By Alex Taylor III
January 5, 2009

As 2008 comes to an end, the future of Saab remains unresolved. Its owner, General Motors, has announced it is examining “all the possible options” for the money-losing Swedish automaker.

One option is a sale. The list of potential buyers sounds like a roundup of the usual suspects who might benefit from a damaged European sub-luxury brand in need of significant investment: a Korean, Chinese, or Indian automaker.

If they can’t be induced into making a purchase, then a liquidation seems likely. Saab has been struggling for a way to sustain itself for more than a decade. But its limited product line, high-cost Swedish manufacturing base, and lack of any brand identity that broadens it beyond the invariable description of “quirky,” has doomed it to a marginal existence.

Sadly, the 2009 9-3 Aero Sport that I drove in December isn’t likely to change that. Amazingly, this is the first made-in-Sweden Saab to come equipped with all-wheel-drive. That in itself tells you a lot about Saab’s ability to react to the market. Over in Germany, Audi, which once competed with Saab in the sub-luxury market, has made a name for itself with its own Quattro all-wheel-drive system (and has of course since become a true luxury competitor to BMW and Mercedes Benz.)

The rest of my Saab was well equipped with a 2.8 liter, 6-cylinder, 24-valve, dual overhead cam engine putting out 280 horsepower. The only drawback was the six-speed manual transmission, which didn’t add enough fun-factor to make up for the inconvenience of shifting.

The sophisticated all-wheel drive system, which Saab calls XWD, continuously distributes torque between the front and rear wheels up to 100% in either direction. Despite several hundred miles of driving, I never got a chance to test its full potential.

And despite a panoply of standard equipment, ranging from headlamp washers to front and rear fog lights, nothing in my Saab felt special enough to justify the as-tested sticker price of $45,355. Saab owners are renowned for their lack of pretense, but for that amount of money, I want to feel slightly indulged, not as though I’m wearing a hair shirt. The carbon fiber in the Saab interior is not a substitute for wood grain.

With worthy competitors like the Audi A4 and BMW’s 328xi, investing in a Saab at this moment in its history is making a big leap of faith. Any car brand is worth preserving if it can continue to deliver on its original promise, but that is unclear with Saab. I wish it well, but I can’t be optimistic about its future.

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