2003 Saab 9-3 First Drive

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

2003 Saab 9-3 Sedan

(2.0L 4-cyl. Turbo 6-speed Manual)

Going Mainstream

Competing in today's entry-level sport sedan market is a lot like writing a Hollywood screenplay. Sure, just about everyone's doing it, but most of the work is either a tired rehash of an overdone theme or something so off-the-wall that its originality is surpassed only by its lack of palatability to the typical consumer.

Landing somewhere between these two extremes (a familiar framework, but with enough creativity to hold one's interest) is what most of today's automakers strive for, and it's precisely where Saab has targeted its all-new 2003 9-3 sport sedan.

Abandoning its long-standing hatchback tradition, the company's new sport sedan is, indeed, a sedan, meaning a fixed rear window and conventional trunk with a still-impressive 14.8 cubic feet of storage space. While losing the hatchback dilutes Saab tradition, the company's research as shown that 75 percent of the 9-3's target market is looking for a sedan, not a hatchback. Furthermore, Saab says it has seen a dramatic increase in sales for the 9-5 sedan compared to the previous 9000, which was a five-door hatchback.

Marketing strategy aside, we can say with confidence that the new 9-3's shape offers an attractive blend of modern, stylish lines without sacrificing its obvious Saabness. The short front/rear overhangs combine with a tall greenhouse and sloping C-pillar to convey a sense of speed and performance. Think of it as an IS 300 without so many sharp edges.

The new design also offers some functional advantages over the previous version. With a 2.1-inch increase in overall width and a 2.8-inch increase in wheelbase length, the 9-3 offers improved shoulder room (3.2 inches in front, 2.6 inches in back) and increased rear legroom (1.5 inches). While the increased front passenger space is appreciated when seated in the highly supportive and comfortable front bucket seats, the backseat is still tight by sport sedan standards. It's definitely more BMW 3 Series than Acura TL.

Thankfully, the promise made by the sleek styling is kept with a slippery 0.28 coefficient of drag — a full 10 percent improvement over the current model. These sleek lines, along with the tight body panel gap tolerances and slightly lower ride height (almost ½ inch), give the 9-3 a purposeful look and feel. Opening and closing the trunk, or any of the four doors, also suggested a high level of build quality, as everything had a light, fluid feel without being tinny or cheap.

Climb inside the Saab and you're treated to a traditionally stark interior as only the Swedes can deliver. The primarily black cabin of our Vector test vehicle was broken up by metallic trim around the shifter, on the steering wheel spokes and near the upper part of the door panels. There were also small silver strips of leather inside the front seat bolsters of the otherwise black leather seats. Saab has shown innovation in designing the emergency brake handle of the new 9-3. It is cleverly integrated into the center stack/console design and will likely cause some confusion for valets the first time they encounter it.

More conventional are the large primary gauges and door-mounted window switches, each with one-touch operation for both down and up. Though it's reassuring to see an automaker sticking with a basic ergonomic design that works, we'd prefer fewer buttons and more dials for the otherwise highly effective climate control system. For Saab traditionalists (and for safety purposes), the company has kept the ignition switch between the seats. But the ignition key itself uses an electronic transponder and rolling code to keep the vehicle from starting unless the proper key is used.

Another all-new feature is the Saab Information Display (SID). Located just below the windshield in the center of the dashboard, SID provides the driver with vehicle information without forcing him to look down and away from the road. Items like radio frequency, outside temperature and climate control settings can be displayed here. The SID is also the main interface for Saab's in-depth Profiler system that allows drivers to adjust everything from ventilation preferences to speed-sensing volume to parking-assist sensitivity (on models equipped with this option). It will even inform the driver if one of the rear seatbacks is not fully locked into its upright position. Both the SID and the Profiler system are standard on all 9-3 models.

If the basic Profiler features aren't enough to keep you entertained, Saab promises a full complement of "infotainment" features for the new 9-3. By utilizing an extensive fiber-optic network throughout the vehicle, the company claims to have reduced weight and complexity for on-board systems while also increasing electronic speed and efficiency. Current features like OnStar telematics (standard on all 9-3s) and future innovations, such as wireless high-speed Internet access, are two examples of technology that benefit from this fiber optic pathing.

With so many technical features on board, along with generally high-quality interior materials and a host of advanced safety features like side-curtain airbags, cornering brake control and active head restraints, Saab effectively conveys the "premium" nature of the new 9-3. However, the company's PR representatives and press material repeatedly refer to the 9-3 as a "sport sedan." Known previously for its somewhat floppy suspension tuning and hard-to-contain torque steer when accelerating, the company is now effectively "calling out" benchmark sedans like the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 with this marketing theme. We got some seat time in two high-end Vector models and one base 9-3 Linear to see if the product stands up to Saab's claims.

Our initial seat time came in a top-of-the-line Vector with the 210-horsepower high-pressure turbo engine and six-speed manual transmission. Though only a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine block, the Mitsubishi TD04 turbo system sitting on top of this powerplant gives the engine a broad, usable torque bank with minimal lag at low rpm. Saab uses a proprietary engine management system called Trionic 8 to maximize the engine's power delivery and responsiveness. Combined with the all-new six-speed transmission (standard on mid-level Arc and top-of-the-line Vector models) this drivetrain gives the 9-3 a lively nature. Acceleration figures weren't offered by the Saab folks, but a 0-to-60 time of less than 7 seconds should be no problem. Better still, torque-steer was never an issue, even when we were fully hammering the engine along deserted Swedish countryside.

Our second surprise came when navigating the twists and turns that make up much of southern Sweden's road system. Not only did the 9-3 Vector suffer minimal body roll, but it did so while providing excellent ride quality along high-speed straight-aways. Furthermore, an all-new passive rear-wheel steering system helped rotate the 9-3 in sharper corners, making the car's front-wheel-drive plow tendency less obtrusive than we expected. While it's not up to BMW standards (and won't be as long as the front wheels are pulling it around), the 9-3 Vector should easily hang with non-all-wheel-drive A4s and Volvo S60s when the road gets twisty.

After being thoroughly impressed with the manual-shift Vector, we climbed into a base 9-3 Linear equipped with the five-speed automatic. Although the Saab's comfortable seats and excellent ride quality remained, the Linear's lethargic nature when trying to accelerate left us cold. What at first seemed like severe turbo lag from the 175-horsepower low-pressure turbo engine was quickly diagnosed as transmission lag when mashing the throttle. Under part-throttle conditions, the problem wasn't nearly as obvious, but ask for a sudden burst of acceleration, from either a dead stop or when rolling at speed, and there is an almost painful delay between when the pedal hits the floor and when the car finally bolts forward.

The 9-3 automatic's slushy upshifts were similarly uninspiring, even when controlled by the new steering wheel-mounted shift buttons designed to "bring gear-shifting control right to the driver's fingertips." We should note that the new transmission doesn't offer the "sport" and "winter" modes as seen on previous Saabs (including the current 9-5). After considering the possibility that our particular test car had a problem, or thinking that maybe the 175-horsepower engine and automatic transmission were simply incapable of giving the 9-3 an inspired feel, we tried a Vector model with the 210-horsepower engine hooked to the automatic. Identical characteristics. Take this issue as you will, but we think a brand-new totally redesigned "sport sedan" shouldn't allow you to count "one-one-thousand" between flooring it and having the drivetrain respond. Look for a full road test article of the Saab 9-3 in November 2002; at that point, we will be able to tell whether these transmission problems were just anomalies.

Saab will offer the 9-3 in base Linear, mid-level Arc and high-end Vector trims. Even a base Linear comes well equipped with items like electronic stability control, OnStar telematics and power leather seats. With the 9-3 at a starting price of just $26,525, including destination charge, we feel this represents a solid value in the entry-level sport sedan category, though we question the use of 15-inch wheels on any vehicle in this segment, even a base model. Step up to the Arc and you get the more powerful 210-horsepower engine, 16-inch wheels, a power sunroof, walnut-trimmed interior, three-position driver-seat memory and a six-disc in-dash CD audio system with 13 speakers for $30,620, including destination charge. The top-level Vector adds a performance-tuned suspension, 17-inch wheels, exterior body cladding, sport seats with a sport steering wheel and a metallic interior trim for $33,120. None of these prices includes an automatic transmission, which is a $1,200 option on the Linear and Arc or $1,300 on the Vector. Unless you simply can't deal with a clutch pedal, we'd suggest avoiding the auto and saving your money.

Saab hopes the 9-3 sedan will be the spark to ignite a sales explosion for 2003 and beyond. As the most competitive model to come from the company in recent memory, the 9-3 should raise consumer awareness for the company while retaining the majority of current Saab buyers. Whether Saab can also pull in buyers of the current 3 Series, A4, C-Class and S60 remains to be seen, but its chances are better with this 9-3 model than they have been for a long time.

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