren't comparable to 2011 tests) saw it receiving four out of five stars for frontal and side rear crash protection and five stars for driver side protection. The convertible was not tested. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the 9-3 sedan the best rating of "Good" in the frontal-offset and side crash tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
The Saab 9-3's cabin offers comfortable front seats (especially in the Aero) and good ergonomics, but the quality of the interior materials doesn't measure up to that of competitors in the class. Fit and finish also leaves something to be desired. The sedan and wagon are sufficiently roomy, but rear legroom is limited in the convertible.
Stereo and climate controls are a model of simplicity (a welcome departure from past Saabs), but in a class where topping the competition's high-tech features is commonplace, the 9-3 is practically standing pat. There's no iPod interface, the navigation system is antiquated, there's no real-time traffic and Bluetooth is packaged with OnStar. At least there are a few remaining kooky Saab features, like the console-mounted ignition and the "Night Panel" function that dims most instrument lighting (except most of the speedometer) for nighttime driving.
The Saab 9-3 does carry more cargo than many cars in its class, offering 15 cubic feet of trunk space in the sedan and 12.4 cubes in the convertible. The wagon offers 29.7 cubic feet of storage space with the backseat up and an impressive 72.3 cubic feet with the rear seat folded flat. That's more than most compact crossover SUVs.
With the 210-hp 2.0-liter turbo being the 2011 Saab 9-3's sole engine choice, acceleration is underwhelming for this class of car. Ride quality is also disappointing, as the suspension can lose composure over especially bumpy pavement. The steering is a bright spot, as it is light and quite accurate. Body roll around corners is excessive with the base 2.0T model -- so much so that the term "mushy" could be applied. The sport-tuned Aero model improves things considerably -- as does the added traction of XWD all-wheel drive -- but even here the 9-3 can't quite match the athleticism of its rivals.