EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 2001 Saab 9-3

Just when you think everything on the road is starting to take the same shape, just when it seems you can’t possibly stand another cute-ute, guzzle-ute, call-it-what-ute-will vehicle, along comes a little monosyllabic relief: Saab.

Quirky can’t begin to describe things. Odd might be a good start. Maybe it’s the Swedish heritage. Maybe it’s the influx of straight-as-a-dashboard General Motors – now its primary owner – putting a little different spin on things. Or maybe it’s just Saab itself, a car company whose owners are as loyal as golden retrievers.

Whichever, when it comes to the Saab 9-3 Viggen, it comes with very little you’ve ever seen before in a sports sedan, and many things you wouldn’t mind to see more of.

Dodge claims it’s different. Saab doesn’t have to say a word.

Improved with more standard features for 2001, the 9-3 is available as either a base, three-door coupe or a five-door hatchback. Move up to the SE five-door, or convertible, and the performance jumps forward. With the Vig-gen, it’s a leap, and directly away from the sports sedan norm.

From the start – quite literally – it’s easy to tell the forest from the trees. And the view’s not bad.

It begins with Saab’s trademark ignition switch housed (creatively) next to the hand brake, and not near your right knee, for added safety in front-end collisions. It ends with the need to put the manual lever into reverse (annoyingly) to get the key out. Dashboard dials are the large enough to blind. Vents pivot instead of turn. Clearly, Saab doesn’t like the habitual or the mundane.

a car meant to be driven at Mach III. And the aviation reference fits. Saab has been building high-performance planes for years and has incorporated much of its flying technology in the Viggen, a reference to Saab’s JA37 fighter jet. It begins with a rounded, wraparound windshield and continues with controls that are centrally placed and safety features that make this one of the more secure rides this side of Sweden. Volvo included.

But rev the engine a little, a turbocharged four-cylinder, and watch the world fly by.

Available in either a 2-liter, 205horsepower base or the 2.3-liter four, the Viggen’s powerplant is one of the more powerful we’ve tested. It rocks off the stop light, rolls through the turns and races up to 60 mph in less than time than it takes to say Saab.

But keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. Torque steer in the Viggen is no joke. Now, Saab has had a problem in this area before. Its cars have been known to shake and sway on acceleration, a result of all of the 9-3’s power flying to the front wheels thereby causing a loss of traction control. For 2001, the automaker’s made traction control standard, but the tug to one side is still unruly and quite severe.

Hammer the gas and the Viggen’s turbo forces you back in the seat, but quickly requires two hands to keep things on the straight and narrow – a mission that’s not impossible but considerably tough. In traffic it became even more of a concern. A quick pass of a pokey driver sent the turbo and the front wheels spinning and our tester nearly into the opposite lane. Not good.

Why Saab has not opted for a rear-wheel-drive version of its sporty four door is beyond us. After all, a true racer isn’t really one if you can’t use all that power. And what a rush. In the 2.3-liter model, our tester, the 258 foot-pounds of torque will provide stunning pull, charring the front tires into bits if the driver desires. Mated to a sharp suspension and muted interior volume, this quickly turns into a nimble, high-performing vehicle.

And all that with a very reasonable mileage rating (20 mpg city/31 mpg highway) as well as sharp styling, low-profile Pirelli tires and an interior that had gawkers stopping for a peak while the Viggen was stopped in a parking lot.

“Boy,” one man observed on a walk-by. “That sure is ething different.”

You get the point. And, more to the point, a step inside the Viggen will open your senses to a world of differences, mostly with safety in mind. The 9-3 comes with standard four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, reduced-deployment speed front air bags and head/torso side air bags and antisubmarining front seats.

And that’s just the start.

Standard features include power windows, locks and mirrors, power tilt sunroof, leather seating, cruise control and folding rear seats with a trunk that could hold the King of Sweden.

Dashboard dials are easy to read, instruments are logically placed and within reach and there’s even the option to shut down all but the essential lights at night, a feature developed exclusively from Saab’s flying machines. And, speaking of which, buy the Viggen and you’ll get a free pass for the Viggen Flight Academy, a two-day driver training course at the Road Atlanta complex where you’ll learn things like skid control, braking and proper driving methods. That’s about a $1,500 value.

Another good value is the standard OnStar telematics system, a GM creation that serves as almost an onboard computer. Need directions to the hotel? OnStar is there. Need tickets to a play or want to check your e-mail? OnStar will set you up. Lock your keys in your car, get a flat tire or get into an accident and OnStar will know, sending emergency vehicles to your vehicle if you don’t respond. And that’s a general theme here: Responsiveness wrapped in quirks.

The Saab 9-3 is a fun-to-drive, equipment-loaded near-luxury car that demands to be driven. And the more time we spent in the Saab the less the differences mattered.

Of course, the more time you spend in the Viggen, the more you might feel better about how much you’ve spent. Loaded up, the 9-3 is not a cheap automobile. At near $37,000, it runs with some impressive company – BMW, Acura, Audi – and that means lots of good competition.

Does it rank higher? Not really. But it’s different enough to earn a few nods on the lot and, given a few upgrades, might even be worth a drive.

Remember, Saab claims those who drive one usually buy one.

We find it hard to disagree.

2001 SAAB 9-3 VIGGEN

Rating: 3

High Gear: With an impressive, unique interior and a racer of an engine, the 9-3 is a torquey hatchback with a quirky personality. Cargo room is impressive and braking is exceptional.

Low Gear: A warning – drive with two hands! Torque steer is severe, making the Viggen hard to keep on the road. Placement of controls may offend some.

Vehicle type: Front-wheel-drive, front engine, five-door, five-passenger sports sedan.

Standard equipment: Five-speed manual transmission; traction control; dual front airbags; front side airbags; front seat active head restraints; anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes; air conditioning; OnStar System with one-year service; power, tilt steering; cruise control; heated, power mirrors; power windows, locks; remote keyless entry; AM/FM/cassette stereo; steering-radio controls; folding rear seat; performance sport suspension.

Competition: Acura TL, Audi A4, BMW 3-Series, Lexus IS 300

Engine: 230 horsepower, 2.3-liter four cylinder

Torque: 258 foot-lbs. @ 2,500 rpm

Wheelbase: 102.6 inches

Length: 180.9 inches

MPG rating: 20 mpg city/31 mpg highway

Manufactured: Nystad, Finland

Warranty: Basic warranty is four years/50,000 miles; the drivetrain is four years/50,000 miles; body corrosion is six years/unlimited miles and roadside assistance is four years/50,000 miles.

Base price: $37,995

Price as tested (including options, destination and delivery): $39,020

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