Innovative to the point of quirkiness, Saab was one of the key pioneers not only of front-wheel drive, but also of body designs that were at once aerodynamic outside and spacious inside, while providing outstanding passenger protection.
During the 1970s, when most cars were losing performance to stricter emissions rules, Saabs grew faster (and cleaner) every year. During this period Saab re-introduced automotive turbocharging and pioneered distributorless ignition. The 99EMS, 99 Turbo, and 900 Turbo models became performance legends.
Since then, the rest of the world has caught up a bit, and the latest Saabs are more mainstream than their ancestors. Still, the current 9-3 preserves that special character that makes a Saab. The ignition key is still mounted on the center console; a modern version of the Black Panel instrument cluster remains; and innovative solutions abound.
The model name is pronounced nine-three, and it is a reference to Saab's heritage. Saab was founded in the 1930s as an aircraft manufacturer, and its first automobile, the 92 of 1949, was so named because it was the company's 92nd engineering project. Subsequent Saab cars were numbered more or less in sequence, so that the digit 9 becoming a company hallmark. The Saab 99 of 1969 was followed by the 900 in 1979 and then the 9000 in 1985. At that point someone must have noticed an unpromising trend, and hence the retreat to 9-3 for the bread-and-butter range and 9-5 for the company flagship.
Three body styles are available: five-door hatchback, two-door convertible, and three-door hatchback. Saab has simplified the 9-3 lineup for 2002. The former base-model three-door and five-door hatchbacks are gone. So the lineup starts with SE trim.
SE trim is available as a 9-3 SE five-door ($27,995) and 9-3 convertible ($39,995). Both have been upgraded for 2002, with combination leather-and-textile seats and door panels.
Also new for 2002 is a Premium package ($1995) for the five-door SE, which adds automatic climate control, full leather upholstery, power front seats with driver's-side memory, sport suspension, sport steering wheel, and an upgraded audio system. A corresponding Sport package ($1495) for the SE convertible adds three-spoke, 17-inch alloy wheels, a sport steering wheel, and a deck-lid spoiler.
Viggen rides at the top of the 9-3 line as the ultimate-performance model. The Viggen is offered in identically priced three-door ($38,095) and five door styles ($38,095), and as a convertible ($44,995). The Viggen is now the only 9-3 available in the three-door configuration. All Viggens are upholstered in black leather with contrasting inserts, and roll on aggressive 45-profile tires on 17-inch alloy wheels.
Two different turbocharged four-cylinder engines are available. SE models displace 2.0 liters and produce 205 horsepower. Buyers can choose a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Viggens wring 230-horsepower from 2.3-liters and, befitting their sporting status, come only with a five-speed manual.
While not as aggressively quirky as the old Saab 99 or 900, the 9-3 is clearly a linear descendent. The most obvious cue is the 9-3's wedge-shaped center profile. A front spoiler with low air intakes, integrated fog and cornering lamps, and color-keyed bumpers add to the sporty look.
From behind, the 9-3 resembles the 900, but there are subtle changes. The license plate is now placed squarely between the taillights, and the center taillight is mounted higher and uses LEDs for enhanced visibility.
The tailgate yawns wide to make it easier to load and unload the Saab's cavernous cargo hold. Whether packing for a cross-country trip or simply hauling a week's worth of groceries, it's easy to appreciate the 9-3's carrying capacity. 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.
Saabs come with good seats. The backrests in the 9-3 are well contoured for side support, and there's plenty of thigh support for long trips. The 9-3 is not quite as quiet as some of the other vehicles in its class, however.
True to Saab tradition, the dominant interior hue remains black. Saab designers believe black makes it easier to find buttons and controls. Night vision is a Saab priority. Saab's Night Panel display, inspired by aircraft practice, improves night vision by allowing the driver to reduce the distracting light coming from the instruments. Even the most well-designed instrument panel can become harsh and distracting on long, dark nights. 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 come on.
The climate control system delivers plenty of heat, with good defrost distribution. Saab has improved its air conditioner, and this one works well. Vent knobs look and work great.
Saab has traditionally emphasized both active and passive safety, and the 9-3 interior won't disappoint those who consider safety a key attribute. Dual front airbags are complemented by side-impact airbags. But the most innovative feature 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.
Acceleration performance is a key to the Saab experience. The Viggen is powerful and entertaining. Its turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine shoots the Viggen away from stop lights. Despite all that torque, however, the Viggen doesn't chug around very well at low speed. It can, but doesn't want to.
Viggen's engine develops 230 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. The torque is spread from 2500-4500 rpm. The engine sings under your foot, when you have the chance to stand on it. But it's a song you feel more than you hear, because the Viggen is very quiet and smooth at 75 mph. That's remarkable, considering it's a four-cylinder engine. The increased power comes from a larger turbocharger, a less restrictive intake, a performance exhaust, and more displacement. Saab boasts that this engine produces 52 percent more torque per liter than a Porsche 911. Even more impressive is that it's EPA-rated to get 31 mpg on the highway. You'll have to keep your foot out of it to do that, however, as it's rated only 20 mpg in the city.
The milder-mannered 9-3 SE offers good throttle response at all engine speeds. It develops 205 horsepower, while delivering better-than-average fuel economy (22/30 mpg city/highway) and lower-than-normal emissions.
Earlier Saabs with turbocharged engines suffered from 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). The 9-3 SE solves this with a low-inertia turbocharger that reduces both of these traits. With its increased horsepower, the Viggen uses its electronic engine management system to reduce turbo lag by manipulating the throttle position.
Also, all 9-3 models have traction control, which greatly enhances driver control by reducing front wheel spin under acceleration. If ever a car needed traction control, this is it. Two years ago, we drove one without traction control on wet San Francisco streets, and had to work to keep the wheels from spinning on uphill starts.
Handling on smooth curvy roads is excellent. The Viggen, especially, is wonderfully responsive on turn-in. However, the Viggen's suspension is pretty rigid, borderline harsh. Upward movements are particularly jolting, and the landing is not terribly soft either. It's safe to say the suspension on the Viggen doesn't smooth out the bumps. The power steering sometimes has trouble keeping up in quick, tight maneuvers.
On the other hand, we were impressed by the 9-3 SE's stability during a 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 given the conditions.
The shifter for the five-speed transmission is free, almost loose feeling, but not sloppy. It's easy to shift gears. An optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic allows the driver to select among three shift modes: sport, normal and winter.
The 9-3 doesn't feel quite as sporty as a comparably priced BMW 3 Series, but the steering is precise, the handling is predictable, and the overall road feel is one of being firmly in control.
|Model Line Overview |
|Model lineup: ||SE five-door ($27,995); SE convertible ($39,995); Viggen three-door ($38,095); Viggen five-door ($38,095); Viggen convertible ($44,995) |
|Engines: ||205-hp 2.0-liter 16-valve turbocharged inline-4; 230-hp 2.3-liter 16-valve turbocharged inline-4 |
|Transmissions: ||5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic |
|Safety equipment (standard): ||ABS, all-speed traction control, dual front and side airbags, active front seat head restraints, automatic front seatbelt tensioners; side-impact protection system |
|Safety equipment (optional): ||N/A |
|Basic warranty: ||4 years/50,000 miles |
|Assembled in: ||Uusikaupuki, Finland |
|Specifications As Tested |
|Model tested (MSRP): ||9-3 Viggen 3-door ($38,095) |
|Standard equipment: ||automatic climate control; black leather seats w deep blue leather inserts; door trim panels w leather inserts; dual 8-way power reclining sport front bucket w side bolsters and 3-position driver's-seat memory; telescopic, leather-wrapped steering wheel; power windows; remote central locking; heated rear view mirrors; power sunroof; intermittent wipers; cruise control; steering-wheel mounted audio controls; dashboard Night Panel feature; rear window defogger; Saab Car Computer; AM/FM/CD/cassette 6-speaker stereo; headlamp washer/wiper; rear wiper/washer; telephone pre-wire kit with remote microphone; anti-theft alarm with engine immobilizing; 40/60 split fold-down rear seat; daytime running lights; front and rear fog lights; split, wide-angle exterior passenger-side mirror; rear spoiler |
|Options as tested (MSRP): ||heated front seats ($475) |
|Destination charge: ||($625) |
|Gas guzzler tax: ||N/A |
|Price as tested (MSRP): ||$ 39,195 |
|Layout: ||front-wheel drive |
|Engine: ||2.3-liter dohc 16-valve turbocharged inline-4 |
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm): ||230 @ 5500 |
|Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): ||258 @ 2500-4500 |
|Transmission: ||5-speed manual |
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: ||20/31 mpg |
|Wheelbase: ||102.6 in. |
|Length/width/height: ||180.9/67.4/55.7 in. |
|Track, f/r: ||57.2/56.8 in. |
|Turning circle: ||34.4 ft. |
|Seating capacity: ||5 |
|Head/hip/leg room, f: ||39.3/NA/42.3 in. |
|Head/hip/leg room, m: ||N/A |
|Head/hip/leg room, r: ||37.9/NA/34.1 in. |
|Trunk volume: ||46.0 cu. ft. (rear seat folded); 21.7 (rear seat in place) cu. ft. |
|Payload: ||N/A |
|Towing capacity: ||2000 Lbs. |
|Suspension, f: ||Independent |
|Suspension, r: ||twist beam |
|Ground clearance: ||N/A |
|Curb weight: ||3130 lbs. |
|Tires: ||P215/45ZR17 Dunlop SP Sport 2000 |
|Brakes, f/r: ||disc/disc with ABS |
|Fuel capacity: ||17.0 gal. |
Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of September 27, 2001.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-955-9007 - www.saabusa.com
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