What's New for 1999
Saab changed the car's name to the 9-3, giving it a mild exterior freshening to boot. Around midyear, a high-output version of its 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder (making an amazing 200 horsepower) becomes the standard engine in the uplevel SE five-door and SE Convertible models equipped with a manual transmission. All SEs also get new five-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels. All five-speed manual 9-3s get revised gearbox ratios and a numerically higher (4.05-to-1) final drive ratio for better off-the-line feel. A revised 9-3 interior headliner provides more padding for increased protection in the event of a crash. And five-door SE variants add an integrated driver-seat armrest and a centrally located cupholder that swings out from the instrument panel.
Saab has faced some tough times. An inconsiderate parent company, General Motors, tried to make Saab fit into GM's large corporate game plan, which has been a longstanding sore spot with Saab defenders. They claim that the giant multi-national does not understand the Saab audience and the special appeal of these cars.
Lately, and more importantly, Saab has been faced with the difficulties associated with having only a two-car lineup. The Saab 900, a beautiful and comfortable car, was a hit upon introduction in 1994, but sales slowed because of increased competition from BMW, Mercedes and Lexus, in addition to nagging customer concerns about the 900's build quality.
Despite some obvious difficulties and shortcomings, we still like Saab. The 900 was replaced this year with the 9-3, an updated 900 by any other name. The base 9-3 comes in three-door Coupe, five-door Hatchback and Convertible models. All come equipped with a powerful 185-horsepower four-cylinder engine. This turbocharged 2.0-liter produces stunning acceleration that can char the front tires into bits if the driver so chooses.The phenomenon of torque-steer (where some powerful front-drivers can literally pull the steering wheel right out of your hands on hard acceleration from a standing start) has always been a problem for the 900. But Saab claims to have settled the swerving down a bit in this year's 9-3 by improving the front suspension geometry.
New for '99 is a high-output version of the turbo four that spins out 200 horses (that's an incredible 100 horsepower per liter of displacement) but available only for SE models equipped with a manual transmission. Perhaps even more incredible is that this motor makes its 209 foot-pounds of torque at an amazingly low 2,300 rpm, and then maintains peak torque all the way up to 4,600 rpm. Talk about a wide, fat, usable power band across the rev range!
All 9-3 models feature Saab's patented pendulum-design B-pillar which deflects side impacts away from head and chest areas; the world's first head restraint system to reduce the risk of whiplash-type injuries; and seat-mounted, two-stage inflating head and chest side airbags.
The 1999 Saab 9-3 is a comfortable, equipment-laden near-luxury car that competes against entries from Volvo, BMW and Mercedes. Prices start around $26,000 for the 9-3 Coupe, and climb all the way to $42,995 for the SE convertible. While the 9-3 is a good car, there are plenty of good cars in the 9-3's price class. If your tastes run a bit on the eccentric side, however, this car's personality and quirkiness may be a better choice for you than a BMW 323is or Mercedes C280. You'll certainly stand out more in the crowd.