Thou shalt not drive a Saab for its looks.
If you're not among the faithful who are instantly smitten with Saab's singular design approach, that would seem to be a reasonable axiom with which to approach the European automaker's offerings. But as Saab has rounded off the brand's more aggressive edges while maintaining the distinctive touches that define its look, it has managed to produce a line of attractive, sporty sedans that could appeal to a broader audience.
The 2006 Saab 9-3 is a mid-sized offering that, in its turbocharged incarnation, offers a solid driving experience while maintaining just enough quirk to differentiate itself from the run-of-the-mill sedans sitting in your neighbors' driveways.
While the outside looks pretty, it's really more important how the thing drives, and the 9-3 delivers there as well. The 4-cylinder engine benefits from the turbocharger, providing enough power for the regular highway merging and driving, yet still smooth enough for the stop-and-go of rush hour commuting.
On the all important gas mileage front, the 9-3 performs reasonably well, with 22 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway -- although, as always, that will vary in the real world.
The Saab handles well, not exactly nimble but certainly easy enough to thread through city confines and overcrowded parking garages. The four-wheel electronic stability system and brake-assist feature add to the package.
Sitting in the Saab's interior is a comfortable experience, complete with leather seats (on the tested model, at least) and a niftily designed interior. It's a little swoopy and swooshy as so many car interiors are these days, but nice touches such as integrating the handbrake in the center console make it work. Saab's usual quirky placement of the ignition -- down low on the center console in this case -- doesn't work quite as well.
You'll notice a big difference in the 9-3's base price of $25,900 and the price of the tested model, which is $32,960. Here's a quick tip to shave off four grand: Avoid the optional navigation system.
The Saab's dash is already a button-happy place. Plopping a navigation screen in the middle of it makes it look like an old Texas Instruments scientific calculator. Perhaps for cost reasons, Saab went with a navigation system that lacks touch-screen functions, so getting information out of the screen requires fiddling with knobs and buttons and cascading menus -- just what you want when you're trying to pay attention to the road.
Saab also oddly divides important information into three locations -- the speedometer and tach gauge cluster behind the steering wheel, a small LED screen on the center top of the dash with time and distance displays, and the navigation screen with CD and map functions. There are way too many directions to be pulling a driver's eyes.
Until they get a better system, save yourself some money and keep printing out those directions from Mapquest. That'll make it easier to enjoy the real benefits the Saab 9-3 has to offer.