Test Drive: 2011 Saab 9-3 Turbo XWD

By Kevin Harrison

“So what’s the story here, just a small car with fancy wheels?”

I turned around to find a middle aged man with a Pepsi in his hand. It probably should have been diet considering his body type was the same as Humpty Dumpty’s. He had a grey mustache, glasses, ratty jeans on and, you guessed it, a denim shirt with a denim jacket. Oh and he had one of those douchy bluetooth ear pieces on for good measure. The whole shebang. I stopped pumping gas to address him.

“Um, well this is a Saab 9-3 turbo,” I replied, not really knowing where he was going with his question.

“Saab? Didn’t they stop making those?” he asked. Before I could respond, he shot back with another question.

“How much did it cost you?”

“Actually this car isn’t mine, I’m an automotive journalist and I’m reviewing this car for -”

He interrupted.

“Well I hope you tear it a new one. I had a 9000 many years ago and it was terrible. They’re terrible cars”.

He was already headed back to his car shouting “have a good one!”  before I could say anything. He got into his previous generation Audi A4 and took off.

Isn’t it funny how one bad experience can completely turn people off from something forever? It’s a pity that this man already had his mind made up about the new 9-3 Turbo XWD because I might have offered to take him for a drive around the block to show him that the 9-3 Turbo XWD is much more than a car with nice wheels.

But since Wilfred Brimley’s doppelganger did notice the wheels and styling, enough to muster up to courage to ask about it to a complete stranger at the gas station, let’s start off with that first. It’s gorgeous. Absolutely eye catching in all the right ways. This is what Susanna Anden would like like if she were a car – simply one of the best looking things to come out of Sweden in a while. The aggressive front end is decidedly Saab and is much improved over the previous generation 9-3. The side profile is sleek and classy. Out back the clear tail lights are tolerable for some reason and I can’t quite explain why. Usually clear tail lights give too much of a “boy racer” look, but on the 9-3 they work quite nicely. The rear twin pipes complete the look. And those 18 inch wheels that seem to be so eye-catching? They’re actually paying homage to the 1980 Saab 900 SPG, and boy do they look fantastic!

Inside you’ll find a typical Saab layout in the form of tiny buttons everywhere mimicking the dash of a fighter jet (Saabs are born from jets, don’t ya know) and the ignition is between the two seats. Interestingly enough when you turn the engine on, it reads “all systems go” in the instrument cluster as if you’re actually about to fly a jet. But what’s even more interesting is that 9-3 Turbos in Europe get a message that reads “Ready for take-off”. We apparently get a different message here in North America because we are so stupid that it actually might lead us to think the car is capable of flying. No, seriously. American lawyers had quite the time making sure the original message was changed.  Anyway, the cabin is a very nice place to be once you get used to its business. There is ample room for rear passengers and a decent amount of cargo room as well, especially when the seats are folded.

You’ve likely noticed by now that I keep using the moniker “XWD” as opposed to “AWD”. That’s not a continuous typo on my part. It’s because those crazy Swedes prefer to call their all-wheel drive system “cross-wheel drive” hence why the ‘X’ has replaced the ‘A’. It’s a Haldex system, but the wheels don’t need to spin or lose grip before the system engages like previous Haldex systems. A hydraulic pump can send up to 40% of the torque to the rear wheels even when they have grip. This helps eliminate under steer and over steer and makes sure the 9-3 Turbo XWD stays planted.

The problem is, however, that you don’t ever really notice if the XWD system is actually keeping the 9-3 planted or not because you’re always hanging on for dear life. While the 9-3’s XWD system might be doing all it can to make sure you stay on the road, the seats do everything they can to make sure you fall out of them. I’m not sure why Saab didn’t fit the 9-3 Turbo XWD with sport seats – bigger bolsters would make all the difference in the world and that leather seating surface is especially slippery for some reason. As a result, when pushed hard under aggressive driving, it gives the illusion that the 9-3 isn’t stable and that it has quite a bit of body roll. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t, it’s just those slippery unsupportive seats. It’s quite a shame because they are immensely comfortable under normal driving conditions and unfortunately they do the 9-3 Turbo XWD a bit of a disservice for aggressive driving. But rest assured the 9-3 can hold its own in the bends.

The engine, on the other hand, definitely does not do this car a disservice. The 2.0. litre turbo 4 cylinder is quite happy to give you 210 horsepower whenever you want it. It’s readily available at 2,000 RPM’s. The engine never seems like it’s trying all that hard which keeps engine noise down all while delivering blistering amounts of power. However, unlike the new 9-5, there is noticeable torque steer – a Saab characteristic. Happily, the XWD system quickly settles down the the wheels before you torque steer yourself into a lake. Another Saab characteristic is turbo lag, and it seems to be omitted in the 9-3 Turbo XWD. There were two instances where it felt like there was some lag, but I honestly didn’t feel it for the rest of my time with the 9-3 after that. That’s good because without turbo lag, the 9-3 can get from 0-100 in an impressive 5.7 seconds. All that turbocharged power combined with the XWD system and the ability to stay poised in the bends makes the 9-3 a refreshing alternative to the typical sport sedan players.

But do yourself a favour and get yourself a 9-3 Turbo XWD with the six speed manual because as good as this engine is at delivering power, I still feel there’s more to it and that’s because the automatic transmission that my tester came with seems to rob it of power. Shifts are inconsistent and a bit delayed in manual mode. Those problems would disappear completely in a manual 9-3 Turbo I’d wager.

If Denim Brimley is to be believed, there was apparently a time when Saabs used to be “terrible” and left a bitter taste in peoples mouths. So much so that it turned people off from the brand all together with no hope of luring them back. It’s too bad Denim Brimley didn’t stick around to see what Saabs are actually capable of these days because I would wager that this new 9-3 Turbo XWD could blow the sox off his Audi A4 2.0T Quattro in almost every category. And it’s a shame that he’ll never know it.

The 9-3 Turbo XWD really is a hidden gem amongst a sea of denim luring sport sedans.

Base Price: $45,000


  • The best looking car that Saab currently makes
  • Those wheels!
  • Superb turbo engine
  • No “faux” all-wheel drive, uses a true system
  • Unique and roomy interior
  • Decent fuel mileage


  • Torque steer prevalent when pushed hard
  • Unsupportive seats for aggressive driving
  • Automatic transmission tends to rob power
  • Too many buttons on the dash

Overall: 9/10

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2 Responses to "Test Drive: 2011 Saab 9-3 Turbo XWD"

  1. Just for clarification … in your “Pros”, you list the “Superb V6 engine” …

    The 2011 9-3 does not have a V6 option. This ended in 2009 unfortunately.

    Scott Hutchings
    President, The Saab Club of Canada

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