It's not easy to sleep when the first bright rays of sun stream in through your window at 3 a.m. But this time of year, it never gets completely dark in Stockholm. Of course, in the winter, you barely ever see sunlight. Such extremes can influence the national character'and the products a country produces. Maybe that's why Swedish architecture is so distinctive. And Swedish cars.

Over the years, both Saab and Volvo have developed images distinct and different from more mainstream European brands. Volvo's reputation is solid and almost stern. Saab's, on the hand is both sporty and quirky. That's helped the company earn a small, if loyal, following. But not one it can live on: Saab has only survived the last decade on the largesse of its American parent, General Motors. But patience, and support, can eventually wear out. So there's a lot riding on the all-new 9-3 that the automaker is bringing to market later this year.

Bread and butter - hold the herring

A complete update of Saab's bread-and-butter product line, the 2003-edition 9-3 could prove to be one of the most significant products in the Swedish automaker's relatively brief history. (Founded only 55 years ago, it is the youngest of the major car brands excluding luxury arms like Lexus, Infiniti, etc.) Starting out with the same Epsilon platform used by a variety of other GM products, the 9-3 is larger and a lot more mainstream than past products. To drive that home, Saab has abandoned past practices, rolling out a sedan, rather than the traditional 9-3 hatchback. At least three other variants will follow over the next few years, ranging from a convertible to a ute-like crossover vehicle.

To get a sense of what the new 9-3, and indeed, the new Saab, is all about, TheCarConnection flew into Stockholm for a few days of driving through the lush Swedish countryside. During our stay, we had the chance to try out a variety of different powertrain configurations, which will be hitting American shores between October and early next year.

The package that will debut this autumn under the "Linear" designation boasts a 175-horsepower, low-pressure turbocharged 2.0-liter in-line four. A Saab-ized version of GM's global L850 engine family, designated the 2.0t, it will be mated to a five-speed automatic, or an optional five-speed stick. Priced well under $30,000, it's a surprisingly well-equipped package, even including leather seats.

Come February, dealers will start delivering two additional models, the better-equipped Arc and the high-line, sporty Vector. Both will share the high-pressure turbocharged version of the in-line four engine, which boosts the pony count to a solid 210. There's a five-speed automatic with Sentronic, Saab's version of automatic-as-manual shifting. Steering wheel-mounted shift toggles are a nice touch, though they require a solid push to operate, a bit more than we'd like. For those who like to shift, the so-called 2.0T models will offer a six-speed manual transmission.

Love versus hate

It's a good idea to start with the powertrain because it's the source of the love/hate relationship many motorists have with Saab products. The 9-3 has traditionally been a reasonably sporty performer, and the new model is no exception. With the smaller engine and stick, it will launch from zero to 60 mph in about 8.0 seconds, while the 210-hp package is a half second faster.

Speed is not the entire issue. Saab's have had a tendency to torque steer. For the less mechanically inclined, that means they can pull sharply to one side or the other if you're aggressive off the line. If you're unprepared, it can be a disconcerting experience. And even better drivers have to compensate fast.

We're happy to report that during two days of driving, we and our driving partner experienced effectively no torque steer whatsoever with the automatic-equipped powertrains and only the vaguest hint of pull with the smaller engine in a manual transmission configuration. Surprisingly, several fellow journalists driving other test vehicles had decidedly different experiences. Normally, we'd brush that off, but considering Saab's reputation, it needs note. Variation in prototypes? Perhaps. Or maybe it was just a case of seeing what you had come bound and determined to find. All we can say is that our own experience was quite positive.

Nimble doings

More broadly, the new 9-3 is a surprisingly competent vehicle, able to handle a variety of tight and twisty roads with confident aplomb. On a series of off-camber switchbacks, the 9-3 never lost its footing, though the tires on our test vehicles did have a tendency to squeal long before losing their grip. 

We did find a bit more engine vibration than we'd have liked coming through the steering wheel on the 175-hp package. But on the whole, steering was precise, with a clear on-center feel and just enough boost at low speeds to smooth parking and city driving.

One of the more interesting technical developments on the "03 has been dubbed ReAxs. It effectively transforms the four-link rear suspension into a passive four-wheel-steering system, operating much like the new "carving" skis used to improve a skier's ability to maneuver on snow. ReAxs also helps reduce understeer.

The new car's nimbleness reflects a notable change in its dimensions. While the car remains essentially the same overall in length as before, the wheelbase has been stretched about two inches. It's two inches wider and nearly an inch taller. Then there's the new body shell, which is more than twice as stiff as the outgoing 9-3. The old car was plagued with body flex, so it's a distinctive improvement, and will be even more significant when the next-generation convertible hits market in mid-2003.

The added dimensions have another advantage. The new 9-3 is less claustrophobic than the old car. The rear seat can suddenly hold three adults and there's enough head room for a tall Swede, front and back.

Those who like the elegant, yet simple functionality of Swedish Modern will feel right at home in the new 9-3. It's more than attractive. There's a marked improvement in interior ergonomics, never a Saab strong point, in our consideration. The gauges are large and bright, controls are easy to reach and use, though we'd have preferred Saab not abandon the rotary dials on its old climate control system. It's simply not as intuitive to find and operate the right push buttons.

Since we're airing our complaints, several test vehicles did exhibit a wind whistle where door seals weren't working right. We're promised these will be fixed by the time full production begins in the coming weeks.

There's a creative digital display cluster on the top center of the instrument panel, right where the windshield touches down. This reads out a variety of useful information so you're less likely to take your eyes off the road. When the optional navigation system is added on U.S. models next year, the monitor will also display basic directions, such as arrows showing when and where to turn.

If you count cupholders, you'll be pleased to know there are five, including a giant one that pops out of the dash with the touch of a button. Unfortunately, it's not as effective as it is ingenious. Designed to hold a Big Gulp, it lets smaller beverage containers flop around menacingly.

The seats are particularly comfortable and extremely supportive, as we discovered during some aggressive back road driving.

Appeal-out

Visually, the new 9-3 is very much a Saab, at least when seen nose on, with the classic grille and grooved hood. Pull alongside, and it's got a more import-generic appearance. The tail is a bit bulbous and busy. One of the most visually intriguing touches can be found on the high-line Vector, which boasts a very stylish 10-spoke alloy wheel, one of the nicest on the road.

There are going to be those who will miss the traditional 9-3 hatchback, but the reality is, the sedan configuration puts the new car right into the heart of the entry-luxury market. And for most potential buyers, the cavernous trunk will provide all the storage space they'll ever need. Another nice touch is the trunk-mounted release buttons that make it easy to fold down the back seats should you have an oversized package.

The biggest challenge facing the Swedish automaker will be finding ways to get the "03 9-3 on the consideration list of those who've never taken Saab seriously. There are those who truly loved the quirkiness that Saab was long known for. For them, the 2003 Saab 9-3 might be a slight bit of a letdown. But for the vast majority of potential buyers, the new car could be a far more inviting package'if they only knew it was there. It's larger, roomier, has better handling and is more affordable.

Whether Saab can succeed in the mainstream remains to be seen, but it's done a credible job shifting closer to the center.

2003 Saab 9-3
Base Price: Less than $30,000 (est.)
Engine: low-pressure turbocharged 2.0-liter in-line four, 175 hp; high-pressure turbocharged 2.0-liter in-line four, 215 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic with Sentronic or five-speed manual (2.0t); five-speed automatic with Sentronic or six-speed manual (2.0T)
Length x width x height: 182.5 x 69.0 x 56.8 in
Wheelbase: 105.3 in
Curb weight: 3175-3285 lb
EPA City/Hwy: n/a
Safety equipment: dual-stage "smart" airbags, side curtain airbags, Saab Active Head Restraint system, ABS, Traction Control, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, optional stability control, seatbelt pretensioners
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD audio, power doors and windows, leather seats, dual-zone climate controls, auto-dimming mirrors, power driver's seat
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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