Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - S 5-dr hatch
Smooth turbo power, massive boot, safety features
Room for improvement
Tight rear compartment, below-par handling
9 May 2001
By BRUCE NEWTON
SAAB is asking a lot of its ageing 9-3. With the all-new replacement not due to rear its head in Australia until 2002, it has to face up to some very stiff prestige car competition.
In recognition of that, the 9-3 S five-door and the rest of the 9-3 range has come in for some spec adjustment in 2001 in an attempt to keep customers walking into showrooms.
Leather upholstery becomes standard on the seats, steering wheel and gear selector knob, alloys replace steel wheels and the 2.0-litre low-pressure turbo engine from the larger 9-5 is now standard, bringing with it a substantial 21 Newton-metre increase in torque.
There are some other adjustments - like an eight-function trip computer, body-coloured door mirrors specifically fitted to the S five-door, Isofix child seat mountings, an integrated key with locking/alarm, "shark fin" telephone antenna, two new colours (Laser red and Steel grey), and the new corporate Saab badge.
Naturally, the price does go up - by a hefty $3845, in fact. But Saab claims it has actually added $8000 in value.
The new bits join quite a long list of equipment which includes standard air-conditioning (upgraded to climate control in June 2001, which was previously a $1500 option), anti-lock braking and electronic brakeforce distribution, anti-whiplash head restraints, heated front seats, cruise control, foglights, in-dash single CD player and power windows and mirrors.
So, there's plenty of kit for your dollar. And just to make the whole thing that much easier to understand, Saab has cut the SE lineup from its range altogether. Now you can have an S or Aero version of the three-door, five-door or convertible 9-3. The hi-po Viggen's also gone - destined now for only left-hand drive markets.
Of course, Saab insists on referring to the 5-door as a sedan. It's not, it's a hatchback. It's a design style which may not seem prestigious but is coming more into vogue - think of the Mercedes-Benz Sports Coupe and BMW Compact as cars the 9-3 lines up against.
That design provides the 9-3 S with some real practicality - the boot is huge and the flexibility offered by the split-folding and double-folding rear seat is superb.
But you pay with a lack of rear seat space - made worse when Saab fitted the bulky anti-whiplash front seats from the 9-5 to the 9-3 a couple of years ago. Knee room is poor for an adult, and a six-footer will graze the roof. Getting in and out is not that easy thanks to the small rear doors which don't open far enough.
It's a different story up front, where the driver and front passenger are well looked after with very comfortable seats - although now a little flatter than their cloth predecessors as tends to happen with leather upholstery.
The driving environment is well thought out - the compressed speedo, the "Night Panel", the elegant simplicity of the centre console displays and the classy two-tone trim are highlights.
There's not too many lowlights - the stalks are from the GM floppy design school, although better than the Holden Commodore's, the cruise control is a little fiddly, the foglight buttons are hidden by the steering wheel and the power mirror adjuster is ... well, see how long it takes you to find it. And, reflecting its age and origins, there's a lack of cupholders.
And what about the ignition key between the seats? You'd get used to it, but the jury's still out as far as we're concerned.
The passive safety package is excellent - dual front airbags, side airbags, those anti-whiplash seats and pre-tensioning lap-sash belts (including the middle rear) are a formidable combination when you add them to anti-lock braking and electronic brake force distribution.
Get out on the road and the classy feeling is maintained. The new engine is a ripper, pulling off the bottom of the rev range with no discernible sign of turbo lag. It makes some noise, but it's certainly not raucous.
The engine is a double overhead camshaft design with 16 valves and powers the front wheels - so far just like the old unit. But this "Gen IV" version makes 240Nm of torque at just 1800rpm, well up on the "Gen III", and although it's actually 3kW down on power that's very much a justifiable and acceptable tradeoff.
The optional automatic gearbox we tested in combination with the engine was smooth enough, only thumping on the occasional downchange made under stress. It tended to want to stay in the higher gears unless "Sport" mode was engaged, then it was prepared to dive for second gear.
Under normal conditions the oft criticised ride and handling is also well up to the job. There's some gentle tugging on the steering wheel if accelerating with some verve, but it's nowhere near the annoyance it once was.
It's only when you get beyond the de-restriction signs and head for some twisty, bumpy Aussie roads that pass for Australian highways that the 9-3 shows it's still constrained by its origins - which date back to an old generation Opel Vectra.
The front suspension starts to crash and bash, you can provoke wheelspin over lumpier sections of road, the rear-end feels a little "floaty" when cornering at speed, and the steering is pretty much devoid of feel, although it's also commendably low on kickback.
The engine remains a highlight through all this, happy to grunt its way over virtually any obstacle. Under-body noise deadening is also excellent.
Fundamentally, the 9-3 is an old warhorse from which Saab is extracting every last breath it can.
On a limited budget Saab has done its best to right the wrongs and improve the value - but flaws like the poor rear seat room and chassis deficiencies will be with this car to the end.
But if your budget's limited too, there's no doubting you'll get value for money from the 9-3 S.
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