1999 Saab 9-3

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1999 Saab 9-3 Viggen

By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Rating: 7.5
Pros:
  • Impressive power, especially from a four cylinder
  • Limited numbers—not everyone will have one
  • Invitation to the Viggen Flight Academy
Cons:
  • Torque steer
  • Where's the dead pedal?
  • Low front air dam prone to damage

Saab's high performance aficionados will love this car—the successor, for the time being, to the 9000 Aero. This new 9-3 Viggen features the same body style as other 3-door 9-3s, but sports a bigger engine with a new, high-output Mitsubishi turbo, stiffer springs, 17-inch tires and improved brakes. Don't forget to keep both hands on the wheel in this one!

Viggen—it's a Swedish delta-wing jet fighter. Now, it's also a car. Both from Saab. Both high flyers. Both unique.

Special name
The 1999 Saab 9-3 Viggen Coupe is the first Saab auto to carry the name of an aircraft, company spokesman Kevin Smith said. And it's not just any aircraft. The Saab 37 Viggen—yes, Saab makes planes as well as cars—is known as an extremely agile and multipurpose jet.

No wonder the price for the 9-3 Viggen includes a 2-day driving session for owners—called, not so coincidentally, the Viggen Flight Academy—at the Road Atlanta racetrack outside Atlanta. Saab certainly wouldn't want buyers launching themselves, unawares.

Indeed, a driver in this car quickly realizes that just like an aircraft, the 9-3 Viggen requires attention. There should be no sleepy or lackadaisical driving here.

Muscular torque
It's true this limited-edition 3-door is based on Saab's 9-3 model. But the Viggen is no everyday 9-3. Under the hood is an eager, 2.3-liter four cylinder that's fitted with a high-output turbo that can provide a maximum boost pressure of 20 psi.

Horsepower is 225 at 5500 revolutions per minute compared with 185 at 5500 rpm in a regular 9-3 with 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder. Torque in the Viggen can be downright scary—or exhilarating, depending on your perspective. It tops out at 252 pounds-feet between 2500 and 4000 rpm.

In this, a front-wheel-drive car, it's enough to bring on torque steer, the sudden pulling of the front wheels to one side or the other, during aggressive acceleration. And that's after Saab saw fit to limit the maximum torque you can get in first and second gears.

Attentive driving needed
See what I mean about a car that demands your attention? I made sure to keep both hands on the steering wheel after the first time the test Viggen pulled sharply right.

I also worked to better manage the power demands. It wasn't easy, believe me, but I found that careful, conscious play on the accelerator still left me with plenty of zoom, while I no longer felt like I was fighting the wheel.

A car with a palpable edge
Not many cars today have this much personality. Saab's Smith said the Viggen's personality is purposely edgy. After all, Saab says the Viggen is its highest-performance car yet, and it was designed by the company's Special Vehicle Operations, which worked with engineers from Tom Walkinshaw Racing.

"We set out to build the next logical evolution of the 9000 Aero," Smith said, referring to Saab's previous high performer, which had similar horsepower and torque to the Viggen. The 9000 Aero was last sold in the United States in 1997.

"Since we haven't had the Aero since 1997, we've had a lot of owners asking" when Saab would get back to high-performance models, he said. "The Viggen has come out to answer that to some degree," Smith said.

Powering ride
Saab had to change the 9-3 suspension to better handle the new power. So, engineers added rear springs that are more than 25 percent stiffer for the Viggen. Front springs, however, are only five percent stiffer, and while the rear stabilizer bar diameter is unchanged, the front bar is reduced in diameter by two millimeters to help improve traction and control.

You might expect the stiffer springs, along with the bigger, 17-inch, low-profile, Z-rated tires to make for a tiring ride. But while the Viggen feels somewhat rigid as it travels, it's still able to ride mildly on long highway trips.

Brakes, too, are upgraded in the Viggen. Front brake rotors are ventilated and are more than three-quarters of an inch bigger in diameter than those on a regular 9-3. Rotors at all four wheels are grooved for better initial "bite" and for improved cooling. Anti-lock brakes are standard as is electronic brake force distribution.

In slalom maneuvers, there's some body roll in this car, more than I expected. And I had to watch how I turned up driveways and how close I got to concrete dividers in parking spaces. The Viggen's front air dam—part of a package including sporty body pieces such as rocker panels and a rear spoiler—hangs very low and scrapes pavement easily.

Leather aura
Still, there's something about the leather smell that rises up to greet you when you open the door of a Saab. That telltale smell is so characteristic of Saab. And it's here, too, in the Viggen.

I loved the Viggen's wonderfully inviting seats, which had oh-so-much lateral and thigh support. They're black leather, with bold blue inserts. The blue matches the bright blue color of the car's exterior.

It's the only color for the 1999 9-3 Viggen and seems perfect on a car named for a jet that soars skyward. But just to make sure your friends are aware of how special this car is, there are two Viggen delta-wing badges—one on each side outside of the car. The shiny, stainless steel doorsill plates also have the Viggen emblem.

Features galore
This car comes well equipped, with even a sunroof and automatic climate control standard. Being a Saab, the Viggen has many safety features, among them side airbags for the front seats, 3-point safety belts for all riders and front seats with Saab's active head restraint system.

Too bad there's not a real dead pedal for the driver, though. In this sporty car, with the kind of driving the Viggen is bound to encourage, it seems like an oversight.

Hey, there's room back here
The rear cargo area of the Viggen is impressive. Most buyers of sporty cars expect to go without cargo-hauling room. But you don't have to here. Because it's a 9-3, the Viggen comes with an amazingly large rear hatchback opening and fold-down rear seats that are more than weak attempts at utility.

Back seat legroom is okay with the front seats up a ways on their tracks. But it can be tight if front seats are back on their tracks all the way.

Exclusive club
Don't expect to see everyone you know—or even every Saab lover—to have a 9-3 Viggen 3-Door. Saab, which sold a record 30,757 cars in 1998, said just 2,500 Viggens will be built a year and of those, 400 are expected in the States this year.

Smith said 200 to 250 Viggens were pre-sold to interested buyers pretty much before the cars started arriving at U.S. dealerships in June 1999. Who are these buyers? Based on Internet queries to Saab, buyers are expected to be men—a majority of whom are below age 40—with annual household incomes of $120,000. Not surprisingly, they're also likely to be Saab aficionados.

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BB05 - 9/20/2014 5:00:39 AM