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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Jim Flammang
September 26, 2003
Vehicle Overview The 2003 redesign of Saabs compact 9-3 transformed it into a premium sport sedan with a long wheelbase and a wide track, which promised improved handling. For 2004, a five-speed-manual transmission is standard on the Arc sedan and a sporty new Aero model replaces the Vector. Bi-xenon headlights and rear parking assistance are now stand-alone options, and GMs OnStar communication system is available. A new Linear Premium Package and Sport Wheel Package are available. A 9-3 convertible arrives for 2004, and an all-wheel-drive crossover variant may follow later.
The base-model Linear, luxurious Arc and sporty Aero editions get a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 175 horsepower in the Linear sedan and 210 hp in the other models. Linear models have leather-appointed upholstery and 15-inch wheels. The Arc is equipped with 16-inch alloy wheels and wood-finish interior trim. For a sporty flair, the Aero features performance tires, 17-inch alloy wheels, a lowered chassis and two-tone sport leather seats. Competitors include the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Volvo S60.
The 9-3s styling features include a coupelike silhouette, an integrated grille and headlights, short front and rear overhangs, and a steeply raked windshield and back window. Negative wheel cambers are said to reinforce the 9-3s sporty stance and wedgelike profile. With its low 0.28 coefficient of drag, its aerodynamics are appealing. Low lift forces at the rear axle should improve high-speed stability.
The 9-3 sedan accommodates five people with its 60/40-split, folding rear seat. According to Saab, the instrument panel arcs around the driver and includes tactile-feel controls. The gauges light up in green, and buyers can specify a Night Panel that blanks most instruments.
Various functions, including the anti-theft alarm, parking assistance, rain-sensitive wipers and automatic climate control operation, can be set to suit the drivers preference. The trunk holds 14.8 cubic feet of cargo.
Under the Hood
Two turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines are available. Linear models, which are badged 2.0t, get a 175-hp engine, while 2.0T signifies Arc and Aero models with the 210-hp power plant. A five-speed-manual or six-speed-manual gearbox is standard, and a five-speed-automatic transmission that offers Sentronic manual gear selection may be installed.
Dual-stage front airbags, seat-mounted side-impact airbags, side curtain-type airbags and second-generation Active Head Restraints are installed. Standard equipment includes Saabs Electronic Stability Program, Cornering Brake Control, all-disc antilock brakes and electronic brake-force distribution.
After launching the redesigned compact 9-3 sport sedan for 2003, Saab is releasing the 9-3 convertible as a 2004 model. Both feature the same chassis dynamics. Claimed to be almost three times as stiff as its soft-top predecessor, the 2004 9-3 convertible has an all-new suspension layout. Supplementary ring of steel reinforcement compensates for the loss of structural rigidity that a convertible ordinarily suffers. New seat belts are integrated into the seat frames, and roll bars pop up from behind the rear seats.
Only Arc and Aero convertibles are offered, and both use the same 210-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Arc models may be equipped with a five-speed-automatic or five-speed-manual transmission. Aero convertibles come with a five-speed-automatic or six-speed-manual gearbox. Saabs smart automatic transmissions include Sentronic, which permits manual gear changes. Steering-wheel buttons are featured on the Aero.
Driving is virtually effortless in the 9-3 convertible. Performance is comparable to the Aero sport sedan. The soft-top exhibits a magnificent highway ride and precise steering and handling in near-luxury mode. The six-speed-manual gearbox flicks easily and positively through the gears and provides an excellent accompaniment to the clutch. Engine noise is noticeable with the top up but is muted when the roof is down.
Saab promotes the sportiness of its latest 9-3, and the claim is valid. In tight, quick maneuvers, the 9-3 holds its own easily against the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series. Though it is stable and confident on the road and easy to drive in town, the 9-3 doesnt quite have the same overall sporty feel as some rivals.
Throttle response with the automatic transmission is eager enough once you get rolling; only the barest hint of turbo lag is noticeable. The manual gearbox works with light and easy action and gentle but positive clutch behavior. The cockpit and seats are driver oriented, and the sedan doesnt feel cramped up front. Backseat space is cozy but sufficient.