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2009 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD: All-Wheel Drive is Finally Here – Auto123.Com

From Jan-Willem Vester
Manager, Saab Automobile USA Corporate Communications

2009 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD: All-Wheel Drive is Finally Here – Auto123.Com

By Luc Gagne – February 17, 2009

Let’s make it clear: a Saab is not your Average Joe’s car. A bit like Ferraris, each model from this Scandinavian automaker has unique little quirks which require some getting used to. Brand faithful have no problem with that, while everybody else fumes.

Up until now, I would have never imagined that a Saab interior could be as quiet as a BMW 335i’s. Furthermore, when I first sat behind the wheel of the 2009 9-3 Aero XWD, I expected to feel overwhelming torque steer, especially when the turbo kicks in. My fears were quickly dispelled.

The once-plebian nameplate, which made an oddly upscale move that has yet to bear significant fruits, is now struggling for survival. Ineffective marketing and dilution of the brand’s core values have affected its popularity and resale value. That said, the 9-3 has undeniable potential.

Actually, I was made aware of my tester’s competent skills when I saw the three little letters — XWD — under the Aero badge. It’s something we hadn’t seen in a Saab yet but had been anticipating since the launch of the Volvo 850 AWD in the mid ’90s: all-wheel drive.

Well, to be exact, Saab’s technology is called “Cross Wheel Drive” and, sure enough, it elevates the 9-3 into the realm of luxury sedans. Despite jumping late on the bandwagon, the company is hoping to make its presence felt in this increasingly AWD-biased market segment. The junior Saab can now rival the Audi A4 and other similar machines that are known the world over for their sensational all-wheel drive systems.

As mentioned earlier, this new addition largely if not totally eliminates the most irritating aspect of the regular 9-3 ever since the introduction of the first Saab 99 Turbo in 1978: torque steer.

Four-wheel spirit
Saab’s Cross-Wheel Drive was developed by Haldex, a Swedish manufacturer that also supplies all-wheel drive systems to Volvo. Originally exclusive to the V6-powered 9-3 sedan and wagon with Performance Package, this fourth-generation system is finally available with the base 4-cylinder model.

The 2009 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD also benefits from a number of specific features, including an electronic limited-slip differential, self-leveling rear shock absorbers, 18-inch alloy wheels (instead of 17) and performance tires (summer only). Of course, winter tires are a must during the cold season.

XWD is fully automatic and permanently engaged. In normal driving conditions, on dry pavement, it transfers 5-10 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels just for the sake of improved stability under acceleration and greater fuel economy (premium gas is required, though). Here, it does not really neutralize the understeer propensity of the 9-3.

However, as soon as the car starts to lose grip, the XWD system can send 100 percent of the available torque to either the front or rear wheels, in just 80 milliseconds, depending on traction needs. The operation is completely seamless.

XWD is extremely sharp and effective, delaying the activation of traction control in accelerations and cornering maneuvers. As a result, the driver enjoys greater control over the car.

Plenty of power under the hood
The 9-3 Aero XWD I tested used a 2.8L turbocharged V6 that produces 280 horsepower, or 25 more than the front-wheel drive variant. This much-appreciated output gain translates into a real feeling of power under acceleration.

The transversally-mounted, all-aluminum engine features variable inlet valve timing and a dual-scroll turbocharger. Delivering gobs of torque (295 pounds-feet), it allows the 9-3 Aero XWD to sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in less than 7 seconds.

While strong, passing maneuvers suffer from a noticeable delay in the power delivery, likely attributable to all that computerized management of driving dynamics and torque distribution.

The 9-3 Aero XWD comes standard with a 6-speed manual gearbox, but my tester relied on the optional Sentronic autobox ($1,500). This unit offers 6 forward gears and manual shift capability through steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The latter proves quite pleasant and rewarding during aggressive driving on twisty byroads.

A typically Saab interior
The interior layout of this 9-3 is reminiscent of the 900. The massive, cockpit-style, all-black dashboard is literally wrapped around the driver. The ignition switch is still found between the front seats, behind the shifter. Also, Night Panel illumination comes back, allowing owners to turn off all but the most basic instruments, like the speedometer. This function makes nighttime driving easier.

The buckets offer a tall seatback and generous support, which makes them perfect for long trips. What’s more, there is no annoying armrest that gets in your way. Drivers who tend to keep both hands on the steering wheel will love it.

During my road test, I came across another Saab 9-3 Aero owner who, much to my surprise, claimed that he was disappointed. According to him, the car has one major shortcoming that ruins the entire experience. It’s a “design flaw” that reportedly makes you forget about the incredible handling, clever ergonomics, orthopedic front seats and great build quality: the trunk!

The man argued that four golf bags can’t fit in the back of the car. Hum… he must have been talking about some pretty big bags! While the Saab’s cargo area is indeed smaller than the trunk of a 3-Series or A4, it’s still larger than a C-Class’. Plus, it offers a perfectly-rectangular shape (due to low-profile suspension components that do not intrude on trunk space), a vast opening with a low loading step and 60/40 split-folding rear seats that accommodate larger items (unlike some rivals).

Should I have recommended this golfer to turn to another brand? Perhaps the one that used to have Tiger Woods as a spokesman…

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