2007 Saab 9-3 SportCombi: The Anti-Crossover


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OWNERS SAY…

The fact that minivans, sport/utility vehicles and crossovers have been multiplying like rabbits over the past decade might help to explain why station wagons have been on the decline in the United States, at least from U.S. automakers. Luckily for wagon lovers, European manufacturers are keeping the high-end wagon flame alive with good-looking, practical, fast and fun-to-drive premium wagons. Indeed, sporty wagons are being churned out by European auto-makers from Audi to Volvo. Saab (with its American counterparts at General Motors) hopes its 9-3 SportCombi will work to change some Americans’ attitudes about the sport wagon.

The 9-3 SportCombi, a five-door version of the 9-3 sedan, debuted at last year’s Geneva show and is based on the GM Epsilon platform. The SportCombi shares the sedan’s track and wheelbase, with the sedan’s trunk replaced by the expanded cargo area. To keep the chassis as stiff as the sedan, the base of the C-pillars was stiffened, and stronger structures were used connecting the C- and D-pillars to the roof and floor. We think Saab designers made the conversion to a wagon successful in terms of both body stiffness and looks. With its steeply raked windshield, short overhangs, small windows behind the C-pillars and no roof rails, the car is handsome and sporty—maintaining much of the cool look of the 9-3 Sport Hatch concept from Frankfurt ’03. Owners agree, one calling the SportCombi an “aesthetically beautiful car.”

Our test car stickered at $39,260 and was fitted with a 2.8-liter turbocharged V6, developing 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. A 2.0-liter, 210-hp four-cylinder is also available.

One of our biggest impressions when we first drove the Opel Vectra-based SportCombi was that the car drives like a Saab, and not just because the ignition sits between the front buckets. The turbocharger, relatively long-travel suspension (MacPherson struts in front and four-link in the rear) and a little steering play all add up to a driving experience that says “rally bred” for less-than-perfect surfaces—no thumps, no suspension crashing and a well-controlled body. True, there is some body roll, but the car can be driven hard into corners, and the steering is accurate.

Back in Detroit, a SportCombi test car with manual transmission plowed through the snow like a Polaris. We found we didn’t need to work the smooth V6 engine into the higher rev band (the turbo kicked in nicely at about 2500 rpm) or dial up a lot of boost as we used to do in the old Saab 2.3 turbo cars. There still was a touch of torque steer, though not like in the bad old days, just a tug now and then. So torque steer and turbo lag, two of Saab’s historic quirks, are largely absent now. Those who love old Saabs will be pleased to know the six-speed manual’s shift action is still rubbery, enough to cause some missed shifts.

The interior was handsome and looked well built. The seats, trimmed in gray leather with silver piping, were comfortable and firm. One owner called the interior “beautiful” and said her six-foot-five husband has plenty of room. There is 14.8 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seat up and a whopping 45 when it’s down.

At California Speedway, the SportCombi hit 60 mph in 6.74 seconds. A Subaru Legacy GT Limited ran through our traps in 5.23 seconds, but that car had a manual transmission. A Mercedes-Benz E320 that we tested got the job done in 6.72 seconds.

The 9-3 SportCombi exhibited plenty of understeer through our tight slalom, but we found it predictable and controllable for a top speed of 43.4 mph. That falls a bit short of the Mercedes, which rounded the cones at 43.6 mph, and the all-wheel-drive Subaru’s 43.7-mph run. Skidpad numbers also had the 9-3 trailing the two with its 0.74 g result when compared with the Benz’s 0.82 g and the Subaru’s 0.81 g.

Stopping from 60 mph, the Saab turned in a respectable 121-foot performance. This was far better than the Legacy’s 133 feet but, again, not enough to overcome the E350, which managed it in only 114 feet.

Owners we heard from were, for the most part, happy with their purchase and had no problems recommending the car to others with what they described as its remarkable acceleration, balanced handling and unique looks. One also noted a healthy $6,500 discount as the icing on the cake to help make their buy even sweeter.



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SPECS & DATA

My Saab 9-3 SportCombi came well equipped with a six-disc CD player, sport suspension, supportive leather seats and terrific dual-zone climate controls. I’m disappointed with the gaudy steering wheel and the power windows without an auto-up function; otherwise, I am very happy. It is fast, comfortable, sporting and quiet, with a V6 that makes wonderful sounds without being intrusive. The suspension is firm but not hard and bouncy like my previous 9-3. The car drives more like a sport sedan than a wagon. Like all Saabs, it is also very practical. Patrick O’Neal, Benicia, Calif.

The increased weight on the back of the car makes the SportCombi feel more balanced than the sedan, with just the right amount of information transmitted to the driver. It doesn’t accelerate as quickly as the sedan, but once the turbo kicks in, the engine feels eager. The SportCombi has good grip, excellent handling and a sporty feel, making it great for long drives and day-to-day commuting. Road and engine noise are more muted than in earlier Saabs. Compared with competitors, the Saab is a terrific value for the money. I like the handling, engine, style and extra space compared with the sedan. Although the equipment level is high, the plastics inside the car feel cheap compared with the Volvo V50 and the Volkswagen Passat wagon. I previously owned a 2003 Saab and was concerned about reliability, but this wagon has been extremely reliable. Paul Guinessy, Silver Spring, Md.

I came out of a BMW 530i and was looking for a vehicle that I could throw bikes, skis and kayaks on. I looked at the Audi A4 Avant and the BMW X3, but for close to $10,000 less, the Saab was a no-brainer. I enjoy the power, the fit and finish (for the price) and the fact that I have yet to see another one on the road since I purchased it. Dislikes would be the lack of one-touch up windows and the fact that my Saab is not a BMW. My plan is to buy a Porsche 911 in two years and have the Saab as a nice second vehicle. Fernando Morton, Snoqualmie, Wash.















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