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First Drive: 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD

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Breaking With Tradition To Save It

By Erin Riches, Senior Content Editor

Date posted: 07-11-2007

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Your first clue that something's up on the 2008 Saab 9-3 sedan and SportCombi wagon will be the conspicuous lack of Saab's traditional black body-side moldings. Your second clue is the new face inspired by the Aero X Concept.

To find your third clue, bend down on the ground and have a look underneath. Ya sure, that's a rear differential.

Come January 2008, the 9-3 will apply power to all four wheels. And while it represents a break with tradition, the all-wheel-drive 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD could save this brand from sales obscurity.

Only the Swedes Say It This Way

Saab says XWD should be pronounced "Cross-Wheel Drive." It hardly rolls off the tongue, but this fourth-generation Haldex-engineered system breaks some new ground.

Like other electronically controlled, on-demand all-wheel-drive (AWD) systems, this one has its own computer that talks to not only the AWD system but also the stability control and the engine. The actual torque transfer between the front and rear wheels comes courtesy of fast-acting clutch plates.

At a steady cruising speed, more than 90 percent of engine power still goes to the front wheels. As soon as you dip into the throttle, the XWD brain starts fiddling with the power delivery and sending torque rearward to enhance traction. And in the corners, the XWD brain uses input from the stability control sensors to balance the car's handling by varying power delivery to the rear wheels, and it also raises the threshold at which the stability system will intervene.

What makes Saab's XWD most worthy of interest, however, is its optional rear limited-slip differential. Known as eLSD (electronic limited-slip differential), this clutch-type unit can distribute up to 40 percent of engine torque between the rear wheels. Since it uses both wheel speed and yaw sensors, eLSD can both improve traction on slippery roads and also help hold your line while cornering.

Together, XWD and eLSD will add $2,000 to the bottom line of the 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero sedan, raising its base price to about $35,000. The 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi wagon will start at about $36,000 with the XWD option. Other 9-3s, including all convertibles, share the '08 cosmetic changes but remain front-drive only. For 2009, however, the 9-3 2.0T sedan and wagon, which have a 210-hp turbo inline-4, will also get the XWD system.

Didn't Saab Practically Invent the Turbo?

Every 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero has a turbocharged 2.8-liter V6, but the extra $2 grand that gets you XWD also buys you more power. Thanks to an increase in maximum boost pressure from 7.3 psi to 11.6 psi, the turbo helps produce 280 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque — increases of 30 hp and 37 lb-ft respectively.

This is a pretty nice engine, with an integrated intercooler, a twin-scroll turbocharger, a forged-steel crankshaft, sinter-forged connecting rods and exhaust manifolds with stainless-steel liners.

The front-wheel-drive Saab 9-3 Aero continues with the regular-strength version of the turbo V6, though it has been rerated 255 hp, an increase of 5 hp.

With either Aero, you have your choice of a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic. Saab says a manual-shift 9-3 Aero XWD sedan will accelerate to 60 mph in the low 6-second range.

Entry-level 9-3 2.0T models have the same transmission options, though the automatic has just five forward gears. A sport mode is new for both five- and six-speed automatics in 2008, and it noticeably quickens downshifts.

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No Snow in Sweden During Summer

There's actually no snow in southern Sweden in the summertime, so Saab officials had to improvise. Our test loop at the Stora Holms test facility near Gothenburg was one part damp gravel trail, one part dry road course and one part wet autocross course.

This loop isn't a WRC-caliber rally stage, but our manual-shift 9-3 Aero XWD SportCombi sucked us into the experience, permitting early and sustained doses of throttle. In a front-drive 9-3, such behavior would assure spectacular understeer and perhaps a trip into the brush. Therein lies the fun of XWD: If your eyes are up and the steering wheel is pointed in the right direction, you can get away with almost anything.

Aside from engineering a new rear subframe to carry the XWD components and revising the rear-wheel geometry, Saab hasn't made any significant suspension changes for the '08 9-3. Wheel and tire sizes haven't changed either, as the Aero still wears 235/45R17 all-season rubber.

This could be a missed opportunity. The Saab 9-3 Aero XWD remains a relatively lightweight car at 3,288 pounds, only now it has sharp throttle response off idle, an easily adjustable cornering attitude and lots of grip. There's a lot of potential for performance here, and we think Saab should take advantage of it.

All Quiet in the Swedish Countryside

We had a front-wheel-drive Aero sedan with an automatic transmission for the hour's drive from Stora Holms to the fishing village of Lysekil. It took only minutes to reacquaint ourselves with everything we like about the current-gen 9-3 — the light but accurate steering, the quiet and composed ride (especially on ultrasmooth Swedish roads) and the supportive front seats.

Unfortunately, the 9-3's mediocre interior materials continue to be a liability in a price bracket where the standards are set by Audi and BMW.

On the equipment side, rain-sensing wipers, XM Satellite Radio and OnStar telematics are now standard across the board. Midway through the year, Saab will offer an upgraded, surround-sound Bose audio system. Adaptive bi-xenon headlights, capable of swiveling 15 degrees in either direction, are standard for all 9-3 Aeros.

XWD Is the Right Formula

Front-wheel-drive 2008 Saab 9-3 sedans and SportCombi wagons will arrive at U.S. dealers in September 2007, followed by the convertible in October or November. But if you want a car that's really about driving, wait until the 9-3 with XWD arrives in January.

It goes beyond the grip and balance you get with any all-wheel-drive system. The 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD engages your emotions when you're at the wheel. It makes you care that it's a Saab, something not just uniquely different but also uniquely good.

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Damn it I want that car. That front end is just seducing me into a world of Swedish XWD goodness. I'm happy that SAAB is starting to get praise, even though I've never owned one, it was obvious SAAB had potential to be a great brand and now its starting to make some gains. The sedan, sportcombi, and convertible all look good in their own way but I'd probably choose the sedan. I've never sat in a 9-3, however the interior design doesn't look too upscale and I know its an older design, but I agree with edmunds that it can be a downer for those comparing the 9-3 to its competitors.

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I wonder if we tune this car to another 30-40 hp more, you are lurking into the STI, EVO territory. The price will be almost the same, 34k-35k for the Japanese Ricers, vs. 36-37k for this machine. Well no surprises for what I will choose.

That weight really blows me. That is what the new Malibu should weigh not the porky 3600lb.

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I wonder if we tune this car to another 30-40 hp more, you are lurking into the STI, EVO territory. The price will be almost the same, 34k-35k for the Japanese Ricers, vs. 36-37k for this machine. Well no surprises for what I will choose.

Hell yeah, I'd take the Saab as well!
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Either something is seriously wrong with this car, or Edmunds doesn't know what the hell they are talking about. The G6 GTP pulls off around a 6.2s 0-60. Yet the Saab is 300lbs lighter, 28hp stronger, and has AWD and it's not any faster? :rolleyes:

XWD adds frictional losses of power. Probably has the computer controller also limiting power transfer. Could be test conditions as well.

(Or their testers are Pu$$ies!)

Without interior uprgrades, these are just nice CPO purchases in 2009/10. Save $10k and get what appears to be the best Saab in ages.

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I really question the 3288 lb weight. The 2007 brochure list the weights at 3157-3285. If you check the Car+Driver reviews they list the 9-3 weights at between 3300-3600 lbs. I am sure the heavier weight is with the V6 and the Sportcombi. Add the AWD system and the weight is surely going to be more than the 3288 lbs posted. I really like the 3288lb figure because too many of todays auto's are in the 3600-4000 lb range which is really backward thinking BS.

Personally I have no desire for AWD and I live in the snow belt. With traction control all what I need is a good set of snow tires on steel wheels, and besides here in Ontario the snowplows do a good job with snow removal and when the roads are that bad, then they are closed to all traffic.

We also have a lot of gravel roads in Ontario and I do take my 9-3 down gravel roads. Mind you, I don't hammer it if they are pot holed all to hell. I cannot believe the number of people that buy their SUV's, Sport Cutes and trucks that will refuse to even take their vehicle down a gravel road, so AWD is just about image. A very small portion of the buyers will actually use it.

I do like performance and I would rather see the 260hp 2.3L found in the 9-5 offered in the 9-3. My 9-3 weighs under 3200 lbs and in that wight class you don't need a V6 regardless if its a luxury car or not.

Perhaps GM should promote SAAB's safety, because there are not too many vehicles is this weight class with 5 star crash ratings.

I do like the new exterior treatment on the 2008's, but I sure don't like the silver trim and corporate stereo and temperature controls they added in 2007. Some people have issues with the dash and interior but it is very Scandinavian in it's design because it's a Scandinavian automobile. I don't want a German, American or Japanese themed interior. Keep SAAB, SAAB. If North Americans have such good taste, then why do we see so many Camry's and Corollas on the road?

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