2003 Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan
This 2003 review is representative of model years 2003 to 2007.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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?