2003 Saab 9-3

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2003 Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan

By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 8

Bottom Line:

Much-needed new mainstream sedan is a genuine rival to European rivals.
Pros:
  • Nicely redesigned
  • Roomy
  • Safety features
Cons:
  • Lacks hatchback practicality
  • A bit soft for a European sports sedan
  • Wide acceptance still a question mark

The redesigned Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan finally gives the Swedish automaker a midsize sports sedan that promises to have mainstream appeal, although some will have to get used to the car's trim designations: Linear, Arc and Vector.

But never mind the quirky names. The new 9-3 is a slick, fast, roomy "near-luxury" car that Saab hopes will help generate much-needed sales. It represents a $450 million investment in new facilities and machinery and is a solid alternative to rival sports sedans from Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz—pretty heady company.

As with French automakers, Saab long has gone its own way with car design. It has built offbeat but safe, rugged, fun-to-drive autos that never enjoyed a lot of sales success in America. They were too quirky for a big audience and thus haven't had the resale value of more conventional cars. Few Americans even noticed the nifty front-drive Saab Sonett sports car sold here from 1966 to 1974.

However, the 2003 9-3 is expected to attract younger buyers and those who never considered a Saab.

Timely Arrival
The new 9-3 hasn't come a moment too soon. General Motors, which bought half of Saab in 1990 and the rest in early 2000, is tired of Saab being a money loser and thus is putting the heat on for higher sales.

The 9-3 recently went on sale in $25,900 Linear trim. The more luxury oriented $29,995 Arc version and sportier $32,495 Vector trim arrive next spring. The Linear has 175 horsepower, while the Arc and Vector get 210 horsepower. All have turbocharged 4-cylinder engines.

Based on New GM Platform
As is the case with all 9-3 trims, the Linear is based on GM's new Epsilon platform, which Saab chassis engineers helped influence. It also will be used for future GM American models, including the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am.

Meanwhile, the $39,995 Saab 9-3 convertible will be sold with the old Saab platform until replaced in about a year by a modernized version. A 9-3 station wagon version and "crossover" vehicle also are scheduled to be here by the 2006 model year.

No More Hatchbacks
The new 9-3 replaces 2- and 4-door 9-3 hatchback trims. This is a much better car than the old 9-3, without the vibrations and unwanted sounds of its predecessor. However, despite its faults, the old trim was above-average in many respects.

The 9-3 has a conventional sedan body style with a regular trunk, like its rivals. That's big news because hatchbacks have been a Saab hallmark for decades—and, ironically, are beginning to make a comeback in America.

But, while practical and favored by Saab loyalists, hatchbacks don't have the "formal" appeal to most Americans of a notchback European sedan with a regular trunk.

Saabs always have had front-wheel drive, and that's what you'll find in the new 9-3. The wheelbase has been increased 2.3 inches, and the car is more than 2 inches wider to allow more cabin breathing room.

Handsome Appearance
The highly aerodynamic new 9-3 doesn't have a dramatic appearance. But it's handsome, with a coupe-like silhouette featuring a steeply raked windshield and rear window and short front and rear overhangs. The upright windshield, slab sides and tall side windows are gone.

Despite styling changes, Saab says the 9-3 Linear's wedge-shaped profile and integrated headlights and grille help give the car a "distinctive Saab identity." Actually, the car has a pronounced Germanic look.

The 9-3 Linear keeps Saab's traditional console-mounted ignition switch between the front seats. The unusual location makes it easier to reach than a switch buried on a steering wheel column. The switch now is entirely electronic in operation; the customary, mechanical Saab reverse manual gear lock that was facilitated by the switch's location has been replaced by an automatic electronic steering column lock.

New Powertrain
The powertrain includes a new aluminum 4-cylinder and new $1,200 "Sentronic" 5-speed automatic transmission; it shifts crisply in fully automatic mode and has a manual shift feature that keeps the car in the gear a driver selects without automatically upshifting.

There also are an improved 5-speed manual gearbox and new 6-speed manual transmission.

Saab always has been big on safety. The rigid body of the new 9-3 is very strong to help enhance safety, along with handling.

Major Safety Features
Major safety items include front side airbags and Saab's first curtain side airbags, which protect front and rear outboard occupants—and stay inflated longer in a rollover. Saab's second-generation front-seat headrests more effectively help prevent whiplash in a rear collision.

Also standard are stability and traction control systems. And standard anti-lock all-disc brakes work with an electronic brake assist for panic stops. A new cornering brake control system is activated when the car is cornering during heavy braking—a situation that can quickly put an auto into a skid.

A dirty windshield hampers safe driving, so Saab has given the new 9-3 four windshield washer jets that work at twice the power of most other systems.

Well-Equipped
Despite its entry position in the new 9-3 line, the Linear has lots of standard comfort and convenience features. They include air conditioning with dust and pollen filter, cruise control, adjustable steering wheel, AM/FM/CD stereo and power windows, locks and heated outside mirrors. Even the glove box is air conditioned.

The Linear's smooth 2-liter, 175-horsepower engine provides lively acceleration. Saab is a master at getting lots of power from small turbo engines, but there's a slight turbo lag when accelerating.

Estimated miles per gallon with the Linear engine is in the low 20s in the city and low 30s on the highway.

Higher Horsepower
The Arc and Vector get the 210-horsepower version of the sophisticated engine, which has higher turbocharger boost, along with the new 6-speed manual transmission.

The 9-3 has sharp, buttoned-down handling for a front-drive car, with such things as wider front and rear tracks. There's also a new passive rear-wheel steering system that improves handling and stability.

Steering is precise and the brake pedal has a reassuring feel. The supple new all-independent suspension easily handles road irregularities, but is on the soft side and sometimes lets the car become a little bouncy.

Aircraft Influence
The nicely shaped outside door handles can be easily gripped for quick entry to the quiet cockpit, which has room for four tall adults. Saab has made many fighter airplanes, so the dashboard is predictably well designed, with easily read gauges and nicely placed soft-touch controls.

Front seats are very supportive and have precise manual rotary seatback adjusters. All doors have storage pockets and rear windows lower all the way.

Large Cargo Area
The trunk is large and has a low, wide opening. The split rear seatbacks fold fairly flat to greatly enlarge the cargo area. They have releases in the trunk and headrests that slide into the tops of the seats so they don't take up room in the cabin.

The 9-3 Linear is impressive, and the higher-line versions promise to be even better. But will GM provide Saab with the marketing muscle to draw a good number of people to Saab showrooms to try out the car?

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BB06 - 8/21/2014 5:29:53 PM