Curbside Classic: 2011 Saab 9-3X – A Swedish Sunset

Saab’s fall from grace is long and well-chronicled, morphing from a charmingly quirky Swedish innovator to yet another GM parts-bin special over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. The Vectra-based 9-3 and 9-5 were decent enough cars, but lacked the ethos that was so prevalent in Saabs of yore, and the 9-2X and 9-7X were exceedingly bizarre and rather pathetic attempts at badge-engineering that only furthered the perversion of the historic Saab nameplate.

By the mid-2000s, it was clear that the writing was on the wall for Saab; its US sales started dropping after 2003, and its European sales fell off a cliff a few years later: in 2007, Saab sold 84,000 cars in Europe, but by 2009, that number had cratered to just under 27,000. No doubt, the global financial crisis played a role in this sales meltdown, but what little market share the brand once had was quickly eroded under its feet, yielding a simply untenable future.



Paul’s excellent eulogy of Saab covers its history in more detail, but for today the focus is on one of the few models that emerged amidst Saab’s death throes, and I would argue that it is in fact the most obscure Saab model ever sold in the United States. (It’s not the most obscure Saab model ever marketed, though: that honor would likely go to the Saab-Lancia 600, a Scandinavian-market-only rebadge job of the Lancia Delta from the early 1980s.) Yes, the Saab 9-4X is technically rarer, with just 267 sold in the United States, but that was an all-new Saab model that at least garnered some media fanfare. I didn’t even know the 9-3X existed until I stumbled upon this one parked on the street last year.

In one regard, though, the 9-3X was ahead of its time. Essentially, it’s a 9-3 SportCombi (the wagon model) that’s been jacked up 1.4 inches and outfitted with trendy black plastic along the underside of the car and around the wheel arches. All 9-3Xs were outfitted with Saab’s AWD system (dubbed ‘XWD’) and featured an electronic limited-slip rear differential (but honestly, so did the XWD 9-3 Aero, so that wasn’t a huge selling point for the 9-3X). Saab also discontinued the SportCombi XWD model for the 2010 model year (the first year for the 9-3X), so if you wanted AWD in your 9-3 wagon, this was now the only way to get it.

I say it was ahead of its time because it follows the formula that has become quite commonplace with small hatchbacks and wagons in the last decade: lift the car an inch or two, slap on some plastic cladding, and voilà! Instant sales increase. The Subaru XV Crosstrek is the most notable example of this trend: it has significantly outsold the entire Impreza line (that includes both sedans and hatchbacks) in the United States every year since 2014. But it’s not the only example: the Buick Regal TourX, Mini Countryman, Fiat 500X and upcoming Focus Active, among others, are purveyors of the same craft. (Yes, the Countryman and 500X are unique models with no un-lifted equivalent. But it’s essentially the same thing.)

But unfortunately for Saab, this formula fell flat when it came to the 9-3X. Sales were dismal, with just 498 US sales in two model years. This particular example is a 2011 model, one of just 161 sold: that makes a 2011 9-3X rarer than a 2011 9-4X (the only year for 9-4X production). Why was it such a flop? Well, partly due its debut during Saab’s last gasps for air and partly because it was an aging and frankly uncompetitive platform. The 9-3 had been on sale, mostly unchanged, since 2003, and it wasn’t terribly well-regarded even when it came out. By 2011, it was a dinosaur, and the 9-3X was dead on arrival: a last-ditch attempt to salvage a sinking ship.

It was also overpriced, with a base price of $36,975 (almost $43,000 today). That was far too much for a ten-year old design with an interior by Fischer-Price era GM and an uncertain future for its parent brand. Its closest competitor was probably the Volvo V50 AWD, which undercut its base price by $4,000 and was probably a better car anyway. And a 6-cylinder Subaru Outback was almost $10,000 cheaper, while offering a vastly more practical package and a much trendier nameplate. You’d have to have been a die-hard Saab aficionado to even consider plunking down your hard-earned cash on such a dubious value proposition.

Image: Reddit (user: Zorenstein)


And, truth be told, there weren’t many of those left. By the time the 9-3X came out, Saab was some 25 years removed from its heyday, and 15 years into the era of GM cost-cutting that alienated many loyal Saab customers. The 9-3X didn’t really offer anything that the competition didn’t, save for a console-mounted ignition switch and the wistful reminder of a bygone era. And as the 2011 model year came to a close, so too did Saab, as the fabled marque took its final bow and faded away into the Swedish sunset.