The current model Saab 9-3 was introduced in 2003 and remains substantially unchanged for 2005. One of those rare automobiles that is simply gorgeous from every angle, it's also a terrific drive. In Europe, it won this year's prestigious Top Gear Magazine "Small Executive Sedan of the Year" award against competitors like the BMW 3-series and the Audi A4. While build quality is excellent, Saabs are burdened with low residual values. Base price: $26,850; Warranty 3yrs/36,000 miles.
There were places in time when a Saab was the car to drive - Vermont in the late '60s, Colorado in the early '70s come to mind. But these days, Saabs seem to pass right under the radar of the North American car buying public. Which is a real pity because they're terrific cars, even though they're not German. And there's the rub. Not being German, the 9-3 doesn't have the kind of cachet needed to make it a must-have to style leaders in this part of the world. In the two or so years it has been on sale here it has not succeeded in attracting large numbers of 30-something buyers. I think it's more a question of the marketing dollars (or dearth thereof) parent company GM chooses to allocate to Saab USA. The Saab 9-3 comes in three trim levels: Linear, Arc and Aero. The Saab 9-3 Aero bases at $32,850 and comes with a smooth-spinning 2.0L turbocharged engine producing 210hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. The Aero package also includes a lowered suspension (10mm), an aggressive aerodynamic body kit as well as 17-inch 5-spoke alloy wheels and 245/45R 17 Pirelli P-zero tires. The entry-level Linear comes with a less powerful (but still turbocharged) version of the same engine, which produces 175hp and 195 lb-ft of torque.
In the Driver's Seat
Saabs have always been known for their immense interior volume. Alas, this 9-3 is not as big as Saabs of yore because the traditional hatchback feature has been inexplicably omitted. Nonetheless, the roomy interior of the 9-3 features tons of elbow room. The standard metal-finish trim adds a welcome high-tech aura to the very spare, almost Teutonic interior treatment. One of the strongest points in any Swedish automobile has always been the seating. You'll find this Saab's seats very much on the firm side - almost orthopaedic - but still exceptionally comfortable, especially on long hauls. You're able to set them up exactly as you wish. Both the driver and front passenger seats come with power multi-adjustable controls and the steering wheel has a telescopic adjustment. Besides the truly wonderful seats, there are any number of other features which make the interior of the Saab 9-3 an ideal place to wile away the hours including a superb (optional) 300-watt sound system and a brilliantly designed, yet restrained and supremely functional information system and controls. Seat belt pre-tensioners, six air bags and the patented Saab Active Head Restraint System (SAHRS) are there to ensure you are well protected in an accident.
On the Road
The 9-3 Aero and 9-3 Arc both come standard with the gutsy 210hp turbocharged engine, which provides both sparkling acceleration (0-60 mph in 7.3 seconds) and exceptional mid-range response, with barely detectable turbo lag. For those of you who feel that only cubic inches can produce the right reaction when you press on the accelerator, I invite you to drive either of these 9-3s. Power gets to the front wheels of the 9-3 via either a 6-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic. The 9-3 Linear features a 175hp version of the 2.0L turbo. It too is plenty quick with 0-60 times in the mid-eight-second range. The 9-3 uses GM's superb German-developed Epsilon chassis, which willingly supports the kind of aggressive driving style this compact beauty encourages. Electronic stability control (ESP), traction control (TCS) and ABS with electronic braking distribution (EBD) are among the high tech safety and performance features that come standard on the high end Aero. ESP is optional on the Linear and Arc. The Aero also features Saab's unique "ReAxs" system which allows the rear wheels to steer slightly as the car turns. This trick does wonders for steering response and feel.
The 9-3 is perhaps the most enjoyable four-door I've driven this year. It's quick and manoeuvrable with seats that are both exceptionally comfortable and very supportive. You can spend a whole lot of time in any of these seats without stiffening up. The 9-3 is not inexpensive, but for your money you get a car whose unique appearance sets it apart from not only the BMW 3-Series itself but also from BMW wannabes. In addition, you're getting a vehicle that's extraordinarily well equipped with safety features, including headlight washers and General Motors' OnStar system. The styling of this latest 9-3 is evolutionary rather than a complete break with the Saab's storied past. Although you'll know it's a Saab as soon as you see it, compared with the styling of earlier Saabs it has managed to avoid looking, well...weird. Summing up: the 9-3 is a reasonably priced, exceptionally comfortable Euro-style sports sedan for youngish premium car buyers who love to drive but who emphatically do not want to see mirror-images of themselves at every stoplight.