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NEW CAR REVIEW
Saab future improves with high-tech GM V6 in 9-3 models
  By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

DULUTH, Minn. (SNS) The Saab 9-3 was recently rumored to be heading for oblivion, for the same fate General Motors bestowed on the Oldsmobile. Without any knowledge of internal politics, I must say the 2006 Saab 9-3 models are perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the automotive industry.

The Saab 9-3 is very good if youre a family-car person, a stylish show-off, or a high-performance driver.

If you happen all-of-the-above, the Saab 9-3 models are even more impressive.

A while ago, I had the chance to drive a Saab 9-3 Aero "5-door," which we might call a station wagon, and it blew me away for being both utilitarian and fun to drive. More recently, I spent a week with a Saab 9-3 Aero convertible that was classy, and also surprisingly sporty.

In the process, I also want to offer sincere congratulations to General Motors, which has subtly upgraded the Saab 9.3 and turning it from what seemed to be an orphan to arguably the most surprising and enjoyable brands in its vast array. To me, the subtlety is less-subtle, because of two men Ive gotten to know in this business GM PR man Tom Beamon, and GM engineer Bob Jacques. Both of them play integral parts in the story.

In recent years, Ive challenged several maneuvers by General Motors. Building superior high-tech engines but still installing less-costly outmoded engines in mainstream cars is one item Ive addressed. Another is a recent ploy in which GM declares its vehicles better than the competition, then criticizing journalists who dare to say otherwise, to the point where some auto writers now produce reviews that sound a lot like GM public-relations releases.

A few years ago, I met and got to know Bob Jacques, a clever, articulate and engaging fellow who works on building engines at GM. His most recent project was to build a 3.6-liter V6 for Cadillac to put in the then-new CTS, and SRX and the recently restyled STS.

While GM continued to install 3800 and 3.4-liter pushrod V6 engines in many vehicles, the 3.6 has more power, more flexibility, better fuel-efficiency and, with dual-overhead-camshafts and variable valve-timing, it had all the high-tech goodies that make most import engines so impressive.

Jacques, himself, has an old Firebird with a huge pushrod V8, so I can heckle him about living in the future at work, and in the past at home. Ah, well.

One of my recent concerns about GM is that in buying out Swedish auto-maker Saab, it was turning Saab into a place to send all sorts of GM-affiliated vehicles.

 

I owned and loved a 1980 Saab 900 for a decade of faithful use, so I felt personally offended when the recent 9.3 the successor of the 900 appeared to evolve into a Malibu/Saturn cousin with the key on the floor.

Meanwhile, GM forced everything from its own TrailBlazer to a Subaru model into Saab disguises. I clucked, but grudgingly accepted the fact that at least GM allowed Saab to continue operating.

Late last summer, I got the chance to attend GMs introduction of all its new 2006 vehicles at the GM proving grounds just outside Detroit. My friend Tom Beamon had been transferred within the public relations staff to Saab. I was afraid to say it, but with all the turmoil in the auto PR world, plus Saabs uncertain future, I wondered if that was figuratively like being moved to a desk right near the exit.

I was among all the journalists that stood in line to drive the new Corvette Z-06, the hot Impala, Cobalt, HHR, and several other things. I enjoyed the Z-06, but honestly, I felt it was so smooth that it didnt give me the kind of feedback to make me feel comfortable with so much more power than the regular Corvette, so I didnt go over 135 miles per hour on the long, banked oval track.

After lunch, I noticed my friend Tom standing over at the far end of the gathered cars, with a Saab 9-3 wagon. He looked a little forlorn, alone with his car, while the media folks lined up for the others.

So I walked over to Tom and asked if I could drive his Saab wagon. He said sure, and off I went. Id only gone 50 yards when I realized that everything was too good to believe. The bucket seats were firm, the instruments ergonomically perfect, and it had a six-speed manual shift.

All good, but none of it prepared me for stepping on the gas and running the revs up in second gear. The 9-3 wagon took off like a scalded cat. It was hot. Moments later, I pulled out on the big banked oval test track, and I swept through the turn high up on the banking at 135 mph.

Fantastic!

  The thing had a turbocharged engine, and it was the most surprisingly impressive vehicle I drove all day including the Z-06, which was very good, but no more than Id expected.

I put in a request to get a Saab 9-3 for a weeks road-test when one got into the fleet. I got it a month ago.

At first I thought the 9-3 Aero might be the same wagon I had driven, but it was not.

This one had an automatic transmission.

But waitit was a six-speed automatic, and it had large thumb buttons inboard of the steering wheel grips, to shift manually. The shifting was smooth, responsive, and every bit as much fun as the stick. Performance was excellent.

So I did a little tracing of the engines lineage. It is a 2.8-liter V6, with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, electronic fuel-injection, and a turbocharger. I knew this was no Saab engine, or one of those jointly-made things with Opel. By the swift way it performed, I immediately called Bob Jacques in Detroit.

Good move. Jacques explained that his baby, the 3.6 "High Feature" V6 has spawned a family off offspring. GM sends them to Holden, its Australian affiliate that builds the current and just-former GTO, and Holden turns out a direct-injection 3.2 version for Alfa Romeo, and a 2.8 which has both a smaller bore and shorter stroke than the 3.6 is upgraded from CTS form with a turbocharger to be plunked into the Saab 9-3.

With 250 horsepower and six gears, whether manual or automatic, the 9-3 whooshes up to freeway speed with sudden and easy swiftness. Careful, because it wants to go right on past reasonable freeway speed.

And now comes the Saab 9-3 Aero convertible. Same 2.8 V6 with all the valves, cams and 250 horsepower, and with a six-speed stick shift. Like the more sedate-looking wagon, which was "Fusion Blue Metallic," the "Parchment Silver Metallic" convertible also has the same electronic stability program, all-season tires on 17-inch alloy wheels, four-link rear suspension that helps the front-wheel-drive vehicle track around tight corners, and sport-tuned suspension settings all around.

Antilock brakes, mechanical brake assist, cornering brake control, front and side airbags, and the traditional Saab safety crumple-zone architecture.

Leather power seats, a 300-watt sound system with six-CD changer, Xenon headlights, and all the other creature features are installed on both the wagon and the convertible. The wagon had a navigation system, the convertible had rain-sensing wipers.

The wagon went from a base $32,900 to a sticker of $38,065; the convertible went from a base of $41,900 to a sticker of $44,915. On the sticker, it reads: U.S./Canadian parts content 1%, Germany 33%, Sweden 19%; assembly plant in Graz, Austria, for the convertible and Trollhattan, Sweden, for the wagon; transmission built in Japan (for the automatic) and Sweden (for the stick); and the engine built in Australia.

Right.

But in Australia after being designed, refined, and planned by my friend Bob Jacques and his playmates in the white smocks at the GM tech center in Detroit.

While tracking well over residential streets, freeways, and when pushed hard around a cloverleaf, both the wagon and the convertible were predictable and smooth.

The convertible is a wonder of mechanical design. Unlike the Solstice/Saturn tops that must be manually put down and stuffed under a manually opened rear hatch, the Saab convertible requires that you stop.

Hit the switch on the dash, and you can hear soft whirring as the rear hatch rises, clamshell-like, and the fabric top lifts itself off the top of the windshield, folds back, and disappears, with the hatch snapping shut over it. Smooth and sleek, with no fabric showing. It goes up just as easily, when you stop and flip the switch the other way.

EPA fuel-economy city-highway estimates are 18-28 for the convertible, 17-28 for the wagon. I attained somewhere between those figures overall, and the convertibles computer shows 22.3 miles per gallon over the last 1,800 miles, combined city and highway, by various drivers. And those are media drivers, who, presumably, had as difficult a time as I did driving either car moderately.

In the meantime, I also drove a Saab 9-5, the larger and more luxurious Saab model, and it had the 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder.

Now, I was pretty sure that was the familiar Saab engine of recent years, but to be absolutely sure, I put in a call for my friend Tom Beamon, at GMs corporate PR station in Detroit.

He was out, and his message said hed be out for a while. The next morning, I got an email from Tom. Turned out hes going to be "out" for a longer time than I thought he has accepted a generous GM early-retirement offer, and is leaving the company.

Im not sure what the cosmic influence of all this timing means, but I called Tom at home, just to congratulate him on deciding to go a different direction with his life, and also to say how much Ill miss being able to contact him for respectful exchanges of questions and information, free of hyperbole or sarcasm. By either of us.

Sure, I told him, Saab gets straightened out to where it truly lives up to the companys heritage for high-tech jet aircraft and enjoyable automobiles, and he bails. He could leave Saabs PR post, I assured him, knowing that all is well, and the product is alive and dazzling.

Nevertheless, it still goes into the memory bank as another life lesson: Be cautious about desks that are close to the exit.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.