EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

Saab is known for doing things differently.

The automaker from Trollhattan, Sweden, has a long, proud, oddball tradition. For years, Saab has mounted its ignition in the center console, produced front-wheel-drive automobiles when others hadn’t thought about it, and designed cars with hatchbacks in a world of notchbacks (or trunks.)

It’s that latter that is the 2003 Saab 9-3’s most notable change, one that will surely puzzle Saabophiles. The new 9-3 has a trunk.

It’s hard to think that Saab has lost one of its distinguishing characteristics. After all, Saab has been selling hatchbacks since the late ’60s. While the Saab faithful will blame corporate parent General Motors for this shocking turn towards normalcy, the truth is that Saab is looking for greater sales.

More buyers in the United States prefer sedans with a proper trunk, so Saab has delivered it. It also has delivered a car that’s normal.

Certainly that could be said of the styling, which is a sporty iteration of the larger Saab 9-5. It almost looks like the 9-5’s athletic little brother. The car’s stance is especially fetching, exchanging the hatchback’s dowdiness for a more European, muscular posture.

Fit and finish were excellent on the test car, which drew many admiring glances, especially from those under 30 years old.

While the 2002 9-3 used the old Opel Cavalier chassis, the 2003 9-3 employs a new GM midsize-car platform that will also be used for the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu and 2005 Pontiac Grand Am.

The platform features a fully independent suspension that features what Saab calls “ReAxs.” This system helps prevent understeer in cornering by allowing a slight amount of rear-wheel steering. Coupled with a more sophisticated suspension design, this is the best handling Saab 9-3 yet produced.

Steering is quick and precise, with just the right amount of steering assist. The ride is firm, more so than a Volkswagen Passat, one of Saab’s competitors. But the 9-3 makes up for it with better, agile handling.

The front-disc brakes and rear ones are ventilated. Braking characteristics are just what you’d expect from a top-notch sports sedan.

The usual electronic aids are standard including brake assist, which increases braking pressure in panic stops; anti-lock brakes, which prevents brakes from locking up in slippery situations; traction control, which helps ensure traction on slick surfaces, and electronic brakeforce distribution, which ensures optimum braking in all circumstances. An electronic stability program uses most of these electronic aids to correct driver error that could lead to a loss of control.

The Saab comes in three flavors: understated Linear, luxurious Arc and performance-minded Vector.

All three trim levels are equipped with what makes a Saab feel like a Saab: a 2-liter double overhead-cam turbocharged four-cylinder engine. In the Linear and Arc trim levels, the motor produces 175 horsepower. In the Vector, it’s good for 210 horsepower.

For testing, Saab supplied a Linear equipped with its new 5-speed Sentronic automatic transmission with manual gear selection.

The Linear felt underpowered from a standstill, although there was good power once under way. Engine noise is sweet music to any enthusiast’s ear and this motor is no exception. Engine vibration is minimal for a four-banger, and turbo lag is minimal as well. Few automakers produce a better turbo motor than Saab.

Unfortunately, the new transmission doesn’t always seem well-mated to the powertrain. The new Sentronic allows for manual gear selection by moving the lever to the left and tipping it forward to upshift and backward to downshift. The operation is too slow. There is too much lag time between gear selection and the actual activation. What’s worse is the only way to get out of overdrive is to use the manual mode.

A sport and winter mode, which changed automatic transmission gearing, depending on road conditions, is no longer offered. The available five-speed or six-speed manual seems a better transmission choice for this car.

The Saab 9-3 cabin is thoroughly revised as well.

Seats are comfortable with good room up front and rather tight leg room in back.

Saab’s usual tall, well-ordered dashboard is easy to use, once you take some time to learn the function of the controls, something not self-evident.

Those controls include dual zone climate control, trip computer and stereo system. It also includes Saab’s Night Panel, which kills all dashboard lighting except for the speedometer, so that a driver isn’t distracted at night. Other gauges light up on a need-to-know basis. This last feature is one safety item that more automakers should copy.

Other niceties include an air-conditioned glovebox, which chills items to 46 degrees, and a smart slot, which holds accessories such as an ice scraper, CD holder or cupholder.

The Saab 9-3 starts at $25,900. That price includes air-conditioning with dust and pollen filters, cruise control, power windows, locks and mirrors, heated mirrors, electronic key, floor mats, leather seating surfaces, 12-volt power outlet, rear-window defogger, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, AM/FM/CD player, 60/40 split folding rear seats and daytime running lamps.

The test car’s option list includes the Sentronic transmission, $1,200, heated seats and headlamp washers, $495, Launch Package (power driver’s seat, 6-CD changer and an automatic sunroof), $2,595, Touring Package (automatic climate control, Xenon headlights, auto-dimming rearview mirror and integrated garage door opener), $995 and a wheel upgrade (17-inch alloy wheels and sports chassis package), $1,000.

The options brought the bottom line to $32,860.

Go easy on the options and the Saab is a welcome and cheaper alternative to some pricey competition, including the BMW 3-Series, Lexus IS 300, Audi A4, and Volvo S60.

Because Saab isn’t the oddball it once was, the new 9-3 is sure to become more popular, as more buyers discover what Saabophiles have always treasured: being different.

SAAB 9-3 LINEAR

Engine: 2-liter turbocharged DOHC 4-cylinder

Transmission: 5-speed or 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic/manual

Tires: P215/50W-R17

Wheelbase: 105.3 inches

Length: 182.2 inches

Width: 68.3 inches

Weight: 3,285 pounds

Cargo volume: 15 cubic ft.

Base price: $25,900

As tested: $32,860

EPA rating: 22 city, 31 highway

Test mileage: 24 mpg

Fuel type: Premium

Built in: Trollhattan, Sweden

Latest news

toyota-sequoia-2023-teaser-001-badge-exterior-red
All-New 2023 Toyota Sequoia On Its Way: Here’s What We Want
what-is-new-with-diesel
What’s New With Diesel Trucks and SUVs in 2022?
ford-bronco-2022-05-angle--blue--exterior--front
Ford Bronco: Which Should You Buy, 2021 or 2022?