Orlando Sentinel's view

Tony runs one of the companies that supplies and maintains test cars for journalists. I’ve known Tony for more than 15 years, and I’m aware that he seldom expresses an opinion of the cars his company delivers.

So when Tony says, “I’m sending you this Saab wagon with the turbocharged V-6 engine — I’m impressed,” well, that constitutes an endorsement.

Deserved, it turns out. The 2006 Saab 9-3 SportCombi, which must be Swedish for “station wagon,” is the nicest Saab I’ve driven in a long time.

At the heart of this niceness is that 2.8-liter V-6 that we’ve seen in the Cadillac CTS. In the Cadillac, it’s a smooth but otherwise anonymous 210-horsepower base engine. But Saab bolted a Mitsubishi turbocharger to it and rewrote the engine computer’s software, and suddenly it’s pumping out 40 more horsepower, delivered smoothly through dual exhausts. With an optional six-speed automatic transmission — a six-speed manual is standard and would save you $1,300 — this is a very satisfying powertrain.

The Saab’s cockpit is comfortable and, except for the sound-system controls, familiar. Quirky but unobjectionable is Saab’s traditional console-mounted ignition. Rear-seat room isn’t bad for two small-to-average adults, cramped for three. If you are more than 6 feet tall, you will be unimpressed by legroom.

Like any premium, or near-premium European car, the SportCombi’s suspension is tuned slightly more for handling than a smooth ride, but the compromise is acceptable at both extremes. It’s hard to remember that the Saab 9-3 shares its basic platform architecture with the Chevrolet Malibu, which is not nearly as much fun to drive. Nor does it cost nearly as much, though: Topping out at $38,410, our test Saab’s price is sobering.

But if you can live with less engine, you can pay a lot less for a SportCombi. With a 2.0-liter, 210-horse turbocharged four-cylinder and a five-speed manual transmission, the non-Aero SportCombi starts at $26,900. That still buys you air conditioning, leather upholstery, side and side-curtain air bags, a good stereo with a CD player, and full power-operated controls.

Opt for our Aero and its $32,900 base price, and you’ll have the bigger engine, a six-speed manual transmission, a power glass sunroof, 17-inch tires and wheels, an upgraded stereo and a number of other features. With several options including a roof rack and a navigation system, the $38,410 sticker price isn’t that different from comparable European wagons, few though they may be.

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at or 407-420-5699.

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