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New models - Saab - 9-3

First Oz drive: 9-3 is a huge leap forward

Different but familiar: The 9-3 sedan measures up well against its predecessor and retains plenty of Saab styling cues.

Saab launches a model offensive with its first all-new car since 1997

Saab logo4 Nov 2002

THERE is an air of excitement blowing through the corridors down at Saab Automobile Australia, now that the niche Swedish brand finally has some new product to crow about - for the first time since the premium 9-5 arrived in 1997.

In the interceding years the company has been surviving on a diet of facelifts and limited edition models to sustain buyer interest, but there is now an all-new 9-3 model on the scene.

In pure volume terms, it is the most important new Saab model in well over a decade and one which heralds the start of a product offensive that will bring an entirely new family of cars to Saab showrooms over the next four years.

On sale since mid-October, the new 9-3 represents a departure from the previous hatchback design by becoming the first compact sedan in the company's history.

It continues Saab's unusual naming convention as well, which saw the 9-3 hatchback models called sedan (five-door) and coupe (three-door), as the new 9-3 is now called "sport sedan" in an attempt to differentiate the car from its predecessor.

The new 9-3 also adopts the model names introduced on the 9-5 series for the 2002 model year last November. That means goodbye to names like S, SE, TS and Turbo Anniversary - which have been introduced since the 900 became 9-3 in mid-1998 - and hello to Linear, Arc and Vector, which are from design and architecture language and supposed to reinforce the Scandinavian-ness of the brand.

The high performance Aero badge has been retained, but it won't appear until that model is re-introduced in March/April next year.

Arc (luxury) and Vector (sports) models will make-up the 9-3 range for the first two months, while the entry-level Linear is scheduled to arrive in December.

As the 9-3 sedan is new from the ground up, there are naturally plenty of features, refinements and improvements to distinguish the car from the now superseded, eight-year old 9-3 hatchbacks.

Starting with the engine line-up, which is based around a new, all-aluminium, 2.0-litre turbocharged engine configured for three levels of power output - 110kW in the Linear (despite it being badged a 1.8t), 129kW in the Arc and Vector, and 155kW in the Aero.

Peak torque outputs are 240Nm, 265Nm and 300Nm respectively, all generated between 2000-2500rpm at what is considered low engine speeds, as is the case with all Saab petrol engines.

For the Linear, Arc and Vector variants, transmission options are either an upgraded five-speed manual from the old 9-3 or a new five-speed automatic with adaptive functionality and Saab's Sentronic manual shift control (Tiptronic-style at the gearshift - steering wheel mounted gearchange controls will be available during 2003).

For the forthcoming Aero, the choices are the five-speed auto or a new six-speed manual designed to handle high torque outputs.

New exterior styling spells the end of the trademark upright windscreen in favour of a more contemporary coupe-like silhouette, which will be pleasing to most eyes from most angles.

Aerodynamics have improved significantly as a result, with the 9-3 sedan credited with a relatively low 0.28Cd drag coefficient.

Plenty of traditional Saab styling cues remain, such as the chrome treatment of the three-section grille and the black pull type door handles. While it certainly looks like a Saab, it is also a more cohesive and well-proportioned effort than the previous 9-3.

The 9-3 sedan is bigger than its hatchback forebear in all the key dimensions - length, width, height and wheelbase - which gives the car both a more substantial footprint on the road as well as liberating more interior space for occupants, particularly in the area of headroom.

Underneath the new body there is a four-link independent rear suspension set-up tuned with what Saab calls "ReAxs" passive rear steer characteristics, which replaces the rigid torsion beam arrangement of the previous model.

Standard electronic driver aids on all models includes ESP (Electronic Stability Program), ABS, EBD (Electronic Brake force Distribution), CBC (Cornering Brake Control) and TCS (Traction Control System).

On the inside buyers will find a redesigned, but still distinctly Saab cockpit - ergonomically sound for the most part, although the ignition barrel remains down on the transmission tunnel console.

Even the base Linear specification offers a high level of standard equipment compared to many of its European prestige competitors, such as BMW's 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz's C-class, which are offered with generous options lists to load up the base price of the car.

Standard equipment on all 9-3 models includes driver, front passenger, front side and roof rail airbags, remote central locking, electric windows, electric heated exterior mirrors, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, leather steering wheel and gear knob, 60/40 split-fold rear seats, auto dimming interior rear view mirror, cruise control, rain sensing windscreen wipers, a 150-watt seven-speaker audio system with CD player and steering wheel mounted audio controls.

The Arc model adds leather upholstery, wood trim and an electrically adjustable driver's seat.

The Vector brings with it sports-tuned suspension, body-coloured front, side and rear skirts, a leather/textile upholstery combination in conjunction with more heavily bolstered sports seats and matt chrome interior trim.

When the Aero lands it will also features a full sports bodykit including a rear spoiler, a remote alarm system, full leather sports seats, electric folding door mirrors, an electric glass sunroof, electric front seats with three-position memory for the driver, Saab's parking sensor system, premium 300-watt 13-speaker audio system with six-disc CD player, an integrated telephone with handsfree, voice activation and bluetooth wireless technology for PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and laptop computers, as well as bi-Xenon headlights with washers.

Alloy wheels are fitted to all models - 15-inch on the Linear, 16-inch on the Arc and 17-inch on both the Vector and Aero.

SAA is hoping the new 9-3 sedan will double the sales volume achieved by the superseded range of three and five door hatchbacks, which means the target the company has in sight is around 1500 units per annum. That figure will help push the Saab brand to over 3000 units next year if the new model proves successful.

PRICING
9-3 Linear 1.8t $48,900
9-3 Linear 1.8t (A) $51,400
9-3 Arc 2.0t $52,900
9-3 Arc 2.0t (A) $55,400
9-3 Vector 2.0t $56,900
9-3 Vector 2.0t (A) $59,400
9-3 Aero 2.0T $70,000-plusOPTIONS
Electric glass sunroof $2000
Bi-xenon headlights $1500
In-dash six-disc CD player $750
Prestige sound system $1000
Parking Assistance $750
Remote anti-theft alarm $750
Metallic paint $1200
Linear electric seat upgrade $2500
Arc/Vector electric seat upgrade $1250

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

WE'RE already on record as saying the new 9-3 sedan represents a huge improvement over the old car, following our drive of the Arc, Vector and Aero variants at the international launch in Sweden earlier this year.

And now that we've driven it over typical Australian backroads, we can confirm that most of those first impressions translate directly to the car's performance here as well.

The new 129kW four-cylinder engine - as the only engine variation driven in Oz so far - is both smooth and refined, but perhaps more importantly, it offers more than acceptable performance for this class and at this price point.

Unlike the now superseded 9-3 hatchbacks there is virtually no torque steer, with the new chassis doing a much better job of harnessing the force-fed engine power and transmitting it to the road.

But the most surprising part of the new 9-3 we fond was just how much better the manual Vector (sports) package was compared to the automatic Arc (luxury) version.

The manual is by no means the greatest gearbox ever built, but it is a much better match to the 2.0-litre turbo engine than the somewhat slow-witted Tiptronic-style auto.

With no sports mode to lock out the overdrive fifth gear, which only causes the relatively small engine to labour and require kickdown at anything below open road speeds, it is best left to those too lazy to contemplate using a third pedal in a prestige car.

Meanwhile, the manual will reward those who enjoy a more spirited driving experience.

Despite the Vector's sports suspension and lower profile tyres, it actually offered a more compliant ride than the supposedly luxury set-up in the Arc.

The damper settings in the Vector seem a much better compromise for our road conditions, as the car didn't crash or bang over potholes and bumps anywhere near as much as its stablemate.

Saab is marketing the 9-3 sedan as being fun to drive and a car to put a smile on your face, and in the case of the Vector that certainly seems to be true.

While it doesn't quite meet that criteria in the way an Evo Lancer, Impreza WRX, Mazda MX-5 or BMW M3 does, it certainly comes up trumps as far as the old 9-3 is concerned.

For that reason alone it should be considered a worthy alternative to many of the traditional prestige European compact models available in an increasingly competitive sector of the market.

GoAuto can help you buy a new 9-3

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