Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Saab has just begun selling a five-door version of the 9-3 sedan. But don’t go calling this new version of the 9-3 a station wagon. Saab, very enthusiastically — and deliberately — refers to its newest iteration as the “Sport Combi.”

Saab is clearly able to justify its euphemism. This Swedish automaker gained notice with rear-opening doors, evidenced by the 1973 three-door Saab 99 Combi Coupe, and later with the 900 hatchbacks of the ‘80s and ‘90s. A five-door model appeared as early as 1959, dubbed the 95 Wagon. So the “Combi” label has some historical precedent, and that “Sport” communicates the current automotive trend toward driver-involved vehicles. Few alternatives to the dated “station wagon” match the liveliness of “Sport Combi.”

While the 2006 product portfolio expands with the Sport Combi, Saab has simplified the trim lineup. Previous 9-3 Linear and Arc models have been reduced to a single base version, with the performance-oriented Aero remaining on top. Plus, up-level Aero models receive a new 2.8-liter turbocharged V-6 delivering a stout 250 horsepower.

Additionally, Saab customers purchasing Aero models also have the option of enrolling in this carmaker’s Aero Academy, located at Road Atlanta racetrack, in Braselton, Ga. New owners automatically receive a complimentary Aero Academy Certificate.

Highlights on the track include recovery maneuvers and simulated snow/ice/rain driving on a skid pad; threshold straight-line emergency braking; threshold braking while turning (trail braking); emergency lane changing; slaloming; finesse driving; and auto-crossing. In the classroom, a low instructor-to-student ratio of 1:4 ensures personal attention. In the interest of consistency and safety, customers must use the supplied vehicles rather than their own cars.

For those seeking slightly less excitement, the $27,620 base model still yields a competent and efficient experience. A 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder outputs 210 horses and 221 foot-pounds of torque. Mated to either a standard five-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic transmission, the engine delivers up to 22 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

In addition to the 2.8-liter turbocharged V-6 with 250 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque, Aero models receive a standard six-speed manual and optional six-speed automatic transmission. The manual combo yields city/highway mileage of 18/28 mpg, while the autobox setup manages 17/28 mpg.

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