Vehicle Overview
The premium Saab 9-3 compact sport sedan was largely redesigned for the 2003 model year. Its width has grown by nearly 2.2 inches, and the sedan’s wheelbase is 2.8 inches longer than that of its predecessor. As a result, Saab claims the revised version provides improved handling and greater interior space for rear passengers, but the 9-3’s overall length hasn’t changed.

Unlike its predecessor, which came in both hatchback and convertible body styles, the new 9-3 is strictly a four-door sedan with a trunk. A convertible will arrive late in 2003, and an all-wheel-drive crossover variant will follow after that.

Saab emphasizes the new model’s driver involvement, refined performance, driver adaptability and driver-centered design. Buyers can choose between two new 2.0-liter, all-aluminum, turbocharged engines that are rated at 175 and 210 horsepower. A new five-speed-automatic transmission that incorporates Saab’s Sentronic manual gear selection will be available; it is set up to operate with optional steering-wheel controls. Five-speed and six-speed manual gearboxes are also offered.

By following the theme initiated by the larger 9-5 series, three forms of the 9-3 sedan are on sale: Linear, Arc and Vector. Linear models have leather upholstery with anthracite trim. The Arc is the more luxurious member of the group, and it is equipped with 16-inch alloy wheels and a leather interior with poplar wood trim. For a sporty flair, the Vector features 17-inch alloy wheels and a sport-leather interior with matte chrome trim.

Engineers claim that the new model’s body is twice as stiff as that of its predecessor’s. Independent front and rear suspensions are installed. Safety features include second-generation Saab Active Head Restraints and new side curtain-type airbags. The 2003 9-3 sedan also makes use of fiber-optic electronics for its infotainment systems.

Competitors of the 9-3 include the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Volvo S60. Sales began in October 2002. The Swedish automaker asserts that the new 9-3 sport sedan is the first of a new family of cars, each aimed at a different market niche. General Motors owns the company.

Styling features of the next-generation 9-3 include a coupelike silhouette, an integrated grille and headlights, short front and rear overhangs, and a steeply raked windshield and back window. The car’s negative wheel cambers are said to reinforce the 9-3’s sporty stance and wedgelike profile. The sedan’s aerodynamics are also appealing, with its low 0.28 coefficient of drag, which promises low lift forces at the rear axle and improved high-speed stability.

The 9-3 accommodates five occupants with its 60/40-split, folding rear seat. The car is also equipped with a ski hatch. The instrument panel “arcs around the driver,” according to Saab, and it includes tactile-feel controls. The gauges light up in green, or buyers can specify a Night Panel for safe night driving. The steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach, and an information display is positioned near the base of the windshield.

Various functions can be set to suit the driver’s preference, including the anti-theft alarm, parking assistance, rain-sensitive wipers and automatic climate control operation. Dual-zone automatic air conditioning is standard. The trunk holds 15 cubic feet of cargo.

Under the Hood
Two turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines are available. Models that are badged 2.0t get a 175-hp engine, while 2.0T signifies models with the more potent, 210-hp power plant. Both five-speed and six-speed manual gearboxes are available, and a five-speed-automatic that offers Sentronic manual gear selection may be installed.

Dual-stage front airbags, seat-mounted side-impact airbags and new side curtain-type airbags are installed, along with load-limiting seat belts and second-generation Active Head Restraints. Standard equipment includes Saab’s Electronic Stability Program, Cornering Brake Control, all-disc antilock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and traction control.

Driving Impressions
Saab promotes the sportiness of its latest 9-3, and the claim is valid. Because steering effort is moderate, the sedan does not seem as taut at first as it is in reality. In tight, quick maneuvers, the 9-3 sedan holds its own easily against the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. Though it is stable and confident on the road and easy to maneuver in town, the 9-3 does not have the same overall feel as some of its rivals.

The 9-3’s throttle response with an automatic transmission is eager enough once you get rolling; only the barest hint of turbo lag is noticeable. The performance of the manual gearbox is snappier; it works with light and easy shift action and gentle but positive clutch behavior. That combination makes you eager to change gears.

Most of Saab’s legendary idiosyncrasies are gone. The 9-3’s cockpit and seats are driver oriented, and the car seems significantly bigger inside than its predecessor, which felt somewhat cramped up front. Backseat space is cozy but sufficient, at least in the outside positions.

Reported by Jim Flammang  for
From the 2003 Buying Guide
Posted on 2/4/03