Saab future improves with high-tech GM V6 in 9-3
By John Gilbert, special to SNS
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.
Saab 9-3 is very good if you’re 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 I’ve 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, I’ve challenged several
maneuvers by General Motors. Building superior high-tech
engines but still installing less-costly outmoded engines in
mainstream cars is one item I’ve 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
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
GM’s 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 Saab’s 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 didn’t give me the
kind of feedback to make me feel comfortable with so much more
power than the regular Corvette, so I didn’t 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. I’d 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.
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 I’d expected.
I put in a request to get a Saab 9-3 for a
week’s road-test when one got into the fleet. I got it a
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 wait…it 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
So I did a little tracing of the engine’s
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
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.
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
While tracking well over residential
streets, freeways, and when pushed hard around a cloverleaf,
both the wagon and the convertible were predictable and
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 convertible’s
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 GM’s corporate PR
station in Detroit.
He was out, and his message said he’d be out
for a while. The next morning, I got an email from Tom. Turned
out he’s 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.
I’m 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 I’ll 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 company’s heritage for
high-tech jet aircraft and enjoyable automobiles, and he
bails. He could leave Saab’s 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 email@example.com.