First Drive: 2008 Saab 9-3 & XWD
By Joe Rusz of Road & Track
As concept cars go, the Saab Aero X is a beauty. Sleek, clean and pointy — like an arrow — this racy 2-seater would sell like äppelkaka, if Trollhättan ever built one. Stay tuned. In the meantime, we'll have to make do with the 2008 Saab 9-3, a redesigned sedan, combi or convertible (choose one) that, to me, is an example of what happens when corporate asks senior designer Ola Granlund to put some of those artsy-fartsy, Aero X design elements to work in a production model to help the company put some much-needed Kronan back in its coffers.
Done, as evidenced in the latest 9-3, which sports all new bodywork from the A-pillar forward, plus reshaped sheet metal and plastic elsewhere. The signature Saab clamshell hood features a redesigned grille and headlights that are edgier (literally) than before. Thin, LED Daytime Running Lights are integrated into the tops of the headlamp clusters, which also house the angular turn signals. The generous under-bumper air intake has been reshaped and is now set off by a large, Audi-like center maw flanked by chrome-trimmed, matte-black air vents that resemble the air intakes of a jet engine. Saab traditionalists take note: That wing-like center grille bar, which speaks to Saab's aeromotive heritage, is still part of the facial motif.
Compared with the 2007 model, the latest 9-3's body has a cleaner and more cohesive shape that boasts an impressive 0.28 CD. Gone from the front bumpers, sides and rear of the car are those klutzy-looking rub strips, which may have protected against parking-lot door dings but looked ungainly doing it. In fact, 70 percent of the external body panels and associated parts are new, including the side sill extensions (standard throughout the 9-3 range) and redesigned trunklids (for the Sport Sedan and Convertible) that feature new taillight assemblies with smoked white lenses.
Sharing the limelight with the 9-3's redesigned body is XWD, Saab-speak for the company's full-time all-wheel-drive system. Paired with a slightly overboosted (11.6 versus 7.3 psi), 280-bhp version of the standard 250-horse V-6, this option is available only on the upscale Aero sedan and combi. An electronically controlled, on-demand system capable of sending up to 100 percent of the engine's torque to the front or rear wheels, XWD operates in concert with the engine, transmission and ABS/ESP control modules to optimize handling and stability in all driving conditions without sacrificing Saab's sporty feel.
Unlike many current systems, which must detect wheel slip before engaging the center differential, Saab's Transfer Traction Device is activated at takeoff, and under ideal conditions sends only 5 to 10 percent of the engine's torque to the rear wheels, providing greater stability while saving fuel. Optional with XWD, an electronic limited-slip differential (eLSD) balances the torque between the rear halfshafts, providing even better traction and control. How good? Well, in a factory-organized slalom involving Japanese and German sedans and sports cars, an Aero XWD was bested only by a Porsche 911 Turbo.
A few blasts around Saab's test course — incorporating muddy, rough surfaces, several paved slaloms and lane-change sections, and simulated icy pavement — legitimized factory claims that XWD is the new benchmark in all-wheel drive. It's transparent until the going gets tough, when it steps in to ensure that the Aero's rear end (or the front end, for that matter) doesn't step out.
Mostly unchanged from 2007, the 9-3's interior features logically placed controls, large, easily readable instruments, comfortable seats and a laudable climate-control system. And, of course, the stereo/CD cum nav system that's expected in a near-luxury vehicle.
Although both the base 9-3 with its 2.0-liter, 210-bhp turbocharged inline-4 and the upscale 2.8-liter, 250-bhp turbo V-6 Aero (each engine a carryover from 2007) go on sale in September, the top-of-the-line Aero XWD won't come to market until January or February 2008. Expect to pay about $28,000 for the entry-level 9-3, approximately $34,500 for the Aero and about $2000 more for the XWD, which will be packaged with other niceties that are sure to tack a few hundred dollars more onto that Monroney.