Our Take Saab 9-3 Aero - G35Driver.com

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Our Take Saab 9-3 Aero - G35Driver.com Powered By Docstoc
					Road Test: 2004 Saab 9-3 Aero, Acura TL, Cadillac CTS, and Infiniti G35
California Dreamers: Four aspiring 3 Series alternatives whip luxury and sport into a golden state

By Ron Sessions
Photography by Wesley Allison
Motor Trend, May 2004

The Players
Acura's all-new TL ($35,195) ups the horsepower and content ante against the turbocharged Saab 93 Aero ($38,755), Cadillac CTS 3.6
($43,880), and benchmark Infiniti G35 ($31,485).

The BMW 3 Series is the yardstick by which other near-luxury sport sedans are measured. Four hot competitors
inch into its territory--for thousands less.

It's been said that you can never be too rich or too good looking. Here in Southern
California, the pursuit of those elusive goals often takes place behind the wheel of a
BMW 3 Series. For several decades now, the trimmest Bimmer has served its core
constituents well. Driving the car with the twin- kidney grille signals you've arrived,
while routinely assuring that your actual arrival occurs somewhat ahead of the rest of the
tanned, caffeinated, 401K'd, and nicely pressed pack.

Who can blame Southern Californians for simultaneously seeking sporty driving fun and
status? As a driving environment, the Golden State has it all. Break free of urban
gridlock, and you can enjoy thousands of miles of great driving roads through soaring
mountains, into relentless desert, and alongside balmy beaches--all rarely more than five
minutes from a pricey cappuccino.

Sharp pencils at other car companies couldn't help but notice that the least-expensive
ultimate-driving sedan netted more than half of BMW sales. So the Bavarians no longer
have the field to themselves.

We noticed it, too, and assembled a quartet of sport-lux 3 Series competitors, all priced
thousands of dollars less than equivalently equipped fare from the German brand.
Significantly, each of the competitors represents major volume for its maker or sets the
direction for the future. The G35 has led a revival at Infiniti and grabs some 75 percent of
car sales there. Acura's TL has been the best-selling sedan at Honda's upscale division for
the better part of 10 years. Saab's 93 outsells the larger 95 more than two to one. And
Cadillac's CTS is the template for future rear-drive sedans from GM's premium division
and now outsells Lincoln's LS.

In search of the ultimate entry-level sport-sedan mojo, we drove Starbucks to Starbucks,
exploring some of SoCal's best mountains, deserts, and beaches in four of the top-selling
3 Series competitors. Each of the sport sedans in our test was decked out with popular
equipment such as a killer sound system, multimode automatic transmission, and a sport
package where available. How would they stack up on the Golden State's scale of
performance with panache? Blazing a trail oozing with sport-sedan pheromones, we

Fourth Place: Saab 9-3 Aero
Bringing up the rear in this tight formation of overachievers is the pert, compact Saab 9-
3. Despite a switch to a General Motors global platform last year, a cadre of dedicated
Saabisti in Trollhattan, Sweden, have kept the Saab mojo alive--ignition key on the floor,
dash blackout panel, and all. The 9-3 shares its GM Epsilon chassis architecture with the
Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac G6, and Opel Vectra; Saab fits its own suspension, steering,
brakes, and turbocharged drivetrains. The three-door and five-door hatchback 9-3s of
previous years are gone, replaced by a four-door sedan with seductive coupe overtones.
Saab claims the new body is three times stiffer than its predecessor's, and it feels that
way. There's a substantial quality to the structure, free of second-order buzzes, squeaks,
and creaks.

It's no small task to make a convincing near-luxury sport sedan out of a smallish midsize
front-driver. For one thing, the 93 competes with luxury sport-sedans powered by six-
cylinder engines at least half again as large as Saab's. The little Swede closes the gap with
turbocharging, squeezing 210 horsepower out of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (with a
corporate GM/Opel block and Saab DOHC head) in Aero model trim. Under the right
circumstances, turbo boost transforms this four-cylinder economy car into a rorty sport
sedan. The 9-3 was the quickest car to accelerate to 30 mph in our group. But the
turbocharged power comes in surges and waves.

Using the 9-3's intercooled turbo is a bit like surfing: Choreograph the throttle opening,
engine speed, road load, and gear selection just right, and the car surges forward in a
pleasing rush. Synchronizing all these parameters to keep pace with the ebb and flow of
traffic, however, turns out to be challenging work. The 9-3's tip-in throttle response often
tried our patience; as the transmission downshifts and turbo starts to build boost, it feels
like the car actually slows down for a moment before gathering itself up. Meanwhile, the
driver loses an opportunity to merge, pass, move over a lane, or pick an open slot in a
long train of cars. When cruising down the highway off-boost in top gear, the 9-3's
engine just feels flat--no throaty sounds from the intake, no burble from the pipes, no
perceivable performance edge.

As nonlinear as the 9-3 Aero is in freeway traffic, unpredictable turbo boost is even more
of a factor when it kicks in midcorner on twisty roads. Saab engineers tweaked the
Epsilon platform with the Swedish automaker's own four-link independent rear
suspension featuring ReAxs passive rear steering, weight-saving aluminum control arms,
and large-diameter vented disc brakes, but numb, nonlinear steering dulls the
man/machine interface. Though the suspension feels taut, chasing transient responses in
the throttle and steering make the 9-3 Aero a less-is-more car.

Finesse is necessary to achieve any semblance of performance driving. The steering
seems to lack self-centering and has unusual gain that finds the driver creeping unaware
into the next lane. Push the 9-3 past its narrow window of acceptable behavior and
electronic nannies from the car's standard ESP dynamic stability control and/or Cornering
Brake Control systems aggressively cut in and out, applying individual brakes and
slapping down the throttle. Grippy 17-inch Pirelli PZero Rosso tires help save the day.

The Aisin-Warner Sentronic five-speed automatic in our tester helps retain an element of
control with a choice of gear-slot or steering-wheel-paddle manumatic shifting. By
changing gears manually, the driver can predictably control revs and turbo boost. But it
should be more fun than this. Otherwise, the 9-3 offers a tidy interior trimmed in
attractive leather, with well-placed switchgear and supportive seats. The audio-system
controls require some time to master, but everything else works logically.

The 9-3 Aero makes its driver work to achieve good performance; stepping outside the
boundaries results in penalties. In snowy, rainy, slimy climes where front drive offers a
traction advantage, the 9-3 has more relevance. It offers neat, concept-car styling, a trim
size and solid structure, but unpredictable throttle response and numb steering spoil what
should be nonconformist fun.

Our Take: Saab 9-3 Aero
What's Hot
Coupelike design
Solid body structure
Trim size

What's Not
Turbo lag
Nonlinear steering
Overintrusive stability control

Don't Miss
Available paddle-shift controls on steering wheel

Bottom Line
A GM corporate platform with Saab overtones

Third Place: Acura TL
Blowing right past the Saab 9-3 Aero, the Acura TL takes honors for the best front-drive
sport sedan in our comparo. Our third-place car doesn't scrimp on horsepower; at 270, the
TL's 3.2-liter V-6 has 18 more ponies under the hood than an automatic-transmission-
equipped NSX. For 2004, the new-generation TL picks up where the performance-
oriented 260-horse Type S version of last year's model left off. In addition to increased
power, roll stiffness is increased and larger brakes and wider tires are fitted to the new
model. Drive-by-wire throttle and a standard four-channel Vehicle Stability Assist are
new this year as well.

And, boy, is this car a looker. The low, menacing snout and wider, more muscular stance
of the new TL segues to an angular, fast-rising wedge, climaxing in a short rear deck and
large dual exhaust outlets. If the badge didn't say Acura, you'd swear this was a hot new
Alfa Romeo. The car has mega curb appeal. Inside, too, Acura pulled out the stops,
showering the cabin with real brushed-aluminum trim, brilliant scarlet and indigo
instrument lighting, and dual-zone climate controls. A power glass moonroof, Gen-X-
targeted electrotainment such as a DVD/audio surround-sound stereo with eight speakers
and six channels, hands-free cell-phone connectivity with Bluetooth technology, and XM
Satellite Radio also come standard. Simply put, there's tons of tech--and value--for the
dollar here. TL sales represent half of the car side of the Acura franchise; we can see

On the road, the TL is a car with fairly high limits. The body sits nicely on the chassis
and the wheels fill out the wheelwells; only two fingers fit between the tires and body.
The wide stance translates to a stable, planted feeling. Because the TL is based on and
shares a wheelbase with the front-drive four-door Honda Accord, the Acura is more than
a little nose-heavy. A full 61 percent of the car's weight is on the front wheels, making
those tires shoulder much more of the handling and braking chores. Acura compensates
for this somewhat by fitting the TL with larger cross-section tires, but the car lacks the
front/rear balance of the others in this test. Perhaps overcompensating for this weight
imbalance, the TL's steering feels overboosted and unnaturally light. It communicates a
fraction of the interaction between the front tires and road as a sport sedan should.
Accelerating into a turn, the TL's torque-sensing, variable-assist steering has a tentative,
darty quality. Too bad.

Roomy, powerful, stylish, and well-built TL offers a lot of value for dollar. But its 270
horsepower would be easier to manage with an all-wheel-drive system.
The TL's Accord roots are showing at the outer edges of the performance envelope. And
with 270 horsepower and 238 pound-feet of torque on tap, the TL's steering has
something else to deal with: torque steer. Punch the throttle and the steering wheel tugs to
the right. Is it something you can learn to live with? Of course. But the rear-drive sport
sedans in this test don't force the driver to put up with it.

Stuffing the wheelwells with wide rubber helped give the TL more bite in Motor Trend's
skidpad and slalom tests, but limits steering angularity. The TL takes nearly four feet
more space than any of the other testers in the group curb-to-curb to complete a U-turn
(39.7 feet), more space even than a base full-size Chevy Silverado or Dodge Ram pickup
truck. That makes for a lot of back and fill around mini-mall parking lots.

This lack of balance extends to the brakes; the TL consistently needed more real estate to
bring all that sporty luxury to a halt. Compared to the car with the best brakes in this test,
the Infiniti G35, the Acura needed another 17 feet to stop from 60 mph (about the length
of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class) and an additional 52 feet to drop anchor from 100 mph
(roughly equivalent to three Cadillac DeVilles parked nose to tail).

Normally, front-drive cars with transverse-mounted engines are models of space-
efficiency. With no transmission tail or driveshaft hump stealing space, designers can
allot more room for people and cargo. But the TL's Manx tail design (attractive as it is)
chops off the trunk abruptly, giving the Acura the least luggage space of the cars in our

In many ways the TL is the ultimate Honda Accord. Like the Accord, the TL is packed
with value. Acura doesn't mess around with option packages and standard equipment few
buyers end up taking. The TL pretty much comes one way--loaded, with a buyer's choice
of manual or automatic transmission, navigation or no navigation. It's that simple. And
the TL's Acura/Panasonic ELS Premium Surround Sound must be heard to be believed.
Audiophiles might want to buy an extra TL just to park in their garage for listening

Our Take: Acura TL
What's Hot
270 horsepower standard
XM Satellite Radio standard
Italianate sheetmetal, artful cabin design

What's Not
Light, darty steering
Torque steer
Long stopping distances

Don't Miss
DVD/Audio six-channel surround sound is todie for
Bottom Line
A super value, but front drive compromises dynamic performance

Second Place: Cadillac CTS
Since we last tested the CTS in our August 2002 issue, Cadillac's rear-drive near-luxury
sedan has been working out. A new, optional 3.6-liter DOHC V-6 is now available and
highly recommended. Delivering 255 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, the 3.6
nets a handsome 16-percent power boost over the base 3.2-liter V-6. Included with the
optional 3.6 engine is a five-speed automatic transmission (to get a five-speed manual,
you must take the base 3.2 engine). When the CTS was introduced two years ago as a
home-grown successor to the weak-selling Opel-Omega-based Catera, its humdrum
powerplant was a major disappointment. Despite a chassis developed and refined on the
old Nuerburgring German Grand Prix course, the Cadillac fell short of its rivals.

The new 3.6-liter V-6 makes a big difference, significantly closing the performance gap
on its Japanese and European competitors. There's more than ample torque just a toe tap
away at nearly all engine speeds, thanks partly to the addition of variable valve timing, a
feature not found on many GM motors to date. Freeway merging and highway passing
power is in the same league as other entry-lux sport sedans, although the Caddy's six
sounds a bit hoarse when pressed hard. Note that the 3.6 is a regular-fuel engine, a benefit
that will save hundreds if not several thousand dollars in fuel costs over the life of
ownership compared with other cars that require premium fuel. The automatic
transmission's five speeds keep things flexible in stop-and-go traffic and execute
beautiful lift-throttle torque-managed shifts with precision. No wonder BMW buys this
GM autobox for some of its cars. But the gearbox's lack of a manumatic shift gate or
steering-wheel flippers is a glaring omission.

Finesse, precision, and balance aren't qualities we've associated with many Cadillacs in
recent times. But our second-place finisher has it in spades. Though it's not the top
number generator in our group of four, the CTS offers a satisfying blend of stiff structure,
precise response, and well-sorted ride quality. With the car's 3694 pounds distributed 53
percent over the front wheels and 47 percent on the rears, the CTS exhibits surprising
balance. The Cadillac's steering, in particular, is delightfully direct, linear, and nicely
weighted. The car goes where it's steered and communicates what the road is serving up.
There's more body roll present when the CTS is pressed hard into a corner than some
hard-core sport-sedan buffs may prefer, but the car's overall good manners win out at the
end of the day. A long wheelbase contributes to a generous amount of interior room--the
most rear-seat legroom among the four cars tested.

Shock and awe come in the form of an exterior design that shades the tall and narrow side
of Cadillac's new Art & Science design theme. While the starkly creased and folded lines
of the car are certainly contemporary in the "Blade Runner" motif, the overall effect is in
your face. In the driver's face is an instrument panel that is an overreaching jumble of
textures, shapes, and angles conveying neither sport nor luxury. But ergonomics are spot
on, seats offer good thigh, lumbar, and lateral support, switchgear is sufficiently tactile,
and fit and finish are worthy of a $30,000 car.

There are more cost-effective ways to configure a CTS than our near-$44K example with
its $13,000 option load. A cool $1000 extra for special paint? Only the Germans can get
away with that. Carefully selecting from the CTS's long options list, a car with the 3.6
engine, five-speed automatic gearbox, Bose stereo with six-disc CD changer, rear load-
leveling, sport suspension, high-performance brake linings, 17-inch wheels, speed-
sensitive steering, XM Satellite Radio, and Stabilitrak dynamic stability control can be
had for $36K and change. If you can warm to the edgy styling, you may be surprised just
how much control, precision, and driving pleasure there is in the car underneath. We did.
Our Take: Cadillac CTS 3.6
What's Hot
Crisp steering
Comfortable Euro-sedan ride quality
Bank-vault-like structural integrity

What's Not
Tall, narrow body proportions
Jarring shapes and textures on dash
No manumatic control available for automatic

Don't Miss
Responsive new 3.6-liter aluminum V-6 with variable valve timing

Bottom Line
Topnotch blend of superb dynamic control and luxurious ride quality

First Place: Infiniti G35
Our 2003 Car of the Year doesn't ask the buyer to accommodate this or put up with that
to enjoy a high level of driving pleasure. The Infiniti G35 is a take-charge kind of car,
eagerly responding to driver inputs from the steering wheel, throttle, or brake pedal.
Chalk it up to good genes: The G35 sedan shares its body structure, suspension, steering,
brakes, engine, and transmission with the Nissan 350Z.

At the core of the G35's responsive behavior is exquisite balance. The car's 260-horse
DOHC V-6 is mounted mostly behind the front-wheel centerline. Courtesy of the front
midship engine placement, the rear-drive G35 has a nearly ideal 52-percent-front/48-
percent-rear weight distribution. With each wheel carrying its fair share of the traction
duties, the Infiniti managed the best performance times through our instrumented slalom,
skidpad, and figure-eight tests despite having the smallest tires. An all-wheel-drive
version of the G35 made its debut this year, but the handling of the rear-driver is so spot
on that we'd recommend spending the extra money on the AWD model only if you
routinely encounter snow and ice.

There's so much control in the rear-drive model, the G35 can play toss and catch with
eagerness. Steering turn-in is delightfully positive, the car's reflexes are quick but
predictable. The car obediently goes where the driver points it; just frame the road
between the vertical headlamp bulges on the front fenders like a pair of goalposts and
apply throttle. Nissan's ubiquitous 3.5-liter V-6 is used to good effect in the G35, giving
it top 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile acceleration honors in this test. Variable valve timing
helps make this a very tractable engine, with useable torque arrayed across a wide range
of engine speeds. The five-speed automatic transmission reels off quick, positive shifts
like a family doctor pulling off a Band-Aid. Tap-up/tap-down manumatic shifting on the
center console enhances response on twisty or hilly sections of road.

None of the sport sedans in our test group drops anchor better than the G35. Without
breaking a sweat, our Infiniti consistently scrubbed off forward velocity quicker than
Britney Spears getting a marriage annulment. The lightning-quick pedal response takes
some getting used to; just make sure the car on your rear bumper isn't following too

Each of the cars in our near-lux sport-sedan test approaches the classic-ride-versus-
handling conundrum differently. Springing from sports-car roots, the G35's ride isn't
quite as luxurious as, say, the Cadillac CTS's. Tiny, unseen bumps and road
imperfections filter into the Infiniti's cabin, but we'd call them more communicative than

The cabin itself is a tad on the narrow side. Power seat controls for the driver and front
passenger live on the top, inboard edge of the seat cushion, probably because it would be
tough to reach between the cushion and door to operate the more traditional controls near
the floor. That said, the tall, narrow G35 offers the most front head- and legroom of the
cars in this test. The G carries its proportions well. Unlike the more heavy-handed surface
excitement and fussy detailing of the Z-Car, the G35's design is handsome, masculine,
and tasteful. Call it an Armani suit wearing Reeboks.

There are precious few gripes to speak of. The G35's climate and audio controls aren't
logically arrayed or easy to operate without taking the driver's attention from the road
momentarily. Another early criticism revolved around Infiniti's use of downmarket-
looking "metallic" trim on the car's center stack, but a switch to more of a matte finish for
2004 helps mitigate the feeling of cheapness. Other changes for 2004 are minimal,
limited to a new tire-pressure-monitoring system, standard heated side mirrors, and the
addition of 17-inch wheels across the board. A more significant update is in store for the
2005 model year.

For now, what we have is an almost unbeatable benchmark, especially when you consider
price and value. The G35 offers BMW 330i levels of performance, handling, and
sophistication for many, many thousands fewer dollars. Among the competitors in this
test, the G35 was the least expensive, even though it included a high level of standard
equipment, the longest warranty, optional Bose audio system, and sport suspension.

In the Infiniti G35, it's easy to live the sport-sedan dream and have a few bucks left over.
You may need the extra dough, considering the price of a grande mocha these days.

Our Take: Infiniti G35 SedanWhat's Hot
Son of Z-Car V-6 powertrain
Son of Z-Car chassis balance and response
Value for dollar

What's Not
Some interior plastic trim below par
Brakes a bit grabby
Rear-end design somewhat blocky

Don't Miss
Gauge cluster moves up and down with adjustable steering column

Bottom Line
In its price bracket, the G35 is a benchmark among near-luxury sport sedans]
Generally, great handling and a supple ride are antagonistic qualities, and for sports
sedans, it's a performance trade-off of particular significance. Here's how our quartet of
four-doors manage the balance, with handling represented as slalom speed and ride
quality measured as vertical g's recorded over a variety of surfaces and speeds. As you
can see, the Infiniti is tops in handling, while the Cadillac significantly leads in ride
suppleness. Splitting the difference is the Acura, while the Saab trails in both ride and
--Kim Reynolds

                                        TEST DATA
              2004 Acura TL       2004 Cadillac       2004 Infiniti      2004 Saab
                                  CTS 3.6             G35 Sport          9-3 Aero
Acceleration, sec to mph
0-30          2.3                 2.3                 2.3                2.1
0-60          6.3                 6.6                 6.2                6.9
0-100         17.3                19.4                17.9               20.5
1/4 mile, sec 14.78 @ 94.40       14.99 @ 91.95       14.68 @ 94.02      15.09 @ 90.55
@ mph
Braking,      372                 350                 320                350
100-0 mph,
Braking, 60- 128                  124                 111                121
0 mph, ft
600-ft      64.1                  63.7                65.2               62.4
slalom, mph
200-ft      0.80                  0.80                0.87               0.85
lateral g
Figure-8, sec 27.3 @ 0.65         27.8 @ 0.62         26.8 @ 0.66        27.1 @ 0.62
@ avg g
Top-gear      1750                2100                2250
rpm @ 60

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