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Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Vector sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space, ergonomics, dynamics, styling
Room for improvement
Loss of hatchback storage, more complicated controls

Saab logo18 Feb 2003

By TIM BRITTEN

SAAB may have seen it differently at the time, but the new 9-3's predecessor was a bit of a trial for the company.

Released here in 1994 as successor to the original, all-Swedish 900 (itself a successor to the early-1980s Saab 99), the General Motors-derived mid-size model was initially embraced by prestige buyers, but then went into a period of estrangement as owners suffered the effects of quality and reliability problems as well as less than perfect dynamics.

The donor GM platform (also used in the Holden Calibra) was something of a letdown for the company, even if the car itself offered high passive safety standards and some clever hatchback packaging.

Things improved progressively as quality issues were attended to and by the arrival of the 9-3 in 1998, the Saab was pretty well sorted - at least as far as quality and reliability were concerned.

The dynamics had also improved, but the 9-3 still felt dated in terms of handling and the interior, especially after the fitment of bigger front seats from the 9-5 model, was getting a little cramped for back-seat passengers.

Still, the feeling was, long before the all-new model arrived, that the 9-3 was well past its use-by date. The well-priced, attractive and popular convertible version was undoubtedly its main saving grace.

So the new 9-3, to Saab, could not have been more welcome when it arrived late last year.

Now it has the chance to put the troubles of the previous car behind it, to convince the buying public that the company's mainstream model is back on track.

And there's no question this is the best Saab we've seen since the excellent - but now also getting a little dated - 9-5, which arrived here in 1997. In fact, the new 9-3 is quite probably the best Saab ever.

With all-new everything, from the structure to the suspension to the engines, the latest 9-3 is at first surprising because it still appears to carry the vital DNA that makes it's identity apparent right from the moment of first contact.

Gone is the previous hatchback configuration - which many people will no doubt lament - in favour of a normal, four-door sedan that looks a bit like a coupe but doesn't have the versatility of the previous design, even if the boot area is reasonably generous at 425 litres.

Visually, the first thing noticed is the new 9-3's squat stance on the road.

Body and track width have been bumped out to relieve the narrow look that characterised the previous model, while also giving passengers noticeably more shoulder room.

The wheelbase has been increased, too, meaning legroom is also better. In fact - and this was a problem recognised by Saab during the new 9-3's development - the car approaches the larger 9-5 in some dimensions to the point that there is a possible risk of what car-makers call cannibalisation, or the stealing of sales between models within the same company.

The new 9-3 actually has a wider front track than the 9-5 and is only 28mm shorter in wheelbase (it's 70mm longer in this dimension than the previous 9-3, while its track dimensions have gone up by 74mm at the front and 63mm at the rear).

The 9-3 even looks a lot like the 9-5, even though it's chunkier and slightly more rounded in the roofline and lacks the bigger car's "clamshell"bonnet line (a Saab signature derived from the original 900).

But inside, the new car feels very much a Saab 9-3, right down to the unmistakable leather smell and the familiar dash presentation. The beetle-browed windscreen gives the same feeling of enclosure and at first you wouldn' guess it' significantly wider and quite a bit longer inside.

Yet the extra room is there, especially when you adjust the front seat and discover it's got a lot more rearward travel than before, or when you hop into the back seat and discover that yes, there is more knee room - if not a lot - and more shoulder space if also not much.

The driver will appreciate the fore-aft, up-down steering column adjustment (only fore-aft previously) and the typically Saab tactile approach.

The presentation is classy, with most controls kept simple and there's the expected key-in-console that Saab skipped momentarily with the 9000 in the mid-1980s, then reintroduced with the previous 900 in 1994.

The test car was the mid-range, "sporty" Vector model which gets a more powerful, 129kW version of the all-new, all-alloy 2.0-litre turbo engine and a more dressed-up (than base Linear model) interior with a classier, chrome-fringed dials on the instrument panel and brushed chrome trim on the doors and centre console, as well as leather-insert seat trim and more shapely front bucket seats.

The less sporty, also 129kW Arc model costs $4000 less than the Vector and gets less shapely seats, but throws in a touch of woodgrain.

The control layout is similar to before, but generally more complicated and a little less intuitive, although with time it would prove easy enough to live with.

The cruise control system is basically the same as the previous 9-3 and relies on hard-to-see steering column stalk buttons and switches. The car also fails to pick up the intriguing cup-holders used in the 9-5 (and also making their appearance in the Holden Calais) and the glovebox isn't cooled either.

The driver sits comfortably behind the new three-spoke wheel with its inbuilt controls for car phone and sound system and, in Vector, is provided with a power-adjusted seat although the front passenger isn't.

And the driving experience?

Well, the first thing to be noticed is that here is a 9-3 with genuinely sharp steering, maybe a little lighter to use than some might prefer, but very responsive and accurate.

The all-new chassis, with subframe-mounted McPherson struts at the front and a new, four-link independent system at the rear, provides a litheness missing from the previous car.

The 9-3 feels very light on its feet, yet well planted when being pushed.

Undoubtedly there's the sporty edge suggested by Saab when it describes the 9-3 as a sports sedan. Front-drive torque steer doesn't intrude anywhere near the way it did in the previous car, although engine power and torque figures are virtually the same, and understeer is so well held at bay that most drivers will never suspect it's there at all.

If there's any penalty, it's that the 9-3's ride tends towards a firmness that may not please some people shopping at this end of the prestige market.

The braking system is all-disc, slightly larger in diameter on Arc and Vector at front and rear, and incorporates all the latest technology like brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.

On top of that, all new 9-3s get Saab's ESP stability control system as well as traction control and cornering brake control all aimed at foolproofing the car to the maximum extent possible.

The Saab's new, all-alloy engine feeds power through two new transmissions either a five-speed Asin "Sentronic" auto with sequential "manual" mode (missing on the 9-5), or a Saab-made six-speed manual.

The test car was an automatic and this matched well with the turbocharged engine, although there was a suggestion of hesitation at low engine speed.

The engine itself is basically General Motors, although the head design, turbo system and engine management are all Saab. It can't be argued the company is lacking experience here.

Unlike the old car's cast-iron engine, it uses perfectly square bore-stroke dimensions (oversquare previously) and the all-alloy construction means it's 15kg lighter.

It produces, in its three forms, similar power and torque outputs to the previous engine but is claimed to be cleaner and more fuel-efficient.

The base engine in the Linear model (described peculiarly as the 1.8t although it's 2.0 litres) produces 110kW and 240 Nm - or the same as before - while the mid-range version used in Arc and Vector produces 129kW and 265Nm.

It follows a similar path towards achieving maximum smoothness via twin balance shafts and a dual-mass flywheel, while there is the usual twin-camshaft head utilising four valves per cylinder, and an intercooled turbocharger. Engine management is by Saab's latest Trionic 8 system.

The result is a sweet, quiet powerplant that sits nicely in a market where more than four cylinders are commonplace.

Certainly there's no problem with power supply, even though the car's weight is up slightly, and Saab claims a pretty slick 8.5 seconds to 100km/h for manual-transmission Arc and Vector models.

Cruising on the open road, the 9-3 is quiet, stable and comfortable, low on wind noise - largely due to the impressive Cd figure of 0.28 - and well isolated from road noise.

Passive safety in the Saab is, as you would expect, a major focus for the car and the 9-3 gets dual front airbags, side front airbags and side curtain airbags on all models.

The body is also claimed to have twice the torsional rigidity of the previous car, which itself was no slouch in terms of structural integrity.

Saab has made a good fist of this new 9-3, and even though it's long overdue it has the credentials and ability to challenge the best in its segment in just about every important aspect.

The dynamics that weren't there before are certainly there now, and interior space is now thoroughly competitive in the class.

Looks, perceived quality, comfort and safety are strongpoints too and it will be interesting to see how the new Saab fares against the segment's market leaders.

The results could be surprising to those who counted the Saab 9-3 out a long time ago.

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