EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

Saab is remaking itself and in so doing loses the quirkiness that has attracted some Americans to the Swedish automaker. But as shown by the new 9-3 sedan — first of the remade Saabs — that’s not a bad thing.

Gone, for now, is the five-door hatchback and the elongated rear end that made Saabs Saabs for so many years.

For 2003, the 9-3 is a sleeker car. It still looks like a Saab from the front with its three-piece grille and creased V-shaped hood. But from the side and rear it looks pretty much like the standard European sports sedan, with a hint of BMW.

There is reason for this. Saab’s owner, General Motors Corp., figures that the Swedish car maker is going to have to lose its quirkiness and start appealing to a broader audience if it hopes to reverse its recent money-losing ways. The new look is intended to do so.

GM held a 50% stake in Saab for years but has exercised options and bought the other half: Saab is now a 100% subsidiary and gets to share in those economies of scale and benefits of bigness that management school professors and corporate chieftains are always touting.

So the 9-3 becomes the first Saab to use GM’s global small-car platform, dubbed Epsilon. It debuted last year, underpinning the Opel Vectra in Europe, and bows onto the North American scene under the 9-3 for the 2003 model year. In 2004 the Epsilon will be the base from which the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am will rise (as will a redesigned Saturn L-Series after that).

But in each application, GM insists, the vehicles will be individually tuned for their specific market. The 9-3 isn’t an Opel Vectra, and the Malibu won’t be a 9-3.

I haven’t had any seat time in the European-market Vectra but can attest after a week with the 9-3 in my normal Southern California commuter mode, as well as a day of putting it through its paces on the twisty wine country roads north of San Francisco, that GM could do far worse than clone Chevys, Pontiacs and Saturns from it.

Purists can quibble over its looks, but in terms of package and performance, the new 9-3 is one of the neatest Saabs ever.

The new platform gives the sedan appreciably more rigidity than its predecessor, and that translates to a solid body and a suspension that make the 9-3 an impressive road car, with handling that puts it at or near the top of the class.

Though the 9-3 shares the same basic architecture as the other Epsilon platform vehicles, most of the suspension, steer- ing and engine components are unique to the brand.

The 9-3 rides on independent front and rear suspensions, each tied together with anti-sway bars, and the steering rack has been relocated to the front suspension — it had been on the firewall in previous models — to improve responsiveness. The improved suspension and relocated steering also eliminate the torque steer, or strong sideways pull from the front drive wheel during acceleration, th at has plagued Saab models for years.

The engine is a new all- aluminum 2.0-liter four-banger equipped, as are all Saabs, with a turbocharger that boosts both horsepower and torque. The base version with a low-boost turbo is rated at 175 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque, and the high-boost model pumps that up to 210 ponies and 221 foot-pounds. Neither engine suffers from turbo lag, so the accelerative power of the torque is present as soon as the pedal is mashed to the floor.

The 9-3 comes in three versions: the base Linear model, the upscale Arc and the performance-oriented Vector. (And with model names like that, I guess it could be argued that Saab still has at least one quirky feature.)

Saab launched the line with the Linear in late October and says the Arc and Vector models will be available in the U.S. early next year.

Base price for the Linear is $25,900, about $2,000 less than the outgoing 2002 9-3 hatchback. The Arc starts at $29,99 and the Vector at $32,495.

All can be had with a five-speed automatic transmission, with Saab’s manual shift option, but the Linear comes standard with a five-speed manual and a new six-speed manual is standard in the 210-horsepower Arc and Vector models. Vectors with automatic trannies also offer racing-style fingertip shifter paddles on the steering wheel as a factory option.

Overall, the car is comfortable for commuting and a kick on the open road, perhaps the best-handling, best-balanced car Saab has built.

I did find the automatic to be a bit sluggish on the upshifts, especially in the lower-horsepower Linear, but if the primary use of the car will be to sit out long Southern California freeway commutes, that should not be a bother to most.

Four-wheel anti-lock brakes provide plenty of stopping power, and computer-controlled brake force distribution and cornering control are available with various trim packages.

On the safety front, the 9-3 is packed with dual-stage front airbags, seat-mounted side airbags, side curtain airbags and Saab’s whiplash- reducing head restraint system on the front seats — all standard in all models. Because this is now a GM car, 9-3s also come standard with the OnStar integrated wireless communications system.

Other neat features:

* No door locks except a hidden, emergency lock on the driver’s side — Saab decided everyone uses remote key fobs now, so why bother with the clunky looks of an external lock.

* An emergency brake handle that is sculpted and mounted to look like a piece of the center console.

* A fiber-optic electric system that eliminates 45 pounds and 2,500 linear feet of electrical wiring by letting a single fiber carry the power for numerous lights, switches and gauges.

* A nifty trunk-mounted release for the 60/40-split back seats, so there’s no need to run around and open the back door, lean in and fold the seats when you decide the 14.8- cubic-foot trunk isn’t quite spacious enough for the Oriental rug or the length of 2-by-4 you are trying to stuff in.

* A huge glove box.

* Three years of free scheduled maintenance.

The new 9-3 is the same length as the previous model but is 2.1 inches wider, stands almost three-quarters of an inch taller and has a wheelbase that is 2.8 inches longer. Added up, that gives the new model a roomier interior and a more BMW-like “wheels to the corners” stance.

The base model rides on 15-inch wheels, with 16-inch alloys optional; the Arc comes standard with 16-inchers, and the Vector rolls on 17-inch wheels. There’s wood trim inside the Arc because even in Sweden they are convinced that wood means luxury; both the Arc and Vector get leather upholstery, and the Linear gets leather-trimmed cloth.

And, yes, even though Saab eliminated door locks and torque steer, it kept its center-console-mounted ignition switch. One welcome change, th ough, is the elimination of the lockout mechanism that required you to put the transmission into reverse to remove the key from the switch.

The Saab’s seats are very comfortable up front and comfortable in the rear, and there’s sufficient headroom for all but the tallest drivers and passengers. The instrument panel and other gauges and controls are laid out to be quite visible and driver-friendly.

Final words: You no longer have to wear Birkenstocks and keep a bottle of aquavit in your freezer to be comfortable putting a Saab on your list. If Saab’s price range matches yours, the new 9-3 is well worth looking at.

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