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With so many entry-level luxury car choices from Germany, Japan and America, it's easy to overlook the Swedish Saab 9-3. Once upon a time, it was a great match for buyers looking for a spacious, safe and comfortable automobile with a proven safety record and a distinctly modern attitude. Actually, for used buyers, that's still the case, but new car shoppers looking for an entry-level luxury sedan will find the 9-3 now noticeably behind the times.
Though the unique and practical 9-3 hatchbacks were discontinued after the 2002 model year, the 9-3 family continues to be offered in multiple body styles: a four-door sedan, two-door convertible and four-door wagon, the latter called SportCombi. All utilize a small-displacement turbocharged engine that extracts decent power while salvaging respectable fuel economy.
Among the Saab 9-3's chief shortcomings are its lone, underwhelming engine choice, comparatively cut-rate interior quality, somewhat cramped cabin and an aging design that's lacking many increasingly common features. So, it's easy to overlook the 9-3 for a new-vehicle purchase, and that's probably not a bad thing.
Current Saab 9-3
Today's Saab 9-3 is sold in three body styles: sedan, SportCombi wagon and convertible. Each is broken into 2.0T and Aero trim levels, while the SportCombi is available in an additional all-wheel-drive trim known as 9-3X. Sedan and SportCombi models feel spacious, with low floors, upright windows and seating for five, though three in the rear seat can be tight. Legroom in particular is a sore spot. Convertible models have a rear seat for two adults of small-to-average size. Cargo room in all models is generous.
All 9-3s are powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder that produces 210 horsepower. Front-wheel-drive 2.0T models come standard with a six-speed manual and are optional with a five-speed automatic. This is standard on the front-drive Aero. A six-speed automatic is standard on all-wheel-drive models, but any 9-3 with a standard automatic can be equipped with a no-cost optional manual.
The 9-3X gets an elevated ride height, an electronic limited-slip differential and different exterior and interior trim to make it a more all-terrain-suitable wagon. The front-wheel-drive Aero features a sport-tuned suspension, while the Aero XWD (sedan only) gets a limited-slip differential and a self-leveling suspension.
Inside, dramatic two-tone color schemes with lots of matte-black finishes create an intense, distinctly Scandinavian ambience -- though its look and materials are not as upscale as competitor luxury cars or even some run-of-the-mill family sedans. Longstanding Saab-isms remain, including a floor-mounted ignition switch and a "Night Panel" button that darkens all non-essential dashboard lights to reduce eye fatigue. However, the climate and audio controls are now generic, ergonomically friendly GM units.
Editorial reviews have praised the Saab 9-3 as one of the better-handling front-wheel-drive cars on the market, while taking note of its comfortable front seats and cavernous cargo areas, even in the convertible. The Aero in particular, although expensive, has a lightweight, agile feel missing from many of its competitors. Its low-powered engine, though, gives it a distinct disadvantage in a class where 300 hp is a common output. While the 9-3 isn't a bad car, you can definitely do better nowadays.
Used Saab 9-3 Models
Shoppers interested in a used Saab 9-3 should note that the vehicle has changed some since its introduction for 2003. Originally, the vehicle was available in three trim levels. The base Linear and more luxurious Arc shared a turbocharged 175-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and nearly identical styling. The Vector wore sportier clothes, rode lower and offered a 210-hp version of the same engine, which was also optional on the Arc. The 9-3 Convertible appeared for 2004, followed by the SportCombi wagon for 2006. Vector models were renamed Aero for 2005.
For 2006, the base Linear trim level and its weak motor were dropped, while the Arc was renamed 2.0T and gained the 210-hp engine as standard. The Aero received the 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 that year good for 280 hp. Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions were available. All 9-3s got an interior freshening for '07, including less bizarre, GM-sourced climate and audio controls. The all-wheel-drive Aero sedan and wagon arrived for 2008, along with the limited (for-2008-only) "Turbo X" edition. It featured 18-inch wheels, black paint, a lowered and firmer suspension, self-leveling rear shock absorber, larger brakes, black leather seats and faux carbon-fiber interior trim.
For 2009 only, the 9-3 lineup was expanded to include a dizzying number of trim levels for the various body styles and engines. They were gone the following year when the 9-3X was introduced and the Aero's turbo V6 was unfortunately dropped from the lineup. The current transmission availability dawned at this time as well.
The original Saab 9-3 debuted in 1999. Less a new model than a new name, the 9-3 took over for its Saab 900 predecessor and featured a mildly upgraded interior and revised chassis turning. Other than that, this 9-3 was pretty much the same as the 1994-'98 years of the 900. It was available in three body styles: a two-door hatchback, a four-door hatchback and a convertible.
The first-generation 9-3 is considered one of the last true Saabs. Designed before General Motors took over Saab in 2000, the 9-3 possessed all the eccentricities and quirks that Saab-o-philes consider sacred: temperamental keyholes in the floor, rounded, jet-fighter-like wraparound windshields and bustle-back styling on the hatchbacks.
Early 9-3s were offered with lively turbocharged four-cylinder engines. In 1999, base models produced 185 hp, while next up the ladder were the SE models with 205 hp and 9-3 Viggen models with 230. By 2002, base models were dropped, leaving the SE as the entry-level 9-3.
The most extroverted of the original 9-3s was the convertible. One of the first convertibles to offer a completely one-touch power top, as well as the ability to open and close all four windows with one button, the Saab 9-3 convertible also boasted one of the largest trunks in its class and a generous amount of side glass for good outward vision.
First-generation 9-3s generally provide a decent amount of feature content and safety. Their body structures are built to last, but due to spotty assembly quality, their interiors may not be. Editors at the time couldn't overlook the original 9-3's numerous shortcomings, but nonetheless were smitten by the 9-3's charm and dare-to-be-different packaging. As long as a broken-in 9-3 isn't a broken 9-3, it could be a compelling used car option -- just be prepared for the generally high maintenance and repair costs that come with owning a European import.