- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

You say you’re looking for a car with a little exclusivity but you aren’t quite ready to step up to that Bentley Continental Flying Spur.

Then, how about setting your sights on a 2007 Saab 9-3 Sport Combi? If you can’t picture the car I’m talking about, then you are already starting to get the idea.

The Sport Combi, a k a a station wagon, is not often seen on most American roads. I’ve seen only two since the car was introduced in the United Sates in 2005. One was at the New York auto show; the other was the one I drove.

Nevertheless, Jan-Willem Vester of Saab Communications reports that “We’re quite pleased with the car. We’re the second largest import in the entry premium level segment, next to Volvo. Still, we’re just a drop in the bucket, a very small segment in the American market. We understand that Americans have turned away from station wagons in general.”

A wholly owned division of General Motors since 1990, Saab sold about 3,000 9-3 Sport Combis throughout the United States during 2006 and that was 10 percent of all 9-3 sales. The largest market, Mr. Vester said, is New England, particularly the area around Boston.

If people in other areas of the country were more familiar with it, they would find that there is a lot to like about the car. It’s quick, it’s agile, it’s versatile and, to me at least, it’s handsome.

But, first, a word of caution. This is a European-size wagon built in Sweden, and small is big on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. More to the point, small is big primarily in the back seat. Push the front seats all the way back and they practically touch the rear seat. Only the youngsters among us will find real comfort back there for an extended period of time.

That said, you can turn the 9-3 into a mini pickup truck. Push the rear seatback forward and there are 72.3 cubic feet of space easily reached through the rear hatch. Even with the rear seatbacks up, 29.7 cubic feet of cargo space is available. In addition, the cargo floor can be lifted and additional cargo can be stored in a recessed subfloor.

Mr. Vester explained the philosophy behind the small station wagon. He said that many Swedes live in the bigger cities and also have cottages. The cost of owning a car is significantly higher there so people want to be able to do as much as possible with just one car.

The Sport Combi features two powerplants. The standard one is a turbocharged, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that generates 210 horsepower and 221 foot-pounds of torque. It comes with a standard six-speed manual shifter. A five-speed automatic transmission is optional.

The optional engine, which is exclusive to Saab, is a turbocharged version of the General Motors 2.8-liter V-6. It generates 250 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. It is available with either a six-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual shifter.

The car I drove was the top-of-the-line Aero model with the V-6 engine and six-speed manual transmission.

The engine is a gem. It is quiet, velvety smooth, and pulls strongly even before the turbocharger kicks in. Drop the manual shifter from sixth to third for a quick highway pass and the 9-3 leaps into action. The 0-60 run has been clocked by various testers at between six and seven seconds. Fuel mileage is EPA rated at 18 miles per gallon city/28 highway, but I never saw more than 25 mpg on the trip computer readout.

Unfortunately for the driver, the marriage of engine and manual transmission was not made in heaven. The shifter kind of wanders from one gear to the next and it requires a tug to get it from first to second. It’s easy to miss a shift until you get a feel for it. But, after you do, you’ll find the properly spaced gears really complement the engine’s power band.

However, most Americans do not have to go through that learning process. Eighty-five percent of Sport Combis sold in the U.S. have the automatic transmission.

Despite the front-wheel-drive layout, there is little of the torque steer that plagued earlier turbo Saabs. A slight tug on the steering wheel can be felt during heavy acceleration, but it’s not enough to startle the driver.

Just a short time behind the wheel will show that the sport in Sport Combi has a lot more meaning than the sport in sport-utility vehicle. In the hands of a spirited driver, the 9-3 will follow orders without complaint as the speed increases and the road becomes more challenging.

Chalk that up to a reinforced chassis that is nearly as rigid as the one in the sedan, sport-tuned independent suspension, crisp and accurate rack-and-pinion steering and strong antilock disc brakes.

On the outside, the Sport Combi has an aggressive, muscular stance that differentiates it from the generic styling generally associated with station wagons. Even standing still, it looks like it is ready for action.

On the inside, restyled for 2007, the 9-3 features new automatic climate control and information systems, a larger instrument cluster with chrome details and new interior trim. The Aero Combi also has comfortable leather seats and a few features that are vintage, quirky Saab.

Most reminiscent of traditional Saabs is the ignition key placement on the floor between the front seats. It’s considered a safety feature because the key cannot pierce the driver’s knee in an accident. It used to be that the key could not be removed from a manual transmission car unless it was in reverse, but that feature has been scuttled.

The best you-know-it’s-a-Saab feature, in my opinion, is the dashboard vents that can aim air in almost any direction. The worst is the spindly single cup holder that sprouts from the dashboard closer to the front passenger than the driver.

In addition to the unique key placement, the 9-3 Combi has a comprehensive list of safety features, including active front head restraints, which it pioneered in 1996. Among other features are driver and front-passenger front and side air bags, front and rear passenger side curtains, anti-submarining front seats, cornering brake control, stability control, traction control and daytime running lights.

Standard convenience features include automatic climate control, multifunction car computer, 300-watt sound system, xenon headlights, cruise control, and power sunroof, windows, doors, front seats and outside mirrors.

A special feature for Saab Aero buyers is the opportunity to take a free advanced driving course at the Road Atlanta race track in Georgia.

Base price of the Sport Combi is $34,120.

The touring package, for $1,195, includes driver’s-seat memory system, one-touch open-and-close controls for front windows and sunroof, dimming interior mirror with compass and garage door opener, rear park assist and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

Add to that heated seats and headlight washers ($550), OnStar communication system ($695) and delivery charge, $745. The total comes to $37,305.

If that sounds a bit much, a buyer can choose the Sport Combi with the standard four-cylinder powerplant, at a starting price of $27,915. Most people will find it has all the pep they require.

Either way, owners are not likely to see many carbon copies of the Sport Combi - unless they spend most of their time in New England.

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