As globally homogenized as our cars have become, it's good -- and a little surprising -- that European sedans still feel like European sedans. Meaning what? Meaning that the handling, steering input and road feel still have a level of sensitivity not typically found in American or Asian competitors.
This certainly isn't because the European cars are similar, but there remains a similarity in the way the steering and suspension are turned. It isn't that the front-wheel-drive Saab 9-3 feels like a rear-wheel-drive BMW 3-Series, but they do feel like the kindred spirits they are -- designed and built for customers who appreciate the nuances.
The fact that the 2008 Saab 9-3 still feels European is doubly impressive, since it has, since 2004, shared its basic underpinnings with its General Motors stablemates, the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac G6. But Saab engineers, mostly through exhaustive suspension modifications, have maintained the 9-3's unique feel, even as General Motors continues to struggle to make Saab the profitable niche brand GM wants it to be.
Saab's lineup has, after all, been diluted with the now-discontinued 9-2X, which was a rebadged Subaru wagon, and the 9-7X, a rebadged Ohio-built General Motors SUV. And when was the last time you saw a new Saab 9-5 on the road? Yeah, me neither.
So it has been left to the 9-3 to carry the heritage of the Swedish manufacturer, and you know what? It's a very nice car. Pricey, perhaps, but that's always been true of Saabs and its Ford-owned Swedish counterpart, Volvo.
GM has invested a little money in the 9-3 the past couple of years, giving it a freshened interior in 2007, and for 2008, updated exterior styling. The nose and the taillights are new, as are the door handles -- the overall effect isn't startling, but it is noticeable. Mechanically, not much changes, but the turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6 in the Aero model, tested here, gets a five-horsepower boost to 255. The other sedan model, the 2.0T, has a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 210 horsepower, the same as last year. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on both models. A five-speed automatic is offered with the 2.0T, and a six-speed for the Aero.
The test Aero had the automatic, and it was very nicely matched to the willing engine, which feels like more than 255 horsepower, delivered smoothly. There are plenty of cars that are cheaper and more powerful -- the 2008 Honda Accord V-6, for instance, has 268 horsepower, and doesn't need a turbocharger to produce it -- but the Saab still has more than adequate muscle.
The cockpit is pretty straightforward, with a central concession to Saab's once-quirky personality: The ignition key is still on the console, between the seats. The bucket seats are excellent -- leather is a $1,500 option, which the test car had -- and rear seats can handle two average-sized adults. The 15 cubic feet of trunk space is plenty.
On the road, the Saab is balanced, with effortless handling and a genuine affection for winding roads. On the highway, the ride is smooth and quiet. This has always been an excellent cross-county car. Fuel mileage is nothing special at an EPA-rated 15 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway -- not to belabor the comparison, but the new Accord V-6 with an automatic transmission is rated at 19/29 mpg.
I'm not going to compare the Saab's price with the Accord's, because that's a face-off any European sedan will lose. The 9-3 Aero starts at $34,620, and with shipping and some options, including the leather seats, the sticker read $38,765.
Saab, as a company, has always marched to a different drummer, and it seeks customers who do, too. You'll like the beat, if not the price.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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