Not fair.

Saab traditionally has been bland, if not boring.

Purchase a Saab–and a beret–slip behind the wheel and travel 35 m.p.h. in the center lane behind all those blue hairs in Volvos and the heck with the rest of the world.

Now the Swedish automaker partnered with General Motors goes and redesigns its 9-3 sedan and does such a good job that the darn thing is fun to drive–and not embarrassing to be seen in.

Sure there are some aggravations, like silly names for the 9-3 models–Linear, Arc and Vector, perhaps in keeping with GM’s penchant for picking really dumb monikers for its clan.

And the ignition switch is still buried along the floor between front-seat occupants because the Swedes, just like the Germans with the kidney-shaped BMW grilles, don’t want to give up a tradition.

What makes the 9-3 significant is that now that Saab is in the GM fold, it has begun sharing platforms. The 9-3, like the ’03 Saturn L-Series (and the ’04 Chevrolet Malibu and ’05 Pontiac Grand Am), is built on the front-wheel-drive Epsilon platform.

That means the ’03 9-3 gets a 2.8-inch longer wheelbase, 2-inch wider track and 2-inch stretch in length, factors that contribute to better ride and handling. Bigger dimensions also mean a roomier and more comfy cabin.

And to celebrate the new size, the 9-3 has been transformed from hatchback sedan to a more traditional sedan with a trunk.

Of course, Saab’s decision to switch from a hatchback also was influenced by market research that showed 75 percent of consumers preferred a sports sedan to a sports hatchback. Even if it needs help in picking names and placing ignition switches, Saab is smart enough to realize that it is better to cater to 75 percent of consumers than to 25 percent of them wearing berets.

The 9-3 is powered by a 2-liter, 175-horsepower, 16-valve, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Alert and lively, and we found it no slouch in getting away from the light or merging into traffic. But if you wait until March, the Arc and Vector will offer that same turbocharged 4 tweaked to deliver 210 h.p. for even more alert response to pedal input and livelier performance.

A 5-speed manual is standard and a new 5-speed automatic with Sentronic is a $1,200 option.

The 9-3 Linear we tested came with Sentronic, which allows you to shift manually without need for clutch by slipping the gearshift to the corner and tapping it.

Lots of attention has been paid to handling, never exactly the reason anyone purchased a Saab in the past. The 9-3 may look conservative, but when trying to act like a sports sedan and not just a family hauler, it pulls off the split personality very well.

The 9-3 features ReAxs, a passive rear-wheel steering system in a front-wheel-drive sedan that allows the rear wheels to more quickly follow the front wheels in corners and turns for more sure, stable driver control.

Funny name for a system that means precise steering response and noticeably nimble handling.

The 9-3 also comes standard with electronic stability and traction control that uses the anti-lock brakes and throttle control to provide sure-footedness without slippage at your move from the light or when maneuvering into or out of twists in the road.

There’s also cornering brake control, activated when cornering in heavy braking to keep the car stable, as well as electronic brake assist that increases brake pressure in a panic situation when you stand on the pedal to stop the vehicle more quickly.

All that and four-wheel ABS, all-season radials, front and side air bags plus side air-bag curtains with rollover sensors to stay inflated longer in a roll-over, front seats designed to prevent submarining under the dash in a frontal impact and front-seat headrests that move forward to cushion occupants’ heads to prevent whiplash in a rear collision.

Among the interesting and note orthy features is a glovebox with ducts so the car’s air conditioning can cool beverages inside. And what appears to be a set of weird handles flanking the center floor console serve a useful purpose–one is the emergency brake handle, the other a pull-out ice scraper to clean your windows. Then, too, the fold-down center armrest in the back seat opens to reveal a holder for your personal computer. Nice touches.

Saab boasts that it has no trouble getting owners to repeat as buyers, but with the 9-3 is attempting to make its lineup more attractive to younger motorists and those who never considered a Saab before. That’s the reason for more emphasis on sports and not just on sedan, and for the switch from the hatchback.

Saab sold 37,500 units in the U.S. in 2001 and expects to top 41,000 in ’02. The outlook for ’03–as well as the next four to five years–is to increase sales by at least 10 percent annually.

The reason for optimism is that more’s on the way for the 9-3 lineup, starting with a convertible for ’04, a wagon plus an all-wheel-drive sedan/sport-utility for ’05 and promises of more derivatives off the Epsilon platform after that.

The next generation of the larger 9-5 sedan is expected in ’06. There had been thoughts it would be built off a stretched Epsilon platform or perhaps off a new premium platform to be developed by Saab, GM and GM’s new partner Fiat, but reportedly both those ideas have been shelved.

The Linear starts at $25,900. Standard equipment includes air conditioning with dust and pollen filters, power windows, power and heated mirrors, power locks, rear-window defogger, audio controls in the steering wheel hub, front/rear seat power outlets, AM/FM stereo with CD player and front and rear fog lights.

Our test car added the “launch” package, which included such goodies as power sunroof and power driver’s seat.

The package will be dropped from the Linear when the uplevel Arc and Vector arrive in March.

If you shop only a BMW 3-Series or Volvo out of habit, the Saab 9-3 at $25,900 deserves more than a cursory look. And at $25,900, it certainly is worthy of checking out by those bored by a Lexus ES300.

Latest news

2022 Ford Expedition Quick Spin: Chasing Millennials, On- and Off-Road
Mercedes, Freightliner Issue eCall Recall for 254,800 Vehicles
No 3D Printer? You Can Still Have 3D Printing Fun With the Ford Maverick