2003 Saab 9-3 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Redesigned for wider appeal.
The Saab 9-3 is completely redesigned and reengineered for 2003. Instead of a quirky-looking hatchback, it's now a sports sedan.
Saab has always dared to be different. Influenced by its aeronautical background, Saab cars have traditionally featured wraparound vertical windshields and aircraft-style dashboards with instrument lighting that could be switched off at night. Small map lights looked like they came from a cockpit. When buyers stopped wanting hatchbacks, Saab continued making them.
Now that Saab is a wholly owned division of General Motors the Swedish car company has more funds for developing new cars. By the same token, Saab is now expected to sell more cars, which means its cars need to appeal to a wider audience.
That's why the new Saab 9-3 is only available as a four-door sedan, initially anyway. Fortunately, Saab has managed to maintain some of its character even though the newest 9-3 sedan is far more mainstream than previous models.
Saab's line of 9-3 models is a little confusing for the first half of the 2003 model year. The 9-3 convertible continues to be based on the old 9-3 model.
The all-new Saab 9-3 is initially available in Linear trim, powered by a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine rated at 175 horsepower. The 9-3 Arc and Vector models will midway through the model year with a more powerful 210-hp version of the same engine and an optional six-speed manual gearbox.
To compensate, Saab is selling a special 'launch package' that includes many of the features, with the notable exception of the more powerful engine, that will be included as standard on the Arc model. So if you want a Linear model, these early loaded versions may be the hot ticket.
The Linear model starts at $25,990, which is a really competitive price and $2,000 less expensive than the outgoing 9-3 hatchback. The Arc model will sell for $29,995, while the Vector will be priced at $32,495.
From the front three-quarter view, there is no mistaking the new 9-3 for anything but a Saab. It looks like a baby Saab 9-5. The windshield on the new 9-3 is steeply raked, unlike Saabs of old, but the sloping wedge-like profile, the shape of the windows, the sleek integrated headlights, and the distinctive grille are all unmistakably Saab.
From the rear, the 9-3 looks like many other cars on the road, which is a shame as it does not have as much of a presence as previous models. Nonetheless it's a perfectly pleasing look that should offend nobody.
The side profile shows a surprising wedge shape with the lower edge of the side windows picking up the slope of the hood and following it through to the high trunk line at the rear. It makes the car look more like a coupe than a regular three-box sedan. Black trim around the windows as well as black rubber bump strips along the doors and bumpers help make the car look sleeker. Big oval-shaped door handles are an integral part of the design.
Another unique feature of the 9-3 is a lack of key holes in those door handles. Yes that's right, Saab has done away with a key for entering the car. Instead one has to rely on the remote key fob. But don't worry, if it ceases to function there is a back up key buried in the key fob and a hidden keyhole in the driver's door only.
Okay, the most important thing about a Saab is the location of the ignition key. Saab fans need not worry as it's still located down on the center console behind the gearshift. Those who have not experienced this unique placement of the ignition key don't know what they are missing. It is really sensible as it avoids the dangling mass of keys so many of us have on our key chains. It's also safer as it prevents the possibility of getting keys jammed in ones knees in a severe accident.
Beyond that the Saab 9-3's interior is pretty much what one would expect in a near-luxury sedan, although certain other Saab styling cues remain. The instruments are laid out in an easy-to-view layout with a big speedometer in a sweeping instrument panel that blends into the center console. It's still a relatively high dashboard compared to that in other cars but it's long been a signature styling cue of Saab cars so it's nice to see it retained. The buttons and switches are smaller than in many cars. Nonetheless they are all well placed for the driver to reach while driving.
An extra set of warning gauges is mounted on top of the dashboard in the center in a small pod, locating them more in the driver's line of sight. Radio settings and navigational directions when installed are displayed here.
The glovebox is one of the largest we have seen in a long time.
At first blush it's easy to miss the parking brake. It's located on the center console but it has a unique curved shape that matches the grab handle on the passenger side so that it looks as though it is a sculptured design feature rather than a brake handle. Once you know it's there it operates just like any other hand parking brake. The matching handle on the passenger side can be converted into an optional CD holder, which is a clever piece of design.
The front seats are fairly supportive in the Linear model but are not nearly as good as those found in the more sporty Vector model.
Rear-seat passengers get generous head- and legroom considering the size of the car. A center console can be folded down between the rear seats that contains cupholders and a map storage area.
As with previous Saab models the trunk is large for its size and is very useable. Surprisingly the trunk has gooseneck hinges that take up space but at least they are hidden in a cover so they do not crush luggage when the trunk lid is closed. A small pass-through opening to the trunk is provided for carrying skis and other long items. The 60/40 split rear seats can be folded to give greater storage through from the trunk.
Overall quality of the interior appears to be very good. Subtle use of wood trim and a matt-black finish on dash surfaces gives it a pleasant appearance.
Side airbags come standard on all 9-3 models along with Saab's Active Head Restraint system that automatically cradles the head in an accident to help prevent whiplash. Active safety is helped by ABS (anti-lock brakes), electronic traction control (TCS) and an electronic stability program (ESP), all designed to help the driver maintain control.
The new Saab 9-3 handles well with a nicely balanced neutral feel. The steering is a little light for a sports sedan but it's not light enough to be offensive. The ride is smooth. All in all it's a car with no real quirks or foibles.
One thing the Saab 9-3 does not have is torque steer. Torque steer, that tug on the steering wheel when accelerating through a corner, has long been a bugbear of Saab 9-3s and most other powerful front-drive cars. To some drivers it is not a concern and many would even describe it as a character trait that adds excitement. Saab engineers worked hard to eliminate it in the new 9-3 and they appear to have been successful. Even in the more powerful Vector model the only time we experienced some torque steer was when accelerating around a corner where the surface was slightly rutted by wear from studded tires, not a very common occurrence outside of Sweden.
With 175 horsepower, the Saab 9-3 Linear model is not going to set any speed records. If you don't mind doing your own shifting, opt for the five-speed manual transmission as it is much more fun and it gives the car a sporty edge. Although the five-speed automatic is very pleasant the Linear model needs more oomph to overcome the inevitable losses from an automatic transmission. (The Arc and Vector models should address this.)
Saab has mastered turbocharger technology so well that most people would not even realize the engine is turbocharged as there is virtually no turbo lag, that delay you experience after stepping on the gas pedal. What's more there is no boost gauge to give the game away.
The new Saab 9-3 is an attractive buy for anyone who wants a four-door near-luxury sedan that won't be seen on every block. If you want a sports sedan you'll probably want to wait for the Vector version with the more powerful engine that will appear later in the model year.
Purist Saab enthusiasts might be disappointed that the new 9-3 is not as quirky as its predecessors. On the other hand it still offers some unique features such as the ignition key in the console that continue to differentiate it from its closest competitors.
9-3 Linear ($25,990); 9-3 Arc ($29,995); 9-3 Vector ($32,495).
Options As Tested
automatic transmission ($1,200); Linear launch package ($2,595) includes in-dash 6-disc CD changer, color matched exterior trim, power sunroof, 16-inch alloy wheels, power driver seat.
9-3 Linear ($25,990).
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