Saab 9-3
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Story and photos by Haney Louka

The new 9-3 from Saab is yet another demonstration that selling niche vehicles just doesn’t pay the bills.

In the past, Saab reviews were never complete without the word “quirky” in them, and the beauty of the Saab hatchback’s styling has always been in the eyes of just a few beholders, myself included. Some like them, some don’t, but we all have celebrated the uniqueness that characterizes every Saab model.

Here we are in 2003, and General Motors has pulled the Swedish automaker under its wing. The 9-3 is now a full participant in “platform sharing,” the increasingly popular corporate practice of building a number of different vehicles from the same basic structure. Though it’s hard to argue with the logic (huge economies of scale can be realized), the downside is increased monotony on the automotive landscape.

So it might be understandable that I approached this all-new 9-3 with a bit of scepticism, given that it will share its “Epsilon” architecture with more humble GM vehicles of the future, from the Chevrolet Malibu to the Pontiac Grand Am to the Saturn L-Series.

The new 9-3 enters the market with a longer wheelbase, wider track, new powertrains, and more standard equipment than its predecessor, and – oh yeah – they’ve deep-sixed the hatchback.

Was I justly concerned? Well, yes and no. Read on.

The Lineup

Saab 9-3

Saab 9-3

Saab 9-3

Saab 9-3

Saab 9-3

Saab 9-3

Saab 9-3
Click image to enlarge

The Trollhattan, Sweden-built 9-3 is available in Linear, Arc, Vector, and Convertible versions. Since the ragtop is based on the previous-generation 9-3 (for now), we’ll leave that one alone.

Significant standard features on all 9-3 sedans include leather seats (heated in front), OnStar communication system, traction and stability control, front and rear fog lights, headlight washers, and side airbags.

The base Linear is priced at $34,900 and is powered by a 175-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Dubbed the 2.0t, this motor produces peak power at 5,500 rpm with 195 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm.

Next up the ladder is the Arc, sporting a motor of the same displacement, yet producing a more robust 210 hp at 5,500 rpm and 221 lb-ft at 2,500 rpm thanks to more boost from its turbocharger. This high-output engine carries a subtly different name – 2.0T (note the capital). The Arc also includes body-coloured moulding, power sunroof, 16-inch rims, automatic climate control, a six-speed stick, premium audio, and a few other goodies to justify the jump in price to $40,500.

9-3 Vectors are propelled by the same 2.0T engine that motivates the Arc, but include 17-inch wheels and tires, sport body kit, sport steering wheel, and tire pressure monitor for a base price of $43,500.

My test vehicle was a 9-3 Linear equipped with five-speed “Sentronic” automatic transmission and the $2,800 Launch package that included 16-inch wheels, premium audio system, sunroof, and power driver’s seat for a total as-tested price of $39,200.

Inside and Out

The single most unfortunate change to the 9-3 in my view is the loss of the hatchback configuration. I love hatchbacks for their practicality and, in a few cases, better styling than their trunk bearing counterparts. Plus, with a hatch you always get a rear wiper. That’s one thing I’ve never been able to understand – why hatchbacks always have rear wipers but sedans never do. It can’t be the angle of the rear window, because both shallow and steeply sloped rear windows can be found on either body style.

Anyway, back to the new car. The new shape of the 9-3 is very easy on the eyes and universally attractive. Every person who had an opinion during my test of the 9-3 said good things about its styling, and I can see why. Short overhangs, bulging fenders, and an aggressive stance define its appearance. A steeply raked rear window and short rear decklid complete the list of trendy performance sedan styling cues. So like I said, it’s attractive, but one could hardly get away with calling it distinctive or daring, and that’s a shame.

Inside, Saab uniqueness is still intact. For starters, the ignition is where every Saab fan wants it to be: on the centre console. It’s a great spot in my view, if only because it keeps your keychain from whacking your knee (and the dash/steering column) on bumpy roads or during spirited driving.

Matte black is the theme inside, in classic Swede fashion. The classy leather-wrapped three-spoke wheel houses controls for the audio and hands-free phone systems. The layout of the instrument panel is simple and legible and provides easy access to primary information. The “Saab Information Display” is another novelty that works quite well. It provides secondary information such as radio station, outside temperature, clock, and more at a location that doesn’t divert the driver’s attention too far from the road. Some new vehicles (like Ion, Prius, and Mini) place primary information such as road and engine speed at this same location at the top of the centre stack, but for ergonomic reasons it is more appropriate to have the less vital information there.

And then there’s the cup holder. Designing these things must be an ongoing joke in the engineering offices of European car manufacturers. I think the engineer who drew the shortest straw was given a ridiculously high budget to design the most outrageously useless contraption just above the electronic controls on the centre stack. Push the round button just above the climate controls and in one damped motion it extends from the dash and rotates about 225 degrees in the process. Sure, it’s neat to watch, but it’s flimsy and its location could be greatly improved upon.

Otherwise, interior materials are top rate. And there’s real metal inside (yes!) instead of painted plastic, as is the case with the Infiniti G35.

The Driving Experience

The 9-3 is a great car to drive. Even in base form its turbocharged 175 horsepower motor provides thrust that belies its size, and does so smoothly and without complaint. Boost comes on quickly so turbo lag is not an issue at engine speeds above 2,500 rpm.

The five-speed transmission mated to my tester’s engine proved to be a competent piece for the most part. In manual mode, it works quite well. Move the gearshift lever to the left of D and tap forward for upshifts, rearward for down. Pretty simple. Left to its own devices in “D”, I found that upshifts are too early in general, bringing on brief bouts of turbo lag.

A great balance between ride and handling has been achieved in the new 9-3. Ride quality is supple enough to filter out minor irregularities. Turn-in is crisp, though, and body motions are well controlled. In spirited driving, it becomes evident that GM did its homework in determining what they wanted to fix on the old 9-3.

But while the chassis seems to behave well when pushed, that impression weakens on roads that are less than perfect. Accelerate out of a corner on a bumpy road, or over railroad tracks, and a disconnected feeling makes itself known. And it’s accompanied by the type of noises that lead me to suspect the 9-3 already represents the upper limit of GM’s new platform. Compared to its German competition, it’s just not as buttoned down.

To Sum It Up

So is this new 9-3 as unique as its predecessor? No. Does it matter? Probably not. It’s an attractive, sporty, and reasonably priced entry in the near-luxury segment, and that’s enough.

Shopping Around

The competition in the entry-luxury market gets stiffer every year. The 9-3 must successfully battle the following combatants to earn a place in buyers’ garages:

  • Acura TSX
  • Audi A4
  • BMW 3-Series
  • Cadillac CTS
  • Infiniti G35
  • Jaguar X-Type
  • Lexus IS 300
  • Lincoln LS
  • Mercedes C240
  • Volvo S60

Technical Data: 2003 Saab 9-3 Linear

Base price $34,900
Price as tested $39,200
Type 4-door, 5 passenger sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC 16-valve, aluminum block and head
Horsepower 175 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque 195 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed auto with manual shift mode /td>
Tires P195/60R15 V-rated, all season
Curb weight 1,610 kg (3,549 lb)
Wheelbase 2,675 mm (105.3 in.)
Length 4,635 mm (182.5 in.)
Width 2,038 mm (80.2 in.)
Height 1,466 mm (57.7 in.)
Trunk capacity 425 litres (15 cu.ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 10.7 L/100 km (26 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.1 L/100 km (40 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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