EXPERT REVIEW

The Sacramento Bee's view

Automakers have gone to extremes to avoid using the “W” word … wagon. I completely understand. Wagon sounds so, well, old school. Manufacturers of contemporary motor vehicles want to generate a modern mind-set as opposed to, say, loading up the family for a trip to the Wigwam Motel on old Route 66 in San Bernardino.

For the 2006 model year, Saab has introduced a wagon that takes the cake in the don’t-call-it-a-wagon sweepstakes: the ’06 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi.

Got that? If you’ve dedicated it to memory after only one reading, you have a better brain than yours truly. Happily, when asked, Saab officials said they ran away from the “hatchback” label but are not at all squeamish about calling their 9-3 Aero SportCombi a wagon.

They strongly insisted, however, that it’s not your typical wagon.

“It has a fresh character all of its own. In the tradition of the Saab brand, it is not simply a ‘me too’ type of product,” said Peter Augustsson, Saab’s former president and chief executive, when the SportCombi was unveiled last year.

I agree. The tested SportCombi is a combination of sportiness, luxury and safety features not found in your run-of-the-mill wagon.

But buyer beware: This is not a gigantic wagon that can transport six kids and a ton of luggage. The 9-3 Aero SportCombi is what Saab calls a midsize. The vehicle sticker says “small wagon.” It is what I’d call a smallish wagon – 183 inches long and less than 70 inches wide.

But there’s a lot in that small package.

A turbocharged, 2.8-liter V-6 has a dynamic, torque-laden presence, but it’s nicely managed with Saab’s excellent electronic stability system. The wagon rolls with little complaint in all conditions, including steep uphill runs.

A sport-tuned suspension is somewhat stiff, but it does not beat you up even after a full day of city and highway driving.

A comparatively low starting price of $32,900 ordinarily does not scream luxury, but there are plentiful, standard comfort/convenience features to justify Saab’s luxury bragging rights. A short list includes power/heated exterior mirrors, a 300-watt audio system with six-CD changer (with a subwoofer in the rear spare tire well), xenon headlamps, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio system controls, leather seating surfaces, automatic climate control and a wide-angle passenger-side mirror.

The interior layout was elegant, with firm, comfortable seats and easy-to-use controls. Clever cargo-carrying variations are useful and spacious for a midsize wagon – up to 45 cubic feet.

As expected from Saab, the standard safety package is most impressive, with driver/front passenger air bags, driver/front passenger torso side air bags, front/rear passenger side curtain air bags, active head restraints, cornering brake control, front/rear crumple zones, seat belt pretensioners and a super-strong cage around the interior cabin.

Two things that take getting used to: The ignition key is inserted into the center console next to the driver’s right hip. Nearby, after some careful searching, you’ll find the parking brake cleverly integrated into the console’s edging trim.

As wagons go, this one looks pretty sporty – low profile, two-tier grille, rear spoiler and gigantic, integrated taillights.

One feature not yet found on the SportCombi is all-wheel drive. Long-time buyers of upscale European cars have come to expect this, but for now, AWD is not part of the SportCombi menu.

For rookies in the world of wagons, the 9-3 Aero SportCombi is certainly worth a test drive, although it’s also a good idea to try some other foreign models defined by the “W” word. Audi, for example, makes a pretty good wagon. Ditto Volvo.

And wagon watchers might want to look at some of the less expensive, American-made wagons, including the recently introduced Dodge Caliber. These comparatively discounted wagons shape up as fun vehicles, but they are not nearly as well equipped as the tested 9-3 Aero SportCombi.

My guess is that the SportCombi will do well among longtime wagon buyers who know exactly what features they need, but maybe want a luxury upgrade with their next purchase. For that crowd, the SportCombi is calling.

From there, it’s up to you whether to call it a wagon or not.

SAAB 9-3 AERO SPORTCOMBI AT A GLANCE
Make/model: 2006 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door, front-drive, luxury sport wagon

Base price: $32,900 (as tested, $38,065)

Engine: 2.8-liter, turbocharged V-6 with 250 horsepower at 5,500 revolutions per minute and 258 foot-pounds of torque at 2,000 rpm

EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city; 28 mpg highway

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with special features

Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion

Brakes: Power-assisted, four-wheel, vented discs with anti-lock and other braking-enhancement features

Suspension: Independent, MacPherson strut-type on front; independent, multi-link on rear (anti-roll bars front and rear)

Fuel tank: 16.4 gallons

Interior volume: 96 cubic feet

Cargo volume: 45 cubic feet (with rear seats folded)

Curb weight: 3,285 pounds

Track: 59.9 inches on front; 59.3 inches on rear

Ground clearance: 5.9 inches

Height: 60.6 inches

Length: 183.2 inches

Wheelbase: 105.3 inches

Width: 69.4 inches

Tires: P235/45R17 all-season radials

Final assembly site: Trollhattan, Sweden

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