2003 Saab 9-3 Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Saab 9-3 Sedan

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

Closing in on the Leaders

Anyone who has run many road or cross-country races will be glad to talk your ear off if you ask about strategies for winning, or at least finishing well, in such races — indeed, I'm about to do just that. Often reiterated by runners (while fruity, electrolyte-restoring fluid dribbles onto their sweaty T-shirts) is the importance of what happens in the seconds (or minutes) after the start of the race. Shoot out ahead of the leaders, and you may be hunched over, sucking wind and falling back in the last mile. But go out too conservatively and you'll spend the entire race playing catch-up, perhaps never to see the lead pack.

Now consider Saab's 9-3: During a long nine-year model run from 1994 to 2002, it struggled along with unpolished ride and handling characteristics and rather shabby build quality and materials. Upgrades for the 1999 model year yielded some improvement in these areas, though not enough to satisfy us (this was of course also the year when the name changed from "900" to "9-3"). Such is not to say that this car — offered in convertible and two- and four-door hatchback form — did not develop an affectionate following of enthusiasts which even included a few of the editors here. But given its obvious weaknesses and the stiff competition, particularly among four-door entry-luxury cars, this was not a car we could in good faith recommend to consumers as a top pick. Endurance isn't enough if you don't put yourself in a potentially winning position to begin with.

However, the company's redesigned 2003 9-3 should have a happier story. Offered only in sedan form this year (the SE Convertible is a carryover of the old style) and referred to as the "9-3 Sport Sedan" by Saab, this car made a good first impression during our initial drive. After subsequently spending a week and a half with a base Linear model, it would seem that Saab has given the 9-3 a solid start in the entry-luxury sedan race — the leaders in this segment are within view.

Longtime Saab enthusiasts may be disappointed to find that the company has abandoned the hatchback body style (which wasn't a strong enough sell to target customers, at least for a company that wants to shed its niche-player status), and they'll quickly note that familiar traits like torque steer and spongy handling around corners have been bred out of the new 9-3 as well. Nor will it be far from their minds that this redesign was executed entirely under the auspices of General Motors (which has had a 100-percent stake in the company since 1999). This 9-3 rides on the Epsilon platform, which will provide the basis for future Grand Ams, Impalas, Malibus and Monte Carlos, and its new turbocharged four-cylinders make use of the corporate Ecotec engine block. But it's also true that GM has been a 50-percent owner of Saab since 1990 and that the previous 900/9-3 had plenty of Opel (a division of GM Europe) parts.

Moreover, this 9-3 sedan still looks like a Saab — really, like a scaled-down 9-5 with more graceful lines — and has quite a large trunk for a nonhatchback (14.8 cubic feet of capacity). Variants are on the way, with a redesigned convertible to be introduced late in the summer of 2003, and the all-wheel-drive 9-3X crossover to follow by the end of that year. A sport wagon should be along within two to three years. This still leaves the question — where's the Viggen? We're referring, of course, to a previous-generation 9-3 equipped with a 2.3-liter turbo four that churned out 230 horses and 258 pound-feet of torque. The current offerings, the 175-horsepower 9-3 Linear and the 210-hp Arc and Vector models, don't fill the Viggen's tire tracks, at least in terms of acceleration. Saab executives have said that a higher-performance 9-3 sedan is a possibility somewhere in the hazy future, but that it would likely be called the Aero (more in line with the 9-5 nomenclature).

For now, our subject is an entry-level Linear sedan (given a most interesting coat of matte-finish exterior paint — Dolphin Grey, it's called) that we picked up in San Francisco and drove back to Los Angeles, where it was driven by several editors and put through our usual battery of instrumented testing. The car was loaded with just about every option — five-speed automatic transmission, seat heaters, Launch Package (adds a power driver seat, sunroof, in-dash CD changer and 16-inch wheels; upgrades the stereo output to 150 watts and provides more color-keyed trim), Touring Package (adds dual-zone auto climate control, bi-xenon headlights and auto-dimming rearview mirror) and Sport Wheel Package (swaps the Launch Pack's 16-inch wheels for 17s and adds a sport-tuned suspension).

This Linear, however, was a preproduction car, and we must offer a few caveats before getting out our fine-toothed comb. First, the company's decision to add auto climate control to the Touring Package was last-minute, so you'll note in the photos that our test car had a three-knob manual arrangement. And apparently, the plant in Trollhättan, Sweden, that builds these cars was unable to coordinate the firmer springs and dampers and larger-diameter antiroll bars needed for the sport suspension in time for our road test, so this car had the regular suspension settings along with the big 17-inch alloys and 215/50R17 rubber that come with the Sport Wheel Package — don't go looking for this combination at your dealer. Also, our car wore Michelin Pilots, tires we've often praised for their quiet ride and excellent grip, but our contacts at Saab advised us that all production cars will have Pirellis. Finally, the front center armrest was covered in cloth, rather than leather, and a swivel-design, dash-mounted cupholder was missing altogether.

One other note for prospective buyers — the Launch Package ($2,595) is basically a placeholder until the Arc and Vector models arrive in force in January 2003. At that time, this package will be replaced by the Driver's Package, which includes just the CD changer, more powerful amplifier and the power driver seat. Why should you care? Well, if you can comfortably afford a Linear optioned with the Launch and Touring packs, it wouldn't be a bad idea to hold out for the Arc which, in addition to more power, provides desirable features like dual power seats (with memory for the driver); a full set of one-touch windows; a 13-speaker, 300-watt sound system (something you'll likely want after reading the stereo evaluation for our test vehicle); and wood and leather trim throughout the cabin — none of which are available on the Linear.

And even with its position as the luxury-oriented 9-3, the Arc remains eligible for the sport package and a manual transmission. Alternatively, you could go with the Vector, which is basically outfitted like a Viggen, less the 230-hp engine — big wheels, sport suspension, laterally bolstered sport seats and a lower body kit. Saab expects that 35 percent of its U.S. buyers will choose the Linear, 45 percent the Arc and 20 percent the Vector.

The Linear draws power from a 16-valve, 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder with a light-pressure Garrett GT20 turbocharger affixed to it. Familial Ecotec ties are hard to find, as the engine has a shorter stroke (equal in length to the bore, actually), resulting in less displacement compared to mainstream GM applications (2.0 liters vs. the usual 2.2 liters), as well as Saab-exclusive cylinder heads, camshafts, counter-rotating balancer shafts, dual-mass flywheel and Trionic 8 engine management software. The product of all this on paper is 175 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 195 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm.

Certainly, it would be fair to ask whether this engine is really an upgrade over the previous 2.0-liter Ecopower four (offered from 1995 to 2001), which made 10 more horsepower at the same rpm and 194 pound-feet of torque at 2,100 rpm. Saab product personnel did note that the new engine is 37 pounds lighter than its predecessor, though overall, a Linear sedan weighs about 150 pounds more than a 2001 base four-door hatchback. Still, in our judgment, the new engine is not a loss to buyers in terms of price or performance. Looking back, that four-door hatchback had a starting MSRP of $27,570 for the 2001 model year, a difference of $1,045 without adjusting for inflation or the Linear's increased standard equipment and updated engineering.

Out on the road, the difference between the two engines is immediately noticeable. Whereas the old 185-horse mill exhibited pronounced turbo lag, as well as the on-off sort of power delivery associated with turbos, the new 175-horse engine in our Linear had minimal lag off the line and smoother power delivery overall — so smooth in the view of the author that she was moved to write in her notes that if it wasn't for the occasional muted whine of the low-boost turbocharger (well, that and the turbo meter in the gauge cluster), you wouldn't even know it had one. The turbocharger's low-profile presence may disappoint some enthusiasts, but when this power plant is considered alongside Audi's (and VW's) popular 1.8T engine, likely the smoothest operating turbo four on the planet, it's not hard to understand why Saab would move in this direction. Still, the Linear's four-cylinder came off as a bit loud and gruff when revving, so editors didn't rate it as highly as the Audi A4's 1.8T.

Most buyers will be content with the engine's power. Though not terribly exciting off the line, its broad, relatively deep power band proved adequate and then some in most driving conditions. During instrumented testing, our test vehicle achieved 60 mph in 8.1 seconds, while the quarter-mile went by in 16.2 seconds. These days, a V6 Camry can make it to 60 in about eight seconds, and obviously, power freaks shopping in this price range will be drawn to faster alternatives like the Infiniti G35, Subaru Impreza WRX, Nissan Altima (or Maxima) or even a VR6-equipped VW Jetta. However, entry-luxury sedan ownership is generally about the total package: Besides power, a car's capacity to provide nimble handling, supple ride quality, upscale accommodations and brand prestige are considerations. And anyway, the 9-3's 0-to-60-mph time is on par with a front-drive A4 1.8T's time.

The optional five-speed automatic transmission was cause for some discontent. Although smooth, predictable and trustworthy in most situations, the tranny often seemed to be away from its desk getting a cup of coffee when we put the accelerator pedal to the floor from a stop — with the gear selector in "D" (or "1" in the automanual shift gate). The result was a one- to two-second delay between pegging the throttle and getting the anticipated forward movement. It's certainly possible to plan for this behavior as you get to know the car, but for the uninitiated, it can be unnerving — and so it was for one hapless editor who pulled out into the busy flow of California's Highway 17 only to find she had nothing to work with until approaching vehicles had drawn uncomfortably close.

This was not a new problem for us, as our editor in chief encountered it with both Linear and Vector models during the First Drive. At that time, he diagnosed it as a transmission software issue, and our contacts at Saab were eager for us to drive this Linear test vehicle, which had apparently benefited from software updates. When this vehicle was placed in our care, the PR staff suggested that additional updates could be in store for production 9-3 automatics, and for the benefit of buyers, we hope so.

The other issue we noted during our testing was hesitation on both upshifts and downshifts in the automanual mode — in upshift situations, two taps of the shift lever were often required to coax the transmission into the next gear. This lag time was disappointing to editors who had enjoyed the sport mode in previous 9-3s and the current 9-5 — this feature basically eliminated the need for driver control of shift points by hastening the transmission's response times in D. Don't take all of this commentary as a singular rejection of all 9-3 automatics but rather as a friendly suggestion that you, the consumer, should evaluate the transmission thoroughly during your test drive — make sure you put the throttle to the floor at least once. Fuel economy is rated at 22 mpg city and 31 highway with the automatic and 23/31 with the standard five-speed manual gearbox.

The 9-3's ride and handling characteristics almost made up for the transmission's errors in timing. Any misgivings one has about the use of the global Epsilon platform are likely to be allayed by the realization that this car has a much stouter chassis than its floppy predecessor — torsional rigidity has increased by more than 120 percent, according to the communications staff. Further, the dampers, springs and bushings used for the suspension are unique to Saab. More importantly, unlike the old 9-3, this car is capable of delivering a comfortable, composed ride over hundreds of miles — as our Linear test vehicle did — as well as a great deal of entertainment in the hands of the pleasure-seeking driver on twisty two-lane roads.

Even with its nonstandard setup (big optional tires but regular suspension tuning), our prototype Linear test vehicle felt stable and light around turns and most editors felt confident driving it at a brisk clip on back roads. Not everyone agreed, though, as one editor observed that the suspension allowed too much harshness into the cabin over bumps and felt that body roll was excessive at times. In regard to the latter complaint, we expect that a sport-tuned 9-3 will be more to our liking, as early driving impressions suggest that the firmer settings flatten the car's cornering attitude without compromising ride comfort.

Although the front-wheel-drive 9-3 continues to employ a strut suspension design in front (rather than a four-link design as on front-drive A4s), Saab engineers have incorporated a hydroformed front subframe (to which the lower control arms are attached) and revised the geometry so as to eliminate torque steer. While our test vehicle's modest power supply was less likely to tax the suspension than, say, the '02 Viggen's motor, an early drive of a 210-hp Vector revealed that it was similarly immune to annoying steering-wheel tugs during heavy throttle inputs.

In back, an independent four-link design replaces the old semirigid torsion beam setup. Not only is the new layout better able to cope with changing road conditions, it also allowed engineers to adopt a passive rear-wheel-steer characteristic (called ReAxs by Saab), whereby the wheels turn slightly in the opposite direction of steering input — this gets the car around turns a bit faster, reducing the understeer normally associated with front-wheel-drive cars.

Overall, the steering provided quick, fluid responses to driver input, making it easy to thread our test vehicle around tight turns. The 9-3's rack still can't match the perfectly weighted, ultracommunicative feel of a 3 Series rack, but most buyers won't mind. The turning radius is tidy at 35.4 feet — exactly halfway between that of the 3 Series and the A4.

In terms of handling, the 9-3 is not a one-to-one substitute for the rear-drive 3 Series or the all-wheel-drive A4 quattro, but among front-wheel-drive cars, it doesn't get much better than this Saab. A future test of a properly sport-tuned Arc or Vector, and perhaps a comparison test that includes a nonquattro A4, an Acura TL and a Volvo S60, should yield a more definitive answer to the question of whether it's as good as or better than its front-drive brethren.

Braking is provided by four-wheel antilock discs that measure 11.8 inches across in front and 11.4 in rear (the Arc and Vector get larger-diameter front discs). The passive rear-wheel steer helps out in this area, too, by transferring some of the weight to the rear tires via toe-in (a slight inward turn of the tires) when the driver hits the brake pedal. Other features include BrakeAssist, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and cornering brake control, which varies brake pressure individually among the wheels to help keep the car stable when the driver is braking heavily around a turn. We were impressed by the 9-3's braking ability — although the pedal felt a tad soft, the car stopped fine in all situations. During instrumented testing, it consistently turned in exemplary 117-foot braking distances from 60 mph. Our test pilot did, however, notice short, quick bursts of rear-wheel lockup during his braking runs and, in retrospect, we wonder if that might have been the ReAxs system using toe-in to load up the rear.

Stability control (called Electronic Stability Program by Saab) is standard on all 9-3 sedans. Like other such systems, ESP uses both the brakes and electronic throttle control to realign the vehicle when its path deviates from the driver's intended path. We did not find it overly intrusive during our test vehicle's stay.

Inside, our Linear test vehicle had an industrial flavor or, according to the Saab press material, "a Scandinavian understated and modern environment." As such, this car was free of the wood accents you'll find in the Arc or the chrome trim in the Vector. Leather upholstery is standard even in this base model, but the doors had fabric rather than animal-hide inlays. The matte-finish plastics that dressed the rest of the cabin reflected a concerted effort to match grain patterns, and for that we were grateful. Touching these surfaces (as well as some switchgear) suggested they were one to two grades below the premium materials used in the A4 and the 3 Series. Build quality left something to be desired as well, but as our test vehicle was a rush order for the U.S. press introduction, we'll reserve final comment until we've spent some time with a regular production model. As always, it's a good idea to check this out thoroughly before driving away from a dealership lot in any new car.

The old 9-3's overly cozy cockpit has been replaced by a spacious passenger compartment likely to fit drivers of all sizes, and a few signature features like the "fasten seatbelt" sign that journalists liked to poke fun at have been excised. The carrot-orange needles on the gauges are gone, too, as all nighttime illumination is now in green. The center stack controls have been pushed upward in the dash, making various functions easier to find and use than ever before. Are these changes sadly evocative of a niche company's appeal to a more mainstream audience? Maybe for die-hard Saab enthusiasts, but probably not for automotive writers and consumers with short attention spans who expect everything to be comfortable and straightforward from the start.

Finding a suitable driving position was rather easy, as the 9-3 now offers a considerable range of tilt and telescope adjustment for the steering wheel, as well as manually height-adjustable seatbelts for front occupants. The front passenger got the short straw in our Linear model, as the manual controls did not include seat-height adjustment but did leave anyone seated here to fiddle with a fussy rotary knob for seat back recline. And without the Launch or Driver's Package, the driver has to make do with the same provisions. On the plus side, most of us thought the seats were just as comfortable and supportive as any previous Saab vehicle's. One editor was disappointed with the contouring and rated seat comfort only average.

Visibility from the driver seat is quite good: The passenger-side mirror includes Saab's familiar blind-spot viewer (both side mirrors have this feature in European-market cars, but federal regulations prohibit its use on the driver side in the U.S.), and a large rear window and the use of just two rear headrests ensure a clear view out the back. A rear parking assist system is optional on Arc and Vector models.

Rear-seat accommodations are above average — after putting three happy road test editors back here, one of them slotted the 9-3 in between the compact quarters of the A4 and 3 Series and the spacious seating areas of the Acura TL and Infiniti G35. A quick check of the specs supported her assessment, as the Saab offers a bit more leg- and shoulder room. Although the seat is mounted slightly low, the seat bottom (and back cushion, for that matter) are well contoured and thus provide admirable support. Toeroom is abundant, though taller passengers are apt to complain about legroom if left back here too long. Limited padding on the front seat backs can be particularly hard on the knees of the long-legged.

Our test vehicle had the manual climate controls that come standard on all Linear models, and since they employed a large, user-friendly three-knob setup, you could save yourself some money by skipping the Touring Package and be none the worse off — though it might be hard to forego an auto-dimming rearview mirror.

The basic stereo functions are easy to navigate via a couple of large knobs for volume and tuning, a double-sided seek button and steering wheel-mounted controls (part of the 150-watt audio system upgrade). However, a couple of editors criticized the raised Saab Information Display (SID) at the top of the dash which, while at eye level, is nonetheless separated from the stereo controls themselves; the requirement to scroll through LCD menus to switch between the radio and CD player; the unattractive telephone keypad arrangement of the preset buttons (although it provides up to 36 presets, the design was obviously selected for its compatibility with the OnStar telematics system); and the lack of a cassette player. However, as you'll read in the stereo evaluation, such ergonomic issues will be the least of audiophiles' concerns.

While the middash LCD screen and SID can be confusing when making stereo adjustments, they do provide a useful interface for the expanded trip computer. Called Profiler by Saab, the new system offers considerable functionality. Besides viewing the basics like time, temperature, date and miles to empty, you can adjust the anti-theft system settings, check the miles remaining until the next oil service or, if you're napping in the car during lunch hour, set an alarm to wake you.

With a couple of screens already on the dash, some of you might wonder why a navigation system is not on the options list. A nav system is available in the European market, but Saab has not yet decided whether to offer it in the U.S. for 2004. We suspect that its omission has something to do with limited consumer interest; a J.D. Power survey released last year found that less than one percent of 2001 model year vehicles were equipped with nav systems. And Saab, a company that deals in smaller volumes, likely cannot afford to peddle an unpopular option.

The 9-3's secondary controls were unfailingly easy to use, though we were disappointed to find that the Linear model does not offer one-touch-up windows — you have to spring for the Arc or Vector if you want these. Nighttime illumination is fantastic, as every possible control in the car lights up, including all window buttons and the trunk release button on the driver door.

Interior storage space is drastically improved over the previous 9-3. The front seat includes two rubber-lined storage wells (one of which doubles as a cupholder), large door bins, a couple of power points (one of them in the center console container) and an air-conditioned glovebox. In back, you'll find another pair of spacious door bins, seat back map pockets, a shallow storage area in the fold-down center armrest and two cupholders that deploy from the back of the center console.

The trunk is large for an entry-luxury compact, and sheathed gooseneck hinges maximize the size of the opening while sparing fragile luggage. All 9-3s come with easy-to-fold 60/40-split-folding rear seats as well as a separate ski pass-through. The one cause for complaint back here is the doughnut spare tire.

As the first Saab to include side curtain airbags for front and rear occupants, the 9-3 meets the top entry-luxury nameplates on their terms. Side torso airbags and active front head restraints for front occupants are also part of the deal. All outboard seatbelts are equipped with pre-tensioners and load limiters.

Will the 9-3 be the model that convinces American consumers that Saabs are cool, fun-to-drive cars again? Hard to say. The company has given up on the hatchback body style for now, but this sedan is, in our opinion, the most attractive piece of work it has turned out in this last decade. Familiar Saab ride and handling traits have been replaced by a smooth, controlled ride and crisp handling around corners. The turbo engines are less peaky. The cabins have lost their cozy, airplane-cockpit feel in favor of a down-to-business layout with more room and better ergonomics. More safety features are included to back up the association between Swedish cars and the protection of loved ones. And the base price has been lowered. Overall, the 9-3 is no revelation in the entry-luxury segment, nor is it lost in the throng like its predecessor.

If an unwavering desire for max performance drives your entry-luxury sedan purchase, the 3 Series is still the car for you. If, however, you're motivated by a combination of factors, including out-the-door price, fun, prestige, room in the backseat and suitability for winter driving, the 9-3 may be the car that speaks to you. Not a car that we'd recommend for a sight-unseen order, but definitely worth a test drive.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 5.0

Components: When we first flipped on the sound system in the new Saab 9-3, we were convinced that it couldn't be the completed factory system. After all, hadn't we been alerted by several Saab representatives that the vehicle we would be road testing was a "preproduction model," with all the ticks and faults that designation implies? "Surely," we said to ourselves, "Saab wouldn't put such a mediocre stereo system into a finished production vehicle — not Saab, a company renowned for the excellence of its sound systems. Certainly there must be some mistake. Saab wouldn't do this. Not Saab."

Imagine our surprise, then, when we contacted our local Saab factory rep and were assured that the stereo was, in fact, the finished system and that it would be debuting in the car across the nation. Here's the deal. The vehicle we reviewed, a Saab 9-3 Linear model, was optioned with the Linear Launch Package, which comes with a 150-watt, seven-speaker setup (Saab Entertainment 1) — without this package, the Linear has just a 70-watt amplifier. Those consumers wanting a better stereo should step up to the 9-3 Arc and Vector models, both of which contain a 300-watt, 13-speaker arrangement (Saab Entertainment 2). Our advice: Shell out for the better car and sound system. This one is a major disappointment.

A shame, too, since this system does have some nice features. The head unit, for instance, combines a wide topography with generous button spacing giving a great ergonomic feel. Pop-out dials for treble, bass, balance and fade provide further ease of use, plus a round, detented knob for volume is a snap to use. The system is rounded out with a six-disc, in-dash CD changer in the lower portion of the center stack, and steering wheel controls offer further ease of use with volume up-down and seek-scan.

All good so far. But the speakers won't win any awards. Although they are well positioned, with an array across the top of the dash that includes a centerfill midrange-tweet plus tweets in each corner, that's about all you get. A pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers occupy the front doors, giving more midrange information to the listener, but scant little bass. Lastly, the world's worst and smallest full-range speakers, approximately three inches in diameter, are housed in the car's rear deck, firing upward into the cabin. Immediately adjacent to these little drivers are huge 6-by-9 cutouts with no speakers in them!

Performance: If you like midrange, you'll love this system. But if you like a little bass to go with your treble, you'll be sorely disappointed. This one sounded like a boom box on steroids — and not very good steroids, either. If the Saab engineers had gone just one step further and dropped a pair of 6-by-9 full-range drivers in the vacant cutouts in back, we'd probably be reporting a completely different story. As it is, this system will leave the consumer wanting more.

Best Feature: Ergonomic head unit.

Worst Feature: Extremely poor bass response.

Conclusion: If you listen to anything more than AM radio, you'll likely be disappointed in the sound system in the Saab 9-3 Linear. We strongly suggest you pay the extra money and get into an Arc or Vector model. Your ears will thank you, if not your pocketbook. — Scott Memmer

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
The terms "front-wheel drive" and "sport sedan" usually don't coalesce into ultimate driving excitement. There's something about trying to make the front wheels do double duty as both drivers and directors that dilutes their ability to accomplish either task with much grace. The previous 9-3 had serious trouble in this regard, yanking and pulling its way through turns so raggedly that a firm grip on the wheel was a prerequisite for even mildly aggressive maneuvers. But with its all-new chassis and redesigned steering system this latest 9-3 has exorcised those demons, turning it into one of the best-handling front-drivers on the road. It feels light, has an ultraquick turn-in and is more tossable than you would think a car with all that weight over its front end could be. Even with the relatively modest power of the smallish turbo engine, I still felt as though it was snaking through the turns as fast as just about any other sport sedan in this class. My final judgment won't be made until I drive a properly outfitted Vector model, but as it stands now, this is easily the most fun you can have with four doors and the front wheels pulling you around.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
"Man, this is one handsome vehicle," I thought to myself as I circled the new Dolphin Grey vehicle in our garage. With its flat-toned paint and chiseled good looks, the car drew lots of attention wherever it went, and now competes with the best German sport sedans in the beauty category.

Having never declared discipleship to the Church of Saab, I didn't feel much affection for the Swedish car, deeming its quirkiness as faults, and esoteric features, such as the ignition key in the center console, as flaws to be fixed. Yes, it had a dab of sportiness to it, but turbo lag and torque steer detracted from the overall driving experience. I liken owning a Saab to having a ferret for a pet — some people swear by it, but if you don't get it, you don't get it.

This new Saab is a vast improvement over the previous one. Designed to appeal to a broader audience, the new Saab, I'm sure to the chagrin of devotees, is bigger and more technologically advanced than the previous 9-3. Handling is much improved, losing much of its wallow and plow, with a tight steering rack and turning circle.

Will the Church of Saab gain a new member? Not likely, but at least now I won't slam the door in the face of its disciples when they come calling.

Consumer Commentary

"Simply put — this is by far the best GM sedan on the market. Moreover, when I matched it against the stiff entry-level luxury class, it was the best value for the luxury offered. But, I did have the GM discount — a whopping $3,400. Favorite features: OnStar system, dual-zone climate control, profiler system, night-ride system. Suggested improvements: None." — Mavv23, Oct. 30, 2002

"I went to the local dealer yesterday to test drive a new 9-3 Linear. They didn't have any sticks in stock, so I took an auto. I must say, great pep for an automatic, with very little turbo lag or torque steer — jumped right off the line, at least through 40 mph before any noticeable fade. Ride didn't feel as 'road-solid' as A4 or 325, but steering and braking were both crisp. Interior — big upgrade over '02 (which I found to be plasticky and cheap).

"Only interior gripe was the cloth door panels and center armrest — come on, Saab, stop skimping! Given these two areas are the most prone to dirt, the cloth is a poor choice — even if they were vinyl and not leather, no one would notice and it would be a lot more practical. The cloth also looks out of place because it's a raised windowpane pattern vs. the smooth leather on the seating surfaces.

"Otherwise, very solid car, I'd imagine the 210-hp engine will be a delight (although maybe more torque steer). Before driving, never would have considered Linear based on its features and engine. Now, I really have to think about the extra cost. Most cars on the lot were equipped with Launch, Touring, Auto, Heated Seats, bringing MSRP up to $32.9K, so don't count on seeing too many $27K cars around. Still, at $32-$33K, probably a good value." — torquer, Sedans Board: Saab 9-3, #257, Nov. 1, 2002

"Drove a Linear with the five-speed manual and Launch package the other day: The steering was great, but felt like it had just a tad more power assist than 3 Series Bimmers. The suspension was firm, and, in my opinion, was a nice compromise between soaking up the bumps in the road and remaining flat in the corners! Absent turbo lag and nonexistent torque steer! Granted I'm not driving the car like Jeff Gordon would, but there is definitely a difference from what I recall when I drove the 9-5 sedan and wagon last year. I'm wondering if this will also be true with a larger engine?

"The ergonomics are typical Saab — I thought the seats were great and provided enough lateral support for the corners. The new key is neat, but I can see that being an expensive replacement if you lose it! The new onboard computer seems a little excessive, but is fairly intuitive. Still has the neat, but fragile-looking, cupholder.

"Overall a great car and worth a look for those shopping for the usual candidates (i.e. BMW 3 Series). One of the major downsides to the car is the historically poor resale value of Saabs when compared to BMWs. Therefore you're probably not going to get as good of a lease deal. Also the dealer networks are smaller compared to other luxo brands." — glxwagon4mo, Sedans Board: Saab 9-3, #231, Oct. 28, 2002

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