#6 – 2004 Saab 9-3 Aero

I like Saabs. They are Swedish, and I like anything Swedish. This car was also a trade-in, and it was ridiculously cheap, which made all those alarms in my brain go off. Not the bad alarms, the good alarms that say “Hey dummy, it’s Swedish, it’s cheap, and you’ve been wanting a junk autocross car for awhile.”

Front view

So of course, I grabbed the keys and took it for a drive, but not after a thorough look-over.

Exterior styling is excellent. I tell myself that Swedish cars have a timeless beauty, and they don’t look old or outdated until well after most other brands of the same generation. At least I can admit that I’m biased, right?

Are you sick of me talking about my love for Sweden yet? Well just sit tight, it’s only one review. I promise I’ll review an American or German or Japanese car next time.

So we like the outside, and this car is in great condition. Obviously well cared for, I couldn’t find a scratch or dent anywhere. Not bad for an 8 year old car (holy crap, 2004 was 8 years ago?)

IMG_0366 (Medium)

IMG_0363 (Medium)

(Seriously, how does this happen though? Every modern Saab I’ve seen has had this problem.)

And then, the inside. Well first, the key. Most cars have a plastic key fob with a metal pull out key in case the electronics aren’t working.

Proper keyfobs

This car? Just a plastic fob as far as I can see. I can only assume that there was a standalone metal key somewhere, but when this car was turned in, it only came with one very, very beat up plastic fob. Top Gear Top Tip: dog chew toys are cheaper than new keys for your Saab.

funky, broken keyfob

The interior is nice. I like different color accent leather. And it’s not just pretty leather, it’s comfy! I like the back seats, I sat in them for a few minutes.


Front seats also very nice, if a little worn-in. And the buttons. There are buttons everywhere. No dials or knobs, just buttons. Are there no knobs in jet fighters? Is that where this came from? I guess you don’t really want knobs when you’re inverted in a jet fighter, you might think that you’re turning the radio up when you’re really turning it down, and that would be tragic.

(Yes we all know, in order to pilot a jet fighter you must be smart enough to know when you’re turning the radio up or down, I’m just making a point here, ok?)

I really like the gauge cluster in this car. It makes me happy, and I can’t really say why. Everything is there and it’s not too complicated. I hate overly-complicated gauge clusters.

More buttons on the steering wheel.

The cockpit

Buttons buttons buttons. Look, a sunroof button, and a light button.

What is this thing?

And this little nub that um, senses something. Ambient light sensor? Temperature sensor? It’s times like this that I wish everyone would leave their window sticker in the glove box so I could see what the standard options are on a car like this. Being Swedish I know it’s very safe, and it’s probably got lots of fun gadgets because that’s just what they do. Jet fighters, remember?

Speaking of fun gadgets, time for the fun one. The big 2.0L 4 cylinder turbocharged gadget under the hood. But before we start it up, seatbelts! Safety first!

seatbelt octopus

Oh, Wait.

IMG_0390 (Medium)

And it is then that I am reminded of the true make of this car. GM. Saab apparently brought their own important bits, steering, suspension, turbo (very reliable, from what I hear) but the interior, while nice, is still GM.

At least Saab kept the totally awesome key location. I love this, feels so high tech. Fighter jet.

Did you remember your pre-flight checklist?'

And then I start the car and aaah! The fans are on full and they are screaming at me! Help! Flail frantically looking for the climate control fan knob, but there are no knobs! Oh, it’s a button. And apparently this was a common problem, because the previous owner completely wore off the decrease fan button.

IMG_0384 (Medium)

It’s an 8 year old car with 140k miles on it, and I can’t be upset about a squealing climate control, and I don’t even mind that whole “Hey we can tell it’s hot and stuffy in here, let’s turn the fans on full blast to get some air circulating!” but making it so non-intuitive to turn them down is a problem. I guess you can argue that most people aren’t driving different cars every day and they learn, but what happens when you loan your car to your sister, or worse, trade it in to a dealership for a random employee to go on joy rides with?

Being a Jet Fighter Saab, it has kept the infamous night mode. This is fun, but I don’t really see the practicality. Especially because it a)disables the tachometer and b)makes it look like you are always out of fuel.

Night mode

I guess you don’t really need the tach, you should be able to listen to the engine to shift, but if you have night mode on it’s probably late and dark, and that’s not really an ideal time to run out of gas, which you are liable to do if you have no clue how much gas you have.

Oh, did I not mention that this was a manual transmission car? Yes, it is, please excuse me while I go squee. It seems like there are so few manuals so I love it when I get to play with one. And this is a nice one. It shifts really smoothly, and I was able to change gears without feeling like I’m on a roller coaster. I don’t do this every day so my manual driving isn’t the smoothest. But the Saab made it easy, and I love it for that. Also fun fact; to shift it into reverse you have to pull up on the shift boot. I wouldn’t think this would be practical or easy, and it does require a slight shift (no pun intended) in how you hold the shifter, but it’s not like reverse is something you use often so it’s cool. I liked this way more than I should.

I didn’t get a chance to do a proper road test due to license plate issues and not wanting police trouble, but my drive around the parking lot was nice. Felt very smooth, enough power and braking. It did have some squishy suspension issues but again, old car with lots of miles. And there were creaks and rattles and gah. Sorry GM, I love you, I like to support American businesses, but I haven’t seen recent American cars that feel anywhere near as sturdy in the long run as their foreign counterparts. Someone please prove me wrong here.

So I do want an Autocross car, but I decided against this one. At the very least it would need new shocks to race and not feel like you’re going to fly across the car at every corner. I do like the power (stock 210hp with a turbo that has been proven to be pretty reliable, as far as turbos go. Also lots of upgrades available, can easily see it getting up near 300hp) But a quick look on the forums confirms my suspicions: “Anyone who would want to get one of these cars and mod it can’t afford it.” The car itself was cheap, but I can’t imagine the problems and money involved with getting parts and labor, especially now that Saab is dead. For the money I would rather go for a smaller, rear-wheel drive car that I could work on myself. (Someone keeps pushing for a Miata, but I just don’t like the styling. Maybe I just need to drive one. Good thing that is consistent with my mission.)

edit: How could I forget the cupholders?? I love the overengineered cupholders in Saabs. And I neglected to take any pictures. I have a video, but it’s silly so instead I’ll leave you with this last picture of the half-broken-pseudo-heads-up display. Because Fighter Jet.

Heads up!