2003 Saab9-3 Vector
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Story and photos by Greg Wilson

The 2003 Saab 9-3 Vector is the top trim level in the new 9-3 sedan lineup, which now includes the 9-3 Linear ($34,900), 9-3 Arc ($40,500), and 9-3 Vector ($43,500). There’s also a 9-3 convertible, but while the 2003 9-3 convertible is basically a carryover from the previous generation, the 2004 9-3 Convertible is based on the new-for-2003 9-3 platform. Regretfully, the popular 9-3 hatchback bodystyle is history.

I thought ‘Vector’ was a pretty good name for a car, but apparently Saab didn’t. For the 2004 model year, the 9-3 Vector has been renamed the 9-3 Aero – but it’s basically the same car. The only other changes for 2004 are a downgrade to a standard five-speed manual transmission from a standard six-speed manual on the Arc model; and the availability of Xenon headlamps and rear parking sensors as stand-alone options instead of in option packages.

Now based on GM’s global Epsilon platform, the new-for-2003 9-3 has a longer wheelbase and a wider track than the previous generation 9-3, and is very well-equipped. Even base Linear models have leather seats with front seat heaters, ESP (electronic stability program), side and curtain airbags, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, air conditioning, CD player, 60/40 split rear seats, power windows, heated mirrors, central locking with remote, front and rear foglamps, and headlamp washers.

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector
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A new 5-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting capability and steering wheel mounted controls is optional.

The Linear model is powered by a new all-aluminum 175 horsepower turbocharged 2.0 litre four-cylinder engine with twin cams and four valves per cylinder, but the Arc and the Vector offer a 210 horsepower version of the same engine which gains its extra horsepower and torque through more turbo boost. The price difference between the Arc and the Vector is mainly due to a higher level of standard equipment. The 2003 9-3 Arc has 16 inch tires and alloys, a standard six-speed manual transmission, power sunroof, automatic climate control, and a premium stereo system while the Vector has this, plus upgraded W-rated 17 inch performance tires and 17 inch alloy wheels, a sport steering wheel, body kit, and tire pressure monitoring system.


First impressions


2003 Saab 9-3 Vector
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My 9-3 Vector test car was finished in a metallic grey colour and was equipped with double-spoked star-shaped 17 inch alloys. Its understated elegance and attractive proportions turned more than a few heads during the week that I drove it. The styling is what would traditionally be called European – however, BMW’s radical new styling direction may be changing that definition. I really liked the 9-3’s smooth, flowing bodywork, excellent body fit, and lack of protruding bodywork. The front spoiler wraps cleanly around the front end, while the rear lip spoiler is very tastefully integrated. I predict this car will have a long shelf-life.

One problem: watch out for curbs! That front spoiler is too low to clear typical parking lot curbstones. My car had the optional rear parking distance sensors which, given the tall rear trunk, made it much easier to back into a parking space.


Top-class interior

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector
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The 9-3 has a really top-class interior with a distinctive Saab flair. The upper part of the dashboard is finished in a textured dark grey, glare-free plastic while the centre control panel has a smoother, dark grey surface with large buttons with plain white lettering, and an easy-to-read LCD display with bright green letters.

The lower half of the dash, doors and the seats in finished a light grey colour and the seats have attractive contrasting dark grey trim. Brushed metal trim is used sparingly around the gearshift lever and on the doors, and leather upholstery is standard on all 2003 9-3 models.

Interesting Saab features include the signature ignition key “on the floor” just behind the shift lever, the “night panel” which shuts off all but the essential gauges and controls at night, a cupholder which flips and folds out of the centre dash, and a separate driver information display on top of the dash. The steering wheel includes controls for the radio, telephone and cruise control as well as two toggles for manual gear shifts.

The Vector’s front seats are made of a high-quality leather in a two-tone colour scheme, and are comfortable, supportive, with a height-adjustment and three memory seat positions. The steering wheel tilts up and down and slides in and out, so it’s easy to find a comfortable driving position. A model of simplicity, the three round gauges are plainly marked, and include a turbo boost gauge on the right.

On top of dash is an information display which provides such information as outside temperature, distance until empty, average fuel consumption, trip computer, date, and radio station. A round dial on the dash just to the right of the steering wheel operates this display.

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector
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A larger green LCD display in the centre dash area allows the driver to choose radio stations and functions, CD functions, telephone operation and system adjustments, such as dual or single zone climate control, high/medium/low sensitivity for the rain-sensitive wipers, and automatic seat heater activation. Many of the stereo functions are repeated with buttons on the dash, and my feeling was that the stereo controls were unnecessarily complicated.

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector
Click image to enlarge

An ingenious pop-out cupholder in the dashboard flips over to the passenger side so that it doesn’t obscure the controls. There’s also another cupholder behind the floor shifter.

The automatic climate control system includes separate driver/passenger temperature controls and a single fan control. An in-dash 6-disc CD player can be found lower down on the console, and the premium stereo system includes 13 speakers. The console also includes two 12 volt powerpoints, a storage bin, and a handbrake lever that looks like it’s a part of the centre console design.

The sculpted rear seats have sufficient headroom and legroom for two average-sized adults, but the width is narrow for three adults. There’s a centre folding armrest with a covered storage area and two cupholders that slide out of centre rear seat cushion. For storage, there are rear door and seatback map pockets. The rear seatbacks fold down in a 60/40 arrangement, and there’s also a separate pass-through to the trunk behind the centre rear armrest. By the way, the 9-3’s trunk is huge (425 litres/15 cu.ft.) and is fully lined.


Driving impressions

Many of the 9-3’s competitors have six cylinder engines, so it’s an interesting comparison with the 9-3’s relatively small 2.0 litre turbocharged four cylinder powerplant. This is nothing new for Saab though – they’ve always tried to get maximum performance out of small engines. The 9-3 Vector’s ‘high output’ 2.0 litre DOHC 16 valve all-aluminum four banger puts out an impressive 210 horsepower @ 5500 and 221 lb.-ft. of torque at just 2500. In many respects, this engine is comparable to VW/Audi’s turbocharged 1.8T engine – it’s smooth, powerful, surprisingly torquey, and has minimal turbo lag – power comes on early and is delivered in a smooth, manageable torque curve.

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector
Click image to enlarge

It’s important to note that the new 9-3 no longer has that dreaded ‘torque steer’ which dogged previous 9-3 turbo models. On the Viggen model, this condition would virtually pull the steering wheel out of your hands and cause the car to squeal and sidestep as it accelerated. Thankfully, the new 9-3 has solved this problem.

The 2.0 litre engine rumbles a bit at idle, but accelerates smoothly and reasonably quietly. The acceleration rate increases about 2000 rpm as the boost increases, and pushes you back in your seat for the climb up to about 5000 rpm. At 100 km/h in top gear, the engine does just over 2000 rpm; at 120 km/h it revs at 2500 rpm. It’s very quiet at highway speeds, which may be why I could hear a slight whine from the tires.

As well as extra horsepower, the benefit of a turbocharged four cylinder engine (as opposed to a six cylinder engine) when driven normally, is better fuel consumption. This one offers 12.3 l/100 km (23 mpg) in the city and 7.0 l/100 km (40 mpg) on the highway, pretty good for a sport sedan. Premium unleaded fuel is recommended.

My car was equipped with the optional 5 speed ‘Sentronic’ automatic transmission that can be shifted manually using toggles on the steering wheel spokes – the right toggle is for shifting up and the left one for shifting down – or by pushing the floor lever forward to change up, and back to change down gears. Using the toggles or the stickshift, I found downshifts very quick and upshifts a tad slower, but probably faster than a manual transmission.

In automatic mode, the 5-speed transmission shifts somewhat like a manual transmission – for example, it automatically shifts down one or two gear as you descend a grade and brake into a corner. Shifts are geneally quick, smooth, and vibration-free.

What I enjoyed most about the 9-3 Vector was its handling and braking. Even when compared with some rear-drive competitors, the 9-3 Vector, equipped with sticky P215/50R17 `W’-rated performance tires, handles with great stability and control, minimal lean, and excellent stability under braking. The suspension is independent at all four wheels (front MacPherson struts/rear four-link and coil springs) and I found it offered excellent control over undulating and irregular surfaces. The rear suspension offers a slight rear-wheel-steering response to improve stability while cornering and travelling at high speeds. My only complaint with this suspension was occasional clattering noises that occured when travelling over bumps.

The 2003 9-3 comes standard with traction control, and ESP, which can be turned off if the driver desires, provides automatic steering correction if the car begins to slide sideways. It’s standard on all 9-3s.

I found its four wheel disc brakes to be very powerful, but the pedal responsiveness was almost too sensitive. Its non variable-assist power steering didn’t seem too heavy at parking lot speeds, and was accurate at speed without being overly sensitive. The car’s turning diameter of 10.5 metres (34.4 ft.) is comfortably tight.

Outward visibility is generally good – the two outboard rear head restraints can be lowered almost flush with the top of the seats and do not block rear visibility – and there is no centre rear head restraint – but like most sedans, the trunk height is quite high. As I mentioned the audible beeps from the optional rear park assist helped when parallel parking or backing into a parking space.


Competitor overview

The 9-3 Vector is up against some pretty impressive contenders in this class: competitors for the 9-3 Vector ($43,500) include the Acura TSX ($34,800), Audi A4 1.8T FrontTrack CVT ($33,600), BMW 325i ($39,300), Infiniti G35 ($39,400), Lexus IS300 ($37,775), Mercedes-Benz C240 ($43,550), and Volvo S60 2.4 Turbo ($41,495).

The 9-3 Vector is the most expensive, but it comes with more standard equipment than many of the others – with the notable exception of the TSX. The Vector’s front-drive, four cylinder configuration is shared by the A4, S60 and the naturally-aspirated TSX, while the 325i, G35, IS300 and C240 are six cylinder, rear-wheel-drive cars. The latter group offer smoother engines and arguably more balanced vehicle dynamics while the front-drive competitors share similar, but perhaps not as performance-oriented vehicle dynamics as the Saab. I would recommend the 9-3 Vector to anyone looking for a driver-oriented sport sedan, rather than a luxury sedan.


Verdict

A handsome, well-finished sport sedan with great handling, smooth power delivery and relatively good fuel consumption, the new Saab 9-3 Vector is a driver-oriented sport sedan.

Saab 9-3 sedans are built in Trollhattan, Sweden


Technical Data: 2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

Base price $43,500
Options $3,600 (Touring Package: xenon headlights, 6-disc in-dash CD, parking sensors, rain sensing wipers $1,700; power sunroof $1,400; metallic grey paint $500)
Freight $990
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $48,190
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 210 hp @ 5500
Torque 221 lb.-ft. @ 2500
Transmission 5-speed auto with manual shift mode
Tires P215/50WR17
Curb weight 1610 kg. (3549 lb.)
Wheelbase 2675 mm (105.3 in.)
Length 4635 mm (182.5 in.)
Width 1997 mm (78.6 in.)
Height 1466 mm (57.7 in.)
Trunk capacity 425 litres (15 cu.ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 12.3 l/100 km (23 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.0 l/100 km (40 mpg)
Fuel type Premium unleaded
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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