Every time I go to start Saab's 9-3 SportCombi, I wind up putting the key in the wrong place. I sit there for a few confused, fumbling moments wondering where the hell I am. And then I notice the brilliant yet simple instrumentation and the unique retractable cupholder. Seated within the stylish "Swedish Modern" leather-clad seats, the entire control panel is angled around the driver, aircraft-style. And then it hits me like an aquavit tidal wave: You're in a Saab, dummy. The key is in the center next to the parking brake, right where it should be.

If you've owned a Saab before, you are in for few surprises with the SportCombi. Everything is right where it should be. Saab tends to retain its designs, rather than rush into the next big thing. In this case, that's a good thing. The 9-3 was solid at birth, and its sound genetics have aged gracefully.

We often talk about cars in anthropomorphic terms: technical Germans, passionate Italians, and determined Brits. In Saab's case (and like most of the Swedes I know), the terms steady and solid come to mind. From the moment we took the keys from J.W. Vester, Saab's answer man, the 9-3 SportCombi has left a unified impression of solidity on its drivers. You just know you're going to get there quickly and safely. Occasionally, we find ourselves wishing our destinations were further away, just to spend more time in it. Passengers tend to relax in the SportCombi the same way they do when seated in a private jet. I suppose this is a Saabism, one of those unique traits that makes a Saab a Saab. And trust me, this car is full of Saabisms, a few kind of strange but all serving to make this car a singular experience.

That we love wagons is a well-known fact. Europeans share our enthusiasm, too, where wagon variants typically out-sell their sedan counterparts 3:1. Owning a sport wagon in Europe denotes an active lifestyle, and people use their cars, accordingly. We intend to use the SportCombi to full effect. Art Director Platt has already ordered a roof rack to fit his 10-foot Bruce Jones surfboard, while Hallstrom has his eyes on a pet partition for his 80-pound Labrador. Personally, I have 300 pounds of bathroom tile waiting to be picked up. So far, the SportCombi has been relegated to high-speed cruising duties, a job you'd think it was born to do. Its pronounced aerodynamics make the Saab behave like a cruise missile, and it seems to relish autobahn duty. At 85 mph, the tach barely tickles 2000 rpm, and wind noise is negligible. The 250-bhp turbocharged V6 produces gobs of low-end torque, and it's a good idea to have a solid grip on the steering wheel before launch (yeah, there's some torque-steer). So far, we've left a good 50 feet of rubber on the local freeway onramp.

The Saab 9-3 SportCombi has proven to be a talented steed, both fast and fun to drive. Moreover, the Aero package represents a great value, given its luxury trim level. Standard features are impressive, including leather seats, 17-inch wheels, sport suspension, xenon headlamps, stability control, dual climate control, 300-watt AM/FM stereo/CD player, sport steering wheel with electronic controls, and car alarm. Show me another Euro under $40K with this many options and I'll eat an entire jar of lutefisk.

We've got a year with the SportCombi, and it's off to a solid start. The entire ec crew is happy to have a proper Swede in its stable.

2006 Saab 9-3 Aero Sportcombi
Layout
Transverse front engine,front-wheel drive
Engine
2.8-liter V6, dohc, four valves per cylinder, turbocharged,and intercooled
Transmission
Saab Sentronic
six-speed automatic
Performance
Peak power: 250 bhp
5500 rpm
Peak Torque: 258 lb-ft@ 2000 rpm
Top Speed: 149 mph
0-60 mph: 7.3 sec
Price as equipped: $39,260
(Includes: Sentronic automatic transmission, heated sport seats, Navigation, touring package-electronic memory seats, moonroof, rear park assist, rain-sensing wipers, integrated Homelink, MP3 connection.)

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