2003 Saab 9-3

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2003 Saab 9-3

By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Rating: 7.75

Bottom Line:

Saab reaches out to the entry-luxury masses in the redesign of its 9-3. The 2003 model has mainstream outer styling but retains its "Saab-ness" in its handling, turbo power and interior.
Pros:
  • Sporty handling
  • Turbo punch
  • Safety reputation
Cons:
  • No hatchback anymore
  • Exterior styling that's mainstream
  • No all-wheel drive option

What's more important—the packaging or the substance? It's a good question for both Saab fans and folks who have just stumbled upon this luxury/sporty Swedish brand.

Saabophiles these days might be bemoaning the loss of the hatchback version of Saab's 9-3. In a major redesign for 2003, the automaker did away with this long-running body style.

Shoppers new to Saab might wonder whether the look on the new, 2003 9-3 sedan is distinctive enough and recognizable enough for them. In a departure from earlier years, when Saabs were differentiated by their rounded, odd exterior styling, the 9-3 now is almost mainstream in its appearance.

No matter. If a shopper values a European driving experience, with zippy turbo power and plentiful safety features to boot, the 9-3 presents a compelling story.

That's before the 9-3's competitive pricing—at introduction, the base manufacturer's suggested retail price was dropped some $2,000 from the predecessor hatchback model—is factored in.

Exterior styling views
Auto critics debate the new styling of the 9-3, whose previous generation dates back to the 1994 model year. The name "9-3" was pegged to the vehicle in 1999.

Saabs always were known for a sort of odd, rounded—some call it egg-shaped —look. It fit over a hatchback body style.

There's no hatchback now as the 2003 9-3 is a sedan only, and the new styling—save for the trademark Saab grille—is so mainstream, it's not readily recognizable as Saab's.

Saab officials explained they're looking for new—and more—customers than the loyal folks who liked the quirky character that Saabs had engendered over the decades.

European ride that's sprightly
In the 9-3, which rides on a new platform for 2003, buyers get a sedan with European flavor, but it's a distinctly different flavor than that in a German tourer.

There's solidity to the ride, a sense the 9-3 manages road bumps and still provides a sporty ride. But there's less of a heavy, Teutonic feel than in some German models.

The 9-3's turbo engines add a different, and sometimes dramatic, power sensation. There's real punch to be had here in aggressive driving.

Taste of Saab remains
The new 9-3 sedan is about the same length, overall, as its 9-3 predecessor, but the wheelbase is longer—to 105.3 inches. The new car is a bit wider, too.

Inside, the eminently comfortable leather seats—they feel pliable, yet have substantial side seat bolsters—and tall cowl with trademark, multi-adjustable vents are ready reminders this is a Saab.

The ignition—not up on the dashboard or steering column as in other vehicles, but down next to the driver's seat, in the center console as it is in other Saabs—is another big reminder.

So, too, is the Night Panel button which allows drivers to turn off at night all lighting of the instrumentation, save for the speedometer if they want a low-distraction driver setting.

Car ready to respond
The test car, the top, sporty-oriented 9-3 Vector felt readily responsive in turns and pleasingly stayed on track in long, sweeping curves.

The steering wheel here is less beefy than on the earlier 9-3s, but it's still sizable, not some small-diameter wheel as in some other sporty models.

Don't let that fool you. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is very responsive and does a good job of transmitting to the driver the kind of street conditions she's traveling on. There's no isolation from the road here.

Two turbos There are two engines in the 9-3 now, both turbocharged, of course.

The standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine offers 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque at a low 2500 rpm. It's enough to easily provide spirited driving around town and on freeways.

The up-level, 2.0-liter double overhead cam high-output intercooled and turbocharged four cylinder puts out 210 horses and 221 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm.

This compares with 225 horses and 214 lb-ft of torque in the up-level, six-cylinder BMW 330i, and 247 horses and 243 lb-ft of torque in the up-level S60 T5 model with turbocharged, five-cylinder engine.

In the test 9-3 Vector, the engine packed strong power as I moved through the manual gearbox correctly, and I could easily tell, without looking at the turbo gauge in the instrument cluster, that this was a turbo at work.

In fact, if I didn't drive with attention, it was easy to jerk my head—and those of my passengers—back roughly as the car responded readily to a heavy foot on the gas pedal.

Sometimes, this was a fun exercise. Sometimes, if I was tired and just wanting to get home after work, I had to focus on driving smoothly so I wasn't feeling my body doing so much leaning forward and back.

A five-speed automatic with manumatic shift-it-yourself-sans-clutch-pedal is also available.

Well-mannered handling
Handling felt nicely balanced in this front-wheel-drive car.

The 17-inch, Pirelli tires gripped strongly in aggressive maneuvers, and I never feared making evasive emergency lane changes on dry pavement because the rigid-feeling 9-3 Vector ably maintained its composure, even if I wasn't quite sure I could keep mine.

I liked the 9-3's aggressive brakes, too. All I had to do was start to press, gently, on the brake pedal and I could detect the brakes starting to grab.

Note that there can be some harshness in the ride in the 9-3 Vector, however, on major road bumps.

My body jiggled and vibrated some even at slow speeds on city street surfaces.

The front suspension uses MacPherson struts. There's a four-link configuration at the rear. Though all-wheel drive is a growing option on luxury models, it's not offered on the 9-3.

Odds and ends
I liked that this car had roomy door handles outside that accommodate all sizes of hands, even with gloves and mittens on them.

Interior controls were within easy reach for me, but the cupholder that sprang out from the dashboard had a bizarre, animal-trap-like look, and the process of getting it back into the narrow slot on the dashboard wasn't intuitive.

The test car had an intermittent alert that the OnStar emergency notification system had malfunctioned. On a couple of cool, 40-degree Fahrenheit mornings, the 9-3 tester stalled at startup.

Still, I liked that the head restraints, while positioned relatively close to my head and the heads of passengers, weren't as large and blocky as those in Volvos.

Don't waste your time looking for the handle to open the 9-3 glove box. The door opens with the push of a button that's neatly integrated into a trim piece at the front of the dashboard.

Accommodating long items
Despite the fact the hatchback is gone, the 9-3 retains some versatility as the rear seatbacks fold down. They didn't go down flat in the tester, though, and I noticed these seatbacks are heavier than they are in many other cars.

Be aware, too that a good amount of the 9-3's impressive 15-cubic-foot trunk space is situated under the rear window glass. Trunk space in the S60 is only 13.9 cubic feet. The BMW 3-Series has 10.7 cubic feet of trunk room.

Saabs have a reputation for safety, with the company responsible for many safety innovations over the years.

The new 9-3 includes curtain airbags, active head restraints that are designed to reduce whiplash and antilock brakes—all standard equipment.

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BB01 - 9/22/2014 9:31:58 AM