2009 Saab 9-3

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$30,360

starting MSRP

2009 Saab 9-3

Key specs

Base trim shown

Overview

The good:

  • Maneuverability
  • Ride comfort
  • Handling
  • Stability
  • Manual-shift operation
  • Construction quality

The bad:

  • Confusing radio controls
  • Snug backseat
  • Slight turbo lag when Aero is pushed hard

5 trims

Starting msrp listed lowest to highest price

Wondering which trim is right for you?

Our 2009 Saab 9-3 trim comparison will help you decide.

Notable features

  • Available 280-hp turbocharged V-6
  • Sedan, convertible and wagon body styles
  • All-wheel drive available
  • OnStar 8.0 with Bluetooth technology

2009 Saab 9-3 review: Our expert's take

By David Thomas

The verdict:

Versus the competiton:

In 2008, Saab restyled its popular entry-level 9-3 sedan, convertible and wagon (known as the SportCombi in Saab-speak) and gave it all-wheel drive for the first time, but even these rather significant changes don’t cover up the fact that the 2009 9-3 is not only identical to the 2008, it’s basically the same car it was in 2003 — when it was last redesigned.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to like about this eccentric, turbo-powered small luxury car, especially if you’re a station wagon fan. However, the competition is tough, and the 9-3 is only a bargain when you take into account incentives, and those won’t continue indefinitely. The 2009 versions are on sale now, and the only change is that the company’s all-wheel-drive option is now available on more trim levels. There are no other significant upgrades. I recently tested both a 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero convertible and the limited-edition 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi wagon with all-wheel drive.

Exterior
Saab’s 9-3 isn’t the most radical-looking sedan on the market. In fact, besides Volvo, there aren’t many sedans so generic-looking. Most manufacturers today are leaning toward very bold, distinctive designs, leaving Saab somewhat at a disadvantage. The automaker did make a few changes in 2008, giving its 9-3 family a new grille, headlights and front bumper, along with a revised rear bumper and taillights.

The new grille adds some visual seasoning to an otherwise bland front end, and the black-rimmed taillights do the talking around back. When painted certain colors, like white and yellow, the taillights are especially striking, but not necessarily in a good way.

Overall, the sedan, wagon and convertible are all relatively handsome on their own. The convertible received the most positive remarks during my testing, but it sure didn’t elicit any head-turns from passers-by.

Interior
Because the Saab is an aging model, the interior appears more dated than the competition’s. In some ways I thought the interior felt cheap, especially the fit and finish along the dashboard, where major panels meet the top of the dash. You could feel a very rough cut of plastic there.

The switch that controls the convertible top’s operation moved the entire plastic panel surrounding it, and on the steering wheel large gaps showed the wires running to the buttons mounted on either side. All of these faults detracted from an otherwise well-styled interior.

Saab eccentricities include honeycomb air conditioning vents, an ignition switch that’s located dead center between the driver and passenger seats, and a parking brake that looks like it’s integrated into the center console of the car. All of these touches give Saab a certain quirky, charming aura that its competition lacks. To me, they don’t make up for other faults, but they certainly are what make a Saab a Saab.

I also liked the standard leather seats. In the 9-3 Aero convertible, two-tone leather is standard, and it creates a nice look in ivory and dark gray. The front seats are also quite comfortable, if a tad stiff. There’s considerable support.

The rear seats in the SportCombi Turbo X I tested were plenty roomy compared to a BMW 3 Series wagon. My wife also commented on how much more room there was than in our own Subaru Outback’s backseat. We had our same child-safety seat in both cars, and it clearly fit into the Saab more easily while still allowing more seat room for passengers.

Performance
The experience of driving a Saab is completely dependent on your engine selection. The base 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder packs 210 horsepower and is an adequate power plant, if not overly exhilarating. The sedan gets 19/29 mpg city/highway with the standard manual transmission, 19/26 with an optional automatic. The 2.8-liter turbo V-6 found in Aero trim levels produces 255 hp and is considerably more fun to drive, but also thirstier, at 16/26 mpg with the manual and 15/24 with the automatic. Both the wagon and convertible get slightly worse mileage than the sedan.

My test of the Aero was in the convertible. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the Aero convertible jerked between shifts, and the turbo kicked in far too often. This is typical of turbo engines … from five years ago. Most turbo engines introduced over the past few years have wrangled in turbo lag so well that most novices won’t even notice it. Not in this Saab.

Still, when the turbo kicks in under heavy acceleration it offers a thrill that most normally aspirated engines with the same power ratings can’t replicate.

Unfortunately, the convertible body style married to front-wheel drive led to an unbalanced driving experience; the car felt unsettled and required a lot of corrective steering under heavy acceleration. That’s not a quality I find as endearing as the eccentric interior. The soft-top convertible is exceptionally quiet during highway driving, however, and when cruising with the top down the 9-3 offers a very pleasant open-air experience, with just the right amount of wind hitting the driver.

For 2008, Saab produced a limited-edition Turbo X version of its 9-3 sedan and wagon. It features a more powerful version of the turbo V-6 that packs 280 hp. The extra 25 hp is very noticeable, and if you can find one of these cars still on a lot it will be well worth testing. However, the Turbo X was most notable because it featured the first all-wheel-drive system available on the 9-3, called XWD. The bigger engine plus all-wheel drive give the Turbo X a performance-car feel that I’ve never experienced in a Saab.

Unlike the convertible, the Turbo X felt planted and secure during spirited driving. On the highway, the ride is surprisingly comfortable. High-performance trims often feature such taut suspension tuning that bumps get amplified at cruising speeds. The Turbo X, however, seems to be made for a driver who’s just slightly sporting — other than the loud exhaust note, which ruined the family aspect of this wagon by creating a lot of noise. I like to hear a car grunt as much as the next guy, but at cruising speeds I don’t need to be constantly reminded that there’s something extra under the hood — give me performance and performance-car sounds on demand, please. This was the lone drawback in the highway experience. I imagine the 2009 Aero SportCombi would be a very pleasant highway companion.

Unfortunately, the Turbo X will not be offered for 2009. However, XWD will be added as an additional trim level for all 9-3 sedans and wagons.

Features and Utility
The 9-3 doesn’t offer a long list of standard features like most of today’s entry-level luxury competition. You get leather seats and a glove compartment cooler, but things like heated seats and a moonroof, which you can find standard on many competitors, are part of option packages.

While the 9-3 starts at a reasonable $28,445 for a base 2.0T sedan, to get it properly optioned can be expensive. Compared to the 2009 Acura TSX, which is just $515 more, you get a lot less for your money in terms of features. You’d have to order nearly $3,000 in options for the 9-3 to get it similarly equipped to the TSX.

What the 9-3 does pack is room, as it outdistances the competition in almost every category, including cargo room in both the trunk of the sedan and in the large cargo area of the SportCombi, which is 29.7 cubic feet with the backseat up. That’s more than the significantly larger Dodge Magnum wagon, which was recently discontinued. Looking at direct competition like the Volvo V70 wagon, though, the 9-3 loses out just slightly on space, though the V70 costs a few thousand more.

The convertible has a usable trunk area when the top is down, but the canvas top takes more than 20 seconds to retract, which is long by today’s standards.

Safety
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has given both the Saab 9-3 sedan and convertible its highest award of Top Safety Pick, which means they scored Good — the highest mark — in front, side and rear crash tests.

Standard safety features include a stability system, side curtain airbags (except the convertible), side torso airbags for the front seats and active front head restraints.

9-3 in the Market
While the 9-3 has a lot of utility and relative luxury for the money, it simply can’t stand up to the competition when it comes to performance or features for the price. While the more powerful all-wheel-drive trims are quite good, they can’t compete with similarly priced Audis. The base trims can’t compete with the extremely well-equipped competition, like the TSX or Lexus IS.

On the convertible front, I much prefer a similarly priced Volvo C70, which has a retractable hardtop and a more usable trunk.

No amount of clever taillight applications or new grilles will cover the fact that the 9-3 just doesn’t have enough to beat the best of the segment. What Saab can cling to is its unique interior styling and the distinct driving feel of the turbos. Otherwise, with no significant changes for the 2009 model year, I’m left wondering when an all-new 9-3 is coming.

Send David an email  

Consumer reviews

Rating breakdown (out of 5):
  • Comfort 4.8
  • Interior design 4.5
  • Performance 4.7
  • Value for the money 4.5
  • Exterior styling 4.5
  • Reliability 4.5

Most recent consumer reviews

4.9

Best small sedan ever

The SAAB 9.3 is the best small sedan ever. It is exceptionally well built, well designed and well thought out. Gas mileage is great, performace is exceptional for its engine size/weight and handling is top notch for a front drive 4 door sedan. Interior ergonomics are unsurpassed in this type of vehicle, and it has the best heated seats in the world. Car was stone reliable and a joy to drive...until some celphone staring moron turned left into me. Even then, the SAAB shown thru - it held up exceedingly well ; the clown that ran into me was in a toyota and her car was so wadded up that you had to look at the trunk badge to even tell what it was. The SAAB would have fixed were it not for the cost of the airbags and the government's murdering its resale by giving the company to the red chinese. Were it not for the potential problem of parts availability, I would have replaced it with another immediately. As it is, we bought a Mercedes C class - and its not nearly the car the SAAB is.

5.0

Insane not to buy a SAAB!!

The SAAB 9 3 is an amazing little sports car! As nice as any Acura or BMW. Great handling, quick and responsive, and the best part, you won't see another sitting across from you at the traffic light. You would have to be insane not to purchase a low mileage SAAB, they are a quarter of the price of any other luxury sedan. Better enjoy now before all the good ones are gone!

5.0

Super

This Vehicle was way ahead of its time for 2003/2004 At 167000 a great vehicle NO Rust at all and we live in PA Smooth, Powerful and a great Local Dealer for Service Cheep and Very Available Parts as of 7/2018 Way under rated!!

See all 19 consumer reviews
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