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Saab 9-3 Aero

 

We have a soft spot for Saabs in general and the 9-3 in particular: let's make that clear from the outset.

So if you think you detect us making excuses for some of the quirkier aspects of the Saab 9-3 Aero's behaviour, then we make no excuse for our bias.

Give or take the odd rattle - like an annoying one in the dashboard of the test 9-3 Aero - Saabs are well put together. They have an air of impressive solidity, a tactile reinforcement of the extensive safety engineering that goes into them. Few car doors close with such a reassuringly solid "thunk" as those on Saabs.

All Saabs sold in New Zealand are now turbocharged, either with a light pressure turbo or the fiercer full-pressure type. That all-turbo line-up sets Saab aside at a time when many other manufacturers have opted to stay away from motors with the boosted approach to providing solid engine torque.

The two types of turbo produce two distinctly different types of Saab, even among models sharing the same basic chassis and bodywork.

We love the Light Pressure Turbo (LPT) version of the 9-3. It's a silky, relaxing yet powerful car. Combined with the sweet-shifting automatic gearbox and a plush, thoughtfully-designed interior, the light pressure turbo makes the compact hatchback a genuine mini-luxury liner: a perfect commuter and a relaxed and relaxing highway cruiser.

The Saab 9-3 Aero Coupe we've just finished driving couldn't be more different; so different, in fact, that it's hard to credit they share the same basic underpinnings.

Where the LPT is like a Swedish diplomatic mission, the Aero Coupe is like a full-blown Viking raiding party.

The differences start with the engine. The 9-3 Aero is powered by Saab's new 2.0-litre full-pressure turbomotor which delivers 151kW at 5500rpm. More importantly - and the major contributor to the car's barnstorming performance - is that the peak torque of 280Nm is available from as low as 2200rpm and continues to 4600rpm. The torque arrives with a hefty punch when the revs hit 2200. In second gear that instigates a fight between you and the front wheels as you take your left hand off the steering wheel to pluck third gear. Once you're in third - you really need second for the tightest of corners - the flow of power is silky smooth and near seamless. Snick the quick-shifting gearbox into fourth and the turbine-like flow of power continues, generated of course by a miniature turbine wheel that sings as it spins.

Saab's critics hammer the power delivery for being brutal; but it's only as brutal as you make it. No-one asks you to mash the throttle pedal to the floor in first and second gears and then spend a second or two coping with wheel scrabble as the front wheels try to turn your demand into traction.

No, the 9-3 Aero is a car that rewards smoothness and intelligence, and could scare the pants off the lead-footed or unsympathetic.

To capitalise on the power and torque available, the 9-3 Aero's suspension has been stiffened. Firmer dampers reduce body roll and improve handling. The three-spoke 6.5-inch wide, 16-inch diameter light alloy wheels are shod with low-profile 205/50R16 tyres.

The result is sharper handling and better turn-in, at the expense of some ride comfort compared with the 9-3 LPT.

All 9-3s tend to understeer quite strongly, and dropping naturally-aspirated cars from the local range was the best thing Saab Australia (which distributes the cars here) could have done. The non-turbo cars didn't have enough power to overcome the nose-heavy handling, and on a winding road could feel quite clumsy. The car often felt as if it was a move or two behind your demands.

The 9-3 LPT was an improvement, the Aero is a revelation. As we said, turn-in on the low-profile 205/50s is instant - quick enough in fact to take us by surprise on the first few open road corners taken in anger. We found ourselves having to wind off lock because the car was turning in more quickly than we expected.

Grip in the dry - uncharacteristically for Auckland it didn't rain during the time we had the car - is excellent. On some surfaces there was a tendency for the wide low tyres to tramline, and there was a corresponding pitter-patter from the front wheels during hard braking on uneven tarmac.

Understeer is masked very well. In most situations it's difficult to detect. The crisp turn-in and the power on tap help. Turn in to a corner, accelerate as you pass the apex and the power available gives a vivid impression of the front wheels pulling the car out of the corner and on to the next straight.

Mid-range acceleration is very strong, and the car catapults from 80/90km/h much quicker than you expect. On a favoured section of hard uphill going at full throttle out of a sweeping corner, the Saab outsprinted other fast-movers like Ford's potent Falcon XR8 5.0-litre V8 utility by several kilometres an hour.

What that can mean is that even on a familiar piece of road you may find yourself arriving at a corner sooner than you'd anticipated. The effect is of the corner accelerating at you as the immense mid-range punch gets you there more quickly than you'd anticipated. So initially you find yourself getting a little caught out which is when you're thankful for the immense mechanical grip and the strong all-disc brakes. The brakes are so effective, in fact, that sometimes you find yourself braking too hard and having to accelerate the final metres to the corner; it's a phenomenon I've encountered in other Saabs but is uncommon in most non-race cars.

Our feeling is that the more kilometres you put in at the wheel of a full-pressure Saab turbo, the more at ease you'd become with its unique performance characteristics and the accelerating-corners phenomenon.

The only time understeer becomes noticeable is when you go too quickly into a tightish corner. There's a momentary feeling of sledging before the car regains composure.

The Aero is not a car that's comfortable with being hurled into a corner on a trailing throttle. It responds best to a firm, sensitive approach, with a relatively slow entry and an early-on-the-gas exit. Then it feels composed, the tyres bite the tarmac strongly and it rockets off down the next straight. Go in too hard, lift off and it starts to feel loose-limbed and darts around on the road surface. The Saab 9-3 Aero is definitely not a car in which to have an abrupt crisis of confidence in your driving ability. If you're hustling it along a winding country road you need to be very much on top of it and let it know so.

There's a feeling of rear-end movement in moderately-tight corners taken quickly as the weight transfers to the outside rear wheel and the car tends to tighten its line. Hit the gas and it gives a very satisfying feeling of driving on the throttle.

The downside to the handling and grip is the somewhat firm ride. My usual passenger found it harsh, but aside from some bumping and thumping on less than even surfaces, I didn't find it bone-jarring or anything more than reassuringly firm. In fact, at speed it soaked up bumps very well and gave a good supple ride considering its very composed and roll-free cornering.

There's a touch of vagueness about the steering at times and complaints about a lack of feel wouldn't be amiss. The power-assited steering loads up and becomes firm at speed.

The car has tremendous stability in crosswinds. During our time with it, some of the strongest winds for weeks were battering Auckland, yet aside from the door being lifted off its seal a little, the wind buffeting the car couldn't shake its composure.

Saab says the Aero bodykit - front spoiler, rear bumper extension, side skirts and rear spoiler - improves downforce and stability and reduces sensitivity to cross-winds.

The Aero's leather-upholstered seats are more deeply dished than those of the standard versions of the car, and provide the level of lateral support required by the car's cornering ability. They also help absorb some of bumps transmitted by the firm suspension on uneven surfaces.

Saabs 9-3s have good rear cabin room and will seat four adults in great comfort. The big doors help make access to the rear cabin easier.

We would have preferred a slightly smaller-diameter steering wheel. The wheel is leather-wrapped as is the gear lever knob.

The dashboard is the ubiquitous woodgrain found in upmarket cars, but in the Saab it's neatly done and looks right.

Mechanical noise is muted, as is tyre roar. Wind noise was greater than we'd expected, but we'd have to drive one in less blustery conditions to get a true indication.

There are undoubtedly more civilised Saabs than the 9-3 Aero: our old favourite the 9-3 Light Pressure Turbo, for instance, or the silken 9-5 wagon. (There are also much more ferocious ones, like the Viggen which sadly didn't come our way for test).

But if you like performance that's hot and no-compromise in a car that you have to DRIVE, you'll almost certainly like the 9-3 Aero Coupe. It needs to be handled firmly and sensitively and you need to keep the upper hand, because it truly is a motorised Viking raider. We loved every second of our time with it.


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