Fast, reliable, roomy and mainstream.
by Paul A. Eisenstein
Base Price $32,050
As Tested $32,650
Saab's new 9-3 is the successor to the long-lived Saab 900, a car that practically became a legend among its followers. Like all Saabs, the 900 had a reputation for being somewhat quirky. Not everyone liked its styling, the way the ignition key was mounted on the center console and not everyone understood the value of its Black Panel instrument cluster and other unconventional features.
The 9-3 is quite a bit more mainstream. The Saab 9-3 is the result of extensive refinement and re-engineering of the 900. With such a significant evolutionary step forward for 1999, Saab felt that a new model designation was in order. Like the new 9-5, the 9-3 (pronounced "nine-three") designation traces its roots to Saab's aviation heritage.
A mild redesign has resulted in a smoother, cleaner look for the new 9-3. As we saddled up a pair of Saab 9-3 sedans for a 5800-mile dash from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Key West, Florida, we couldn't help wondering whether Saab might have rounded off a few too many corners. We wondered whether Saab had taken away all of those idiosyncratic touches that loyalists have learned to love.
But by the time we reached the Mile 0 marker in Key West marking the southernmost point on the American mainland, we had decided we liked the new 9-3. Covering the nearly 5800 miles in just over 96 hours, the new 9-3 had nary a problem. It offered lots of power, a smooth-shifting gearbox and handling that inspired confidence in sometimes treacherous conditions.
One thing the 9-3 does not offer is a complete styling makeover. Saab designers took an evolutionary approach to the 9-3, so there's still a lot of 900 evident in the sheet metal. Saab boasts more than a thousand technical improvements to this 1999 edition, but most of those changes are buried beneath the skin.
We drove the five-door sedan, but there's also a Coupe and a Convertible available. In keeping with Saab's aerospace heritage, the most notable new styling cue on the 9-3 is its wing-shaped center profile. Color-keyed bumpers, lower air intakes and a front spoiler with integrated fog and cornering lamps add to the sporty look.
The tailgate has been redesigned, but it will take a keen eye to spot most of the changes. The license plate, for example, is now placed squarely between the taillights. The high-mounted taillight has been raised and now uses LEDs for enhanced visibility. The tailgate yawns wide to make it easier to load and unload the 9-3. Whether packing for a cross-country trip or simply hauling a week's worth of groceries, it's easy to appreciate the cavernous cargo hold. Fold down the split rear seat and a nearly 50 cubic feet of storage space is revealed. There's also a rear-seat pass-through for carrying skis and other long objects.
While the styling changes are subtle, the 9-3 offers a more distinctive, sporty and aggressive look than the previous 900; the last time the 900 was redesigned was in 1994. And the functionality of the 9-3 has been substantially improved.
The Inside Story
Heading out of Prudhoe Bay took us down 500 jouncing miles of gravel road. It's the type of place where you learn to appreciate good seats, and the 9-3 deserves unabashed praise. The backrests are better contoured than those of the 900, which improves side support, and the widened seat is perfectly sized for an American derriere. There's plenty of thigh support, which you really appreciate after the first 1500 miles.
Saab has added several new interior colors, available with both the velour and optional leather packages, but the dominant hue is still black. Saab stylists suggest black makes it easier to find buttons and other controls.
Saab upgraded door and window seals on the 9-3. But while the new car is definitely quieter than the old 900, it's still not quite as quiet as some of the other vehicles in its class. There was a bit more road noise than we might have expected, but that might have been attributable to the aggressive set of developmental snow tires we had mounted for our cross-continental trip.
Traveling from Alaska to Florida was a great way to test the efficiency of the climate control system, and after 5800 miles we had no complaints. It provided plenty of heat, good defrost distribution, and its improved air conditioning system clearly came through as we reached sweltering south Florida.
The unusual Night Panel display (an upgraded version of the 900's Black Panel), proved a blessing during our all-night death marches. After a few hours driving in the dark, even the most well-designed instrument panel can become harsh and distracting. With the Night Panel, simply press a button to black out everything except the speedometer. If there's a problem, such as low coolant or fuel, a warning light will automatically pop on.
Saab has traditionally emphasized both active and passive safety features, and the 9-3 won't disappoint those who consider safety a key attribute. Dual front airbags are complemented by head and thorax side-impact airbags. But the most innovative addition to the redesigned 9-3 is the Saab Active Head Restraint system. In a rear impact, the headrests swing forward just enough to catch and cradle your cranium, reducing the odds of whiplash and other head and neck injuries.
Ride and Drive
All 9-3 models come with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that develops 185 horsepower, while delivering better-than-average fuel economy and lower-than-normal emissions.
Earlier turbocharged engines were accompanied by turbo lag -- a distinct bog in power before the turbo spooled up -- and torque steer, a phenomenon that causes the steering to tug to one side. But the new 9-3 engine is equipped with a low-inertia turbocharger that helps eliminate both of these traits. The 9-3 offers good throttle response at all engine speeds.
The standard five-speed manual transmission is precise and easy to shift. The hydraulic clutch system helps aids in this regard and is self-adjusting. An optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic allows the driver to select among three shift modes, sport, normal and winter.
We were especially impressed by the 9-3's stability during our drive through Calgary, Alberta. A record snowstorm had dumped nearly three feet of snow on the roads and dense fog made it nearly impossible to see more than a few hundred feet. But the handling of the 9-3 inspired confidence and we were able to drive it with precision.
The 9-3 doesn't feel quite as sporty as a comparably priced BMW 328i, but the steering is precise, the handling is predictable, and the overall road feel is one of being firmly in control.
You learn a lot about a car after crossing a continent and experiencing every possible weather and road condition. About the only problem we ran into was on a stretch of the Trans-Alaska Highway where we drove through muck so thick it stuck to the wheels and suspension like quick-dry cement and threw the wheels out of balance. A lengthy stop at a car wash solved the problem.
After 5782 miles in 96 hours and 15 minutes, we'll say without hesitation that the 9-3 took everything Mother Nature and we could throw at it. We were stiff, achy and glad to get out of the car and stand up, but the Saab 9-3 provided a sense of comfort and calm reassurance throughout the trip.
We had hoped for more revolutionary styling, but there's no need to apologize for what Saab brings to market. If it gets the word of mouth it deserves, the new 9-3 should begin to expand the Swedish automaker's appeal to those who are looking for a car that's more than just fast and quirky.
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