1999 Saab 9-3 Road Test

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1999 Saab 9-3 Hatchback

(2.0L 4-cyl. Turbo 5-speed Manual)

Sometimes You Feel like a Nut, Sometimes You Don't

I was beside myself with bewilderment as I heard my editor-in-chief, Christian Wardlaw, rattle off a list of complaints about Saab's revised and renamed entry-level car, the 9-3. Despite changing about 1,000 parts that were designed to make the 9-3 handle and look better, Wardlaw still had lots to gripe about. After just one day behind the wheel he called me up to complain about the car's horrible seating position, peaky drivetrain and loose suspension. I almost asked him to make sure that he was driving the same car that I had driven (and loved) the previous day. Bad driving position? Difficult engine? I just couldn't understand what he was talking about. Was he insane for not recognizing this car's outstanding versatility and performance, or was I insane for not seeing this Saab's shortcomings?

Disagreements like this are not uncommon when people discuss Saabs. Some people love 'em; some people hate 'em. Rarely, however, is someone left nonplused after a drive in one of these Nordic contraptions. There is a reason for this; Saab likes to do things differently than most other manufacturers. These differences result in a Saab-ness that can be a delight for those who appreciate a fresh approach to old problems. It can also infuriate those who like straightforward design.

Take the simple placement of the ignition. That should be obvious, right? Not in a Saab. Saab places the 9-3's ignition (as well as the new 9-5's) on the center console between the driver and passenger seats. Why? Because ignitions mounted on the steering column or the dashboard are often difficult for drivers to see. Ignitions mounted on the center console, on the other hand, offer drivers a clear line of sight to where they should slot their key. An added benefit of this seemingly odd placement is that it keeps the ignition from being worn out prematurely by a heavy key chain.

Ignitions are one thing, engines are another. Here Saab deviates from the norm even more than usual; it is the only manufacturer in the world that offers an all-turbo lineup of cars. Both trim levels of the 9-3 come with a 185-horsepower transverse-mounted 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that has an asymmetrical turbocharger blowing the cylinders. This design is supposed to reduce vehicle emissions and improve the car's acceleration. Saab calls this system Ecopower. The Ecopower engine is supposed to give the 9-3 the benefits of a four-cylinder engine, light weight and fuel efficiency, while delivering power comparable to the six-pot engines found under the hoods of the BMW 328i and the Mercedes-Benz C280.

Two of our editors were quite happy with this unusual powerplant. I, for one, took a great deal of pleasure in finding the sweet spot in the rev band and launching the 9-3 away from a stop sign in a turbo-shrieking rush. I also found that quick use of the manual shifter could induce serious passing power on two-lane highways and crowded interstates. Not all is well in turbo-land, however, as evidenced by staff members who complained about having to rev the 9-3 into oblivion for fear of stalling in a busy intersection. One of our staffers ended up driving this way all day because he was certain that the jumpy engine wouldn't get him up to speed quickly enough when trying to merge with fast-moving traffic.

This Saab's suspension and steering system also received mixed reviews from Edmund's staff. Although the 9-3's independent front and semi-independent rear suspension does a good job of keeping the car planted to the road on twisty surfaces, it doesn't soak up bumps and potholes as well as competitors from BMW and Mercedes. The system also allows the 9-3 to lean quite a bit in corners, and although this doesn't adversely affect the car's performance, it can leave passengers feeling queasy. The steering suffers from a similar problem. The steering unit has good on-center feel, allowing drivers to place the 9-3 well on the road, but it has a serious kickback problem when traveling along pockmarked streets and weather-beaten avenues.

Despite the controversy over the car's performance, it was the interior that garnered the most praise and scorn from our various test drivers. Wardlaw was the biggest critic of the interior, complaining that the seat was aimed toward the left while the steering wheel was pointed to the right. A dead pedal that didn't rest at the same position as the gas, brake and clutch pedals further enforced Wardlaw's feeling that he had been twisted into his seat with a corkscrew. Our other editors were quite happy with the Saab's interior, however, citing a huge cargo space, comfortable chairs, clear views through the upright windshield and side window glass, and logical control. High quality interior materials lent the 9-3's cabin a classy touch, but the lack of a power seat (even with the optional leather interior) was a bit of a mystery.

With half of our staff wondering if they could swing a lease deal on a 9-3, while the other half was hoping that they never had to drive one again, we don't know whether to recommend this car or steer you elsewhere. Saab has made a reputation of selling different types of cars to different types of people. If you want a car that stands out in a crowd, has the utility of a hatchback, and impresses the neighbors, the 9-3 is for you. If you want to fit in, buy something else.

Second Opinion

Christian J. Wardlaw says:
The 9-3 is certainly a right-field selection in a crowded near-luxury marketplace. You've got your aircraft-inspired cockpit control layout and windscreen, your turbocharged four-cylinder powerplant, your ignition slot in the center console, your gaping and commodious four-door hatchback body configuration, your Swedish ancestry. All that stuff is actually pretty cool.

But when you get in and drive the 9-3, compromises are required to express your individuality. Dump the clutch at less than 3,000 rpm, and Geo Metros will dust you for the first 100 yards until the turbo spools up and kicks in, pushing you back into your seat. Not only can modulating the power of the 9-3 be frustrating, but also it can be downright scary turning left across traffic. And if you're not careful, wheelspin is quite simple to induce, making you look like a fool to fellow commuters and bait to traffic officers.

While the turbo can be a thrill the few times you're able to launch it correctly, the ride never is unless you're traversing smooth pavement. The Saab crashes over bumps and holes in the road like a Conestoga wagon. And while body roll doesn't bother me much because the 9-3 grips quite well in turns, others may find themselves suffering seasickness during canyon runs. Dealers ought to include a barf bag in the glovebox.

Additionally, the driver's seating position is all wrong. The seat aligns the body slightly to the left, so you're pointed toward the front left corner of the car. The steering column aligns the driver's arms toward the center of the Saab. The result is serious body misalignment and the feeling is disconcerting until you're used to it. Add the obnoxiously close dead pedal to the mix, and comfort fades quickly.

The question to ask yourself when considering a Saab 9-3 isn't whether or not you prefer to fit in. Rather, the matter at hand is everyday driveability. The 9-3 requires concentration to drive well and an appreciation for the odd. These are qualities I look for in a sports car, not a fancy family hauler that spends a good portion of its time in urban traffic. At our test vehicle's as-tested price point, I'll take a basic Audi A4 Avant, please.

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