EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 2003 Saab 9-3

Don’t look now, but Saab has a whole new story. Quirky is out; conventional is in. Hatchbacks? Hit the high road. Sedans? Welcome aboard. And welcome to a whole new Saab, hardly like the old Saab.

As the Swedish automaker’s bread-and-butter ride, the 2003 9-3 could be one of the most significant products in Saab’s relatively brief history, and not just because the price is so attractive.

This year, the surprises are numerous, if only because the odd Saab qualities are conspicuous by their absence. These were cars that were known (and appreciated) for their unusual interiors, funky exteriors and four-cylinder engines that would sing.

Some of that fun stuff is still there, some of it is gone, but mostly this is a ride in a whole new direction. You might say Saab is going a little more mainstream. It is an interesting twist on a unique ride, mostly thanks to a big coalition.

General Motors Corp. owns Saab, and the ’03 9-3 introduces, among many things, GM’s Epsilon platform that will eventually host redesigned versions of the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am. The model for the redesign starts here. The theory is simple.

Odd is OK when it comes to starving artists or niche markets. But GM is in the business to sell cars. Saab needs to move more.

Enter: a more mainstream Saab.

The 9-3 four-door sedan is a fully tweaked version of Saab’s entry-level models, replacing the long-running lineup of three-door and five-door 9-3 hatchbacks. To compete in that premium car segment Saab says, sedans are the way to go – 60 percent of premium cars sold today are sedans, and they would like a bigger piece of the pie.

So what does Saab do? Make the bread-and-butter a little more appetizing for the masses.

The new 9-3 is the same length as the outgoing version but, with new styling, is 2.2 inches wider and 2.8 inches longer than previous models. Mostly, it maintains the Saab staples: Front-wheel-drive and those buzzy turbocharged four-cylinders.

The 9-3 has launched this fall in a base version called Linear, a 2.0-liter, turbo-charged four-cylinder engine that produces 175 horsepower and is available with a choice of five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission. Luxury-oriented Arc and sporty Vector models will be quick to follow, powered by an engine pro ducing 210 horsepower and available with the automatic or a new six-speed manual.

There is some turbo lag at lower speeds – a bit of hesitation before it roars out of the gate. And with front-wheel drive there is still some torque steer, a pull from side to side from the front wheels under heavy acceleration.

But, on the plus side, Saab even says the new 9-3 will have unique “pendulum” engine mountings and rods at the base to reduce engine noise and vibration – a problem noted by previous Saab owners.

All models get the typical Saab badge of safety. Anti-lock brakes are standard, as are side air bags and Saab’s first side curtain, which watches out for front and rear passengers in collisions.

Additionally, the -3 features a “ReAxs” passive rear-wheel steer system that improves handling, lane changing and steering, as well as a low mounted steering rack that gives “excellent feel and precision with progressive power assistance and fast responses,” Saab says. We’d agree.

Sixteen-inch wheels are standard on the Arc trim and optional on the Linear, replacing 15’s; Vector comes with standard 17-inch wheels.

But as for the unique elements – the quirks, the fun things and the gizmos – where the old Saab used to excel? Status quo. All models have a 60/40 split-folding rear seatback with ski pass-through. There’s a special equipment group with 16-inch wheels, six-disc CD player, power sunroof and power driver seat that will be available first on the Linear, then the rest of the lineup later. There is dual-zone air conditioning with automatic balance control that senses changes in sunlight to adjust airflow inside and a “profiler” customization that allows individual drivers to pre-set alarms, parking assistance and climate control.

Overall, the 9-3 is an all-new design from top to bottom – new platform, new engines and an interior that’s considerably more modern than the previous version.

And what’s that about owning a premium sports sedan that is usually so troublesome? Oh, yeah, the price. Want premium hardware and you’ll probably pay a pretty penny. Get a Saab and you’ll probably get a pleasant surprise.

Larger than most of its competitors, yet just as luxurious, the 9-3 breaks the golden rule of premium sedan rides: You don’t have to rob a bank to drive one. At a base price of $25,900, the newest Saab is driving proof that a good, European feel exits without having to spend too many Euros.

Dig a little deeper (and not in your wallet), and you’ll find the 9-3 is a well-equipped package that keeps all that sedan sportiness with a flair of turbo muscle, crisp steering, strong braking and a sleek exterior.

And in that way, the Saab couldn’t be a better story.

SPECS: 2003 SAAB 9-3

High Gear: With sharp handling, a jackrabbit of an engine and generous cargo and passenger room, the new 9-3 will rattle a few cages in competitors’ showrooms.

Low Gear: Torque steer (a pull from the front wheels) is improved but still a problem. An initial lag in turbo at lower speeds could be improved. Price becomes an issue with souped-up models.

Rating: 3.0

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

Key standard equipment: Five-speed manual transmission; 15-inch alloy rims; all-season tires; ventilated front disc/solid rear disc brakes; four-wheel ABS; emergency braking assist; traction control; stability control; front side-mounted air bags; front and rear head air bags; remote anti-theft alarm system; daytime running lights; front fog lights; split-folding rear seats; rear heating ducts; remote power door locks; power windows; power, heated mirrors; cruise control; tilt, power steering; audio controls on steering wheel; front 12-volt power outlet; air conditioning; AM/FM in-dash single CD player, with 70 watts stereo output and seven total speakers; OnStar telecommunications service.

Competition: Audi A4, Cadillac CTS, Chrysler 300M, Nissan Altima

Base engine: 175 horsepower, 2.0-liter DOHC, 16-valve turbo engine

Torque: 195 foot-lbs. @ 2,500 rpm

Wheelbase: 105.3 inches

Length: 182.5 inches

MPG rating: N/A

Manufactured: Trollhattan, Sweden

Warranty: Basic warranty is four years/50,000 miles; powertrain warranty is four years/50,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is 10 years/100,000 miles; roadside assistance is four years/50,000 miles.

Base price: $25,900

Price as tested (includes options, destination and delivery charges): $25,068

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