by Jim Kenzie
photos by Laurance Yap
Saab has a problem.
I’m not just talking about the recently-confirmed financial struggles or possible job losses at the “other” Swedish car company – it isn’t just that their General Motors owners are getting impatient. It’s that Saabs have always been unusual, out-of-the-mainstream (not to say quirky) cars, which have had strong appeal, but only to a limited number of buyers. Yet if they back the weirdness quotient off too much, they’ll risk losing their hard-core supporters, and probably still not appeal to the masses.
I mean, why buy an imitation BMW or Audi when you can have the real thing? If the new 9-3 sedan is any indication, Saab has finally found the right balance. At last – a true Saab, but one you don’t have to apologize for.
OK, so you will have to explain to your friends why the ignition switch is on the floor. (Saab says it’s a safety issue – no key for to whack your knee on in a crash. Not sure how many patellae – kneecaps – are smashed in non-Saab vehicles, but that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.)
The new 9-3 is based on GM’s corporate Epsilon platform, their ultra-stiff mid-size architecture, which in an amazing variety of iterations will underpin other up-coming products, from Opels to Cadillacs. Saab had a large influence in the specification of this platform, so it’s not like they had to force-fit their concepts onto it.
Saab has ridden the hatchback horse as long and hard as anybody, but they haven’t been able to get the market to buy into it. So for the moment anyway, the 9-3 is available only as a four-door sedan. Given that cars ranging from the PT Cruiser to the Pontiac Vibe to the Mazda Protege5 seem to be changing minds about the logic of hatchbacks, Saab may have jumped off this horse a bit too quickly. We haven’t heard the last from Saab on this count, however.
Click image to enlarge
The trunk is enormous and the rear seatback folds in 60-40 proportion, so there is still lots of practicality here. Lots of room too, as Saab has dragged the wheels right out to the corners of the car to extract maximum interior space from the compact footprint. The wheelbase is only 28 mm – a tick over an inch – shorter than the larger 9-5 model; no great surprise that rear-seat room is generous, particularly noteworthy since the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4, two cars right in Saab’s cross-hairs, aren’t exactly renowned for aft-cabin accommodation. The seats are fabulous – firm yet comfy – and are manually adjustable all over the place.
Saab leads the world in safety, even if their Viking compatriots at Volvo have done a better job of selling that story. Most car makers haven’t even started trying to reduce the effects of whiplash in rear-end crashes; Saab is now into their second generation of Active Headrest Protection. While these sorts of injuries usually don’t show up in media-headline fatality statistics, they are responsible for a huge and increasing amount of pain, suffering, and health-care and lost-productivity costs. All credit to Saab for leading this initiative.
Of course, there are air bags sprouting from every pore, including new head-protection inflatable curtains.
The 9-3 will eventually be offered in three trim levels. At the moment, only the base (“Linear”) version is in showrooms. Fancier “Arc” and sportier “Vector” iterations follow this spring.
Saab calls Linear “clean, simple and modern”. You might call it dull – all that matte black plastic everywhere. Ergonomically, though, it’s spot-on, with the clear, three-element instrument panel morphing into the centre stack in a fashion pioneered by Saab in the 1980s and copied by just about everyone since. The “Night Panel” feature remains; a touch of a button kills all the gauges and their illumination except the speedo. Don’t worry; any out-of-limits condition – i.e., you are close to running out of fuel – brings the appropriate gauge back to life. This is supposed to be safer and more restful at night; we’ll have to take their word for it because it seems a trifle gimmicky to me.
There appear to be two grab rails along either side of the centre floor console. But the driver’s side one is rear-hinged, and pulls up to become the parking brake lever. Clever, except that the release button is underneath the lever, rather than on the end of it, as in every other car in the world. Be careful as you take the brake off or you’ll jam your thumb. How many times do you have to do this to learn not to do this? I don’t know – yet.
Some modern cars barely have room in the glove box for the owners manual. In the 9-3 you can practically fit a full hockey bag in there. It’s refrigerated too, so your Cokes stay cool. You’ll look hard for the cup holder – it’s a butterfly-style thing that pops and twists out of the dash. Lovely, but it’ll only take a small cup or pop can, and it looks like a fairly gentle nudge would snap it off altogether. The rear window defroster button is also smaller and harder to find than it should be.
Speaking of defrosting, the 9-3 reflects a disturbing trend to one-setting seat heaters. OK, any seat heater is better than none, but this one is either too hot, or it’s off. Given that they have seat heaters at all, how much money could this possibly save over a two-setting switch?
Of course, if you could opt for nice, warm cloth instead of hard, cold leather, this wouldn’t be as big an issue. But you can’t – leather is standard. (OK OK, I know I have lost this battle; I just can’t stop fighting it.)
As with all Saabs since Day One, the 9-3 is front-wheel drive, with Mac Struts up front and a four-link independent set-up at the rear. Saab has dialled in a fair degree of passive rear-wheel steering, to help kill some of the fun-destroying understeer that’s inevitable in a nose-heavy front-driver.
The alphabet soup bowlful of modern chassis electronics is on hand to help bail you out if you start having too much fun – ABS brakes, of course; EBF (electronic brake force distribution) to ensure maximum brake pressure to each wheel prior to ABS activation; CBC (cornering brake control) to balance braking in bends; ESP (electronic stability program) to help correct incipient skids; TCS (traction control system) to reduce wheelspin, always a serious issue with front-drive turbo cars.
Rather than taking a full-scale Nanny approach to these things, though, Saab has tuned them to be “user-friendly” – for a sophisticated user. The activation thresholds have been set pretty high – they don’t start to work until you really need the help. When they do kick in, they activate gently rather than taking outright control away from the driver. Thus, you can drive a 9-3 in a truly sporting manner, still have your fun, yet be safe to yourself and other road users too. Good thinking.
Like most Saabs of recent vintage, the engine is mounted crossways in the car. That’d be an all-new, all-aluminum, twin-cam, four-valve, four cylinder, intercooled, turbocharged four cylinder engine, available in two states of tune. Linear models uses the 2.0t (lower-case “t”) light-pressure turbo, with 175 horsepower at 5,500 r.p.m. and 195 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,500 r.p.m. Arc and Vector will get the 2.0T (upper-case “T”) high-pressure turbo, with 210 horsepower and 221 lb.-ft. of torque, at the same respective rev points.
The 2.0t comes with a five-speed manual gearbox, the 2.0T with a new six-speed – both are Saab-built, incidentally, not bought-out. Both engines are also offered with a five-speed automatic. My Linear was a five-speed manual.
From the moment I fired this car up and moved off, I knew this was the best Saab ever. No four cylinder engine will ever run as smoothly as a good six, but this one is pretty good. No turbo motor will ever be completely free of turbo lag either, but this one has generally good throttle response. If you drive it flat-out, you may wonder what all the fuss is about – it doesn’t feel blindingly fast as you might expect from a turbo car. But 99 percent of our driving is done at well under Wide-Open Throttle, and it is in part-throttle work that the 9-3 feels so good, with bags of torque at anything above two grand, and lots of mid-range for passing and freeway ramps.
The car’s natural gait seems to be about 140 km/h; better stick in the Jim-Only lane where the cops can’t find you. At these cruising speeds you’re barely turning 3,000 r.p.m., and the turbo boost needle is lying flat in the “zero” position, so real-world fuel economy is bound to be terrific.
Clutch take-up is every bit as good as in a BMW, and the gearbox, while maybe not quite as silky as a Bimmer, is very good for a front-driver. I’m sure the 9-3’s ultimate cornering prowess and slalom scores are more than respectable, but vehicle dynamics are always about more than numbers. This car has a cohesiveness, a one-ness about it – not unusual with very stiff structures – which makes it a real pleasure to drive.
There could be a bit more weight and self-centring action to the steering, but in general, you should really enjoy either caning this car down your favourite twisty road, or just cruising to the grocery store.
Refinement levels are also BMW-challenging, even if the interior trim isn’t yet at Audi levels – nobody else is.
Saab’s J. D. Power Initial Quality stats have sky-rocketed upwards in recent years. My test car was certainly solidly built; the only glitch was that at one point the trunk had to be slammed very hard in order for the latch to catch. Maybe some ice got in it?.
That the new 9-3 is the best Saab ever is not in doubt. The question is, “Is it good enough to either extricate BMW and Audi owners out of their cars, or tempt Accord/Camry owners looking to move up? With a starting price of just $34,900, fully-equipped, the 9-3 certainly has a value story to sell, in addition to a very convincing palette of attributes.
If you’re looking for something just a little bit different than every other upwardly-mobile dude in your office, the Saab 9-3 should be on your radar screen.