When it comes to my decades-old affection for Saabs, I am beginning to feel a bit like Tom Bodett, who always closed his commercials for Motel 6 with a line that eventually grew stale: ”We’ll leave the light on for ya.”

I’ve left the light on for Saab for several years now, hoping somebody at General Motors Corp., which owns the once superb manufacturer, would flip the switch and provide the juice to electrify a brand they have allowed to become moribund.

They could conceivably bring Saab back into a class with Volvo, whose owner, the Ford Motor Co., has fertilized the brand’s Swedish roots but left its cultivation to Volvo.

Today’s test car, the 2006 Saab 9-3 2.0T, illustrates my frustration — it is so close to being a fine car.

Saab has jettisoned the wheezing 175-horsepower four-cylinder engine that powered its predecessor, disposed of the Linear and Arc models, and has given us two whomping alternatives: the as-tested base model with its 2.0-liter, turbo-charged, four-cylinder engine, and the Aero, with a V-6. A five-speed manual or automatic transmission (as tested) comes with the four-cylinder; a six-speed manual or automatic are available in the Aero.

The V-6, also turbocharged, is a 250-horsepower hauler at 2.8 liters, while the test model generates a surprising 210 horsepower from its four cylinders.

The same platform and power packages also are wrapped in a station wagon model of the same car — the SportCombi — as well as a convertible 9-3.

And Saab, long known for the safety of its cars, does not scrimp with the 9-3.

It comes with an antilock braking system, traction control, stability control, and front, side, and head air bags. The convertible model has a rollover-protection system with bolstered windshield pillars, pop-up rollover bars, and seat belts that tighten automatically when sensors detect an imminent roll.

And this all starts at only around $27,000.

So what’s my beef? Production wonks. These are the folks who, once a concept car is deemed production-ready, scour it for savings. They affix stickers to various items (the vanity mirror, the materials used on the interior doors or dash) that essentially say, ”Here’s a place to cut quality and save some money.” I found their fingerprints all over the dash of the 9-3.

Despite the textured door panels, nice touches of faux wood trim, a delightfully funky cup holder, and a complex yet useable center dash control for audio and climate, there was also some glaring dullness. The framing for the dash and gauges was cheap plastic. And that’s where occupants’ eyes often go first. How much more could it cost to put soft-touch, textured material where the black plastic sits like a scab? Hyundai and Kia do it.

It is annoying because, truly, this is a pretty nice car — even if adding extras such as navigation, premium seating, automatic transmission, and a special blue paint job quickly bump the price to $33,000.

The engine was wonderfully smooth and powerful. The off-line tug of torque steer, which has plagued some Saabs in the past, was gone. Even understeer, a trait of front-wheel-drive vehicles, was minimal. Power (with a bit of turbo lag), sureness afoot, and quality seating amount to a good car. The suspension was sports-car stiff, a solid Swedish trait.

But GM, you need to go the next step. Build this car with the interior quality of, say, a Volvo (or Kia or Hyundai) — the entire interior. If you don’t want to do that, then let somebody else buy Saab so it can be returned to the cutting edge.

Do it before even Tom Bodett decides to turn out the light.

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Royal Ford can be reached at

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