Sunday, January 25, 2009

2009 Saab 9-3 Aero Sports Sedan XWD

Oh boy... another Saab, the car from a company that used to build jets. With that tag line, I try to not be jaded from previous Saab cars, but so far, they have yet to make me feel like I am driving a jet or even a car inspired by one. Outwards appearances though do suggest that the aggressive nature of jet building is not completely gone. The exterior of the Saab is just wonderful. The only real complain from the exterior of the car is the small wheels the car is equipped with which no doubt is at attempt to keep rolling mass down or using lots of air in the tires to absorb road imperfections. The exterior has the perfect lines from the rear side and most importantly front. The headlight assemble and lighting configuration is almost a dream come true when it comes to aesthetics. It is one of those cars that looks great… but let us talk about how it drives.

Inside the car, the ergonomics are well… different. I get the feeling that the Saab engineers felt they wanted to tweak something to say they changed it but not move it too much so they would not feel like they were changing the arrangement of the keys on a keyboard. All the switch gear is slightly out of place and while still intuitive, just slightly annoying to constantly be fumbling to try and find something which you know is there, but slightly moved. It is much like looking for the light switch in a dark house. You know one is there, but you want to try and figure out where that wacky designer moved it too. The seats are comfortable and worthy of the price tag of the car, but unfortunately, the rest of the interior is not. The dash layout is different that your typical car with an eerie glow to it, but again not quite right. I’ve been in some of the most modern jets on the planet, but not once have I seen a cockpit this type of design… maybe it is based off an older Vietnam jet… who knows.

Reach for the steering console to find the key, fumble around a bit and then remember that Saab moved it to the center console. Turn key fire it up and everything comes to life and away we go. Being this is not the first Saab I have driven, I mashed the go pedal and expected to wait for the turbo to do its thing. Much to my surprise, the turbo lag was severely reduced (Editorial Note – At this time, I did not know the power plant was the upgraded turbocharged V6 motor… I still thought it was the anemic four cylinder turbo). Pleasantly surprised, I thought… maybe Saab is starting to make a turn for the better. So I wiped my slate full of previous Saab criticisms aside to give this a fair shot.

Motoring down the road way, the car felt good. Power was adequate to pass cars on the motorway, acceleration was much improved from a stop… stopping power was marginal I thought, but that was mostly due to the lack of feedback from the brakes. Without knowing how much more was available, it was hard to really ask too much from them without wondering what would happen if you asked for too much. Cruising in the car was nice and smooth. I would not say it was reminding me of a premium car, but it definitely was much more than utilitarian transportation much like the Volvo. Throw it into a corner and the small wheels and super tall tires unfortunately take their toll communicated to the driver through body roll. However, once settled in the corner, the car grips the road with little drama. So quick transitions will more than likely scare the driver, but once settled in, it is pretty smooth and tranquil. It reminds me of a new born being thrown in a pool. They scream and thrash about violently until they realize that swimming is not that hard and is quite fun.

I attribute most of this handling prowess to the car being equipped with the Saab XWD. No, it’s not AWD, Saab calls is XWD (cross wheel drive). The XWD system is actually the fourth generation revision of the Haldex electronic AWD system. It transfers almost 90% of the power from the engine to the front wheels during normal conditions. It only starts to move power around when you ask for more than the front tires can handle. One almost dares to ask if it would make more sense to be the other way around, but I’m no Saab engineer. The XWD system also shifts power around should you try to bend the laws of physics. It will help you by shifting power to maintain grip, but in the event of you trying to shatter the laws of physics, you are on your own.

As an overall package, the Saab is not a bad car. It is quirky and slightly different than its counterparts. Equipped with the turbo six cylinder 280hp/295ft-lbs of torque engine, one would think it would have more oomph, but sadly no such luck. The XWD system is one of the latest and greatest, but unfortunately, mated to some small wheels and tires can make for some less than performance enthused driving. Maybe Saab should change their slogan from “Engineered by guys who build jets” to “Engineers by guys who build commercial airliners”. It is not fast, not razor sharp and by all means, can’t launch rockets from the headlights … even though they look like they could. However, looking at the car for what it is, it is a car that most people would be happy to drive around in. Smooth, quiet and safe… oh and did I mention quirky?