It's never good to start a review by saying, don't go there, but that's the best advice with the 2011 Saab 9-3. The upscale small car market is highly competitive. This is simply a case of everyone else does it better. The Saab has an out-of-date interior, a high price at the base level, and offers only decent performance. Your money will be better spent elsewhere. The 9-3 opens at $28,900 and sells for $45,080 on the high end. (Fuel economy is 21 city and 31 highway.)
There are a lot of other cars to consider. The Volkswagen GTI is more comfortable with better room in the cabin, and 15.3 cubic feet in the trunk. It also opens at $24,000. If you want better performance and can manage $31,000, take a look at the BMW 1-series, which has a 3.0-liter V6. Go with the Volkswagen EOS, and you get a retractable hardtop and interior quality so high there's standard Bluetooth and an iPod connector.
The Saab 9-3 is offered as a sedan, soft-top convertible, and a Sport Combi (wagon). All come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine paired to a manual transmission (an automatic transmission is optional). The powertrain produces 210 hp and 211 lb. ft. of torque. (Actual price paid for each version over MSRP runs, respectively: $30,300; $41,500; and $31,680.)
It's not that the 9-3 isn't fun to drive, it's just that other cars are more fun. Steering is sharp and precise, and the brakes are strong and predictable. This is not, however, a sporty handling little car, even if the control is quite good. And really, that's the major problem with the 9-3. It's just adequate, which no longer cuts it in one of the most rapidly evolving of all market segments.
There are many problems with the 9-3's interior. Both the sedan and the convertible suffer from blind spot issues, and the rear seats are cramped to the point of being torture chambers. You have to pay extra for Bluetooth and XM, and rear parking assist is only available at the $35,500 Aero trim level as an option for another $795. Build quality is poor, and nowhere near the level offered by the competition. There is an impressive amount of cargo space in the sedan at 16.3 cubic feet, but overall, the interior gets a solid thumbs down.
The only comprehensive crash ratings are from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which gives the 9-3 sedan and convertible a top score on front, side, and rear crashes. In limited testing, the federal government gave the 9-3 sedan and wagon four stars on rollovers. (Only 4WD and RWD models are tested.) All the expected safety systems are present: anti-lock brakes, cornering brake control, electronic brake force distribution, emergency brake assist, tire pressure monitoring, full airbags, and an airbag suppression switch to deactivate the front passenger unit if a child is present.
If Saab really wants to compete in the upscale car class, they're going to have to better than the 2011 9-3. There's nothing impressive about this car. It's too expensive and too lackluster when put up against offerings by other manufacturers. A definite "pass."