Viggen is quick and entertaining.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $26,495
As Tested (MSRP) $39,020
Saab 9-3 lets drivers experience the excitement of turbocharged front-wheel drive, but helps them manage it with traction control and sophisticated engine management. It's offered in three-door, five-door, and convertible models.
Saab cars have been lauded for their innovation ever since the first Saab 92 was unveiled in 1947. Designed by aircraft engineers, they quickly attracted attention with their aerodynamic styling. Some consider them quirky. This latest generation of Saabs is far more mainstream than Saabs of past, but it 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 to mirrors and the ventilation system can be found on the 9-3. The name, 9-3 (pronounced "nine-three"), traces its roots to Saab's aviation heritage. The 9-3 is the successor to the long-lived Saab 900, a car that practically became a legend among its followers for its turbocharger and front-wheel drive.
Saab 9-3 is available in three body styles: a three-door hatchback, a five-door hatchback, and a two-door convertible.
Three different engines are available, all turbocharged four-cylinder engines. 9-3 comes standard with a 185-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. SE models come with a 205-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter engine. Viggen models come with a 230-horsepower turbocharged 2.3-liter engine.
Base 3-door ($26,495) and 5-door ($26,995) models come standard with velour upholstery. SE 5-door ($32,595) and convertible ($39,995) models come with leather seating surfaces. A Leather Package ($1350) is available as an option on base and Viggen models. Powerful Viggen models are available in 3-door ($37,995), 5-door ($37,995), and convertible ($44,995) styles.
The 9-3 styling evolved from the Saab 900. In keeping with Saab's aerospace heritage, the most notable styling cue on the 9-3 is its wing-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 hatchbacks. 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.
Saab comes 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. Velour and leather upholstery are available.
True to Saab tradition, the dominant interior hue remains black. Saab stylists believe black makes it easier to find buttons and other controls.
Saab upgraded door and window seals on the 9-3, but it's still not quite as quiet as some of the other vehicles in its class.
The climate control system delivers plenty of heat with good defrost distribution. Saab has improved its air conditioning system, and this one works well. Vent knobs look and work great.
Saab's Night Panel display, inspired by its aircraft design, 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 of driving. 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 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 part of the Saab experience. And the powerful Viggen is entertaining, indeed. The 2.3-liter Viggen shoots away from stop lights in traffic, faster than you would sometimes like it to. Despite all that torque, the car doesn't chug around very well - it can, but doesn't want to.
The Viggen delivers an impressive amount of oomph. It comes with 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that develops 230 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque, the latter spread from 2500-4500 rpm. It 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 system, a performance exhaust system, 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 30 mpg on the highway. You'll have to keep your foot out of it to do that, however, as it's rated 20 mpg in the city.
The 9-3 offers good throttle response at all engine speeds. It develops 185 horsepower, while delivering better-than-average fuel economy and lower-than-normal emissions.
Earlier Saab models with 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). The 9-3 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 come standard with traction control for 2001. Traction control greatly enhances driver control by reducing front wheel spin under acceleration. If ever a car needed traction control, this is it. Last year, we drove one without traction control on wet San Francisco streets, and had to work to keep the wheels from spinning away from uphill starts.
Handling on smooth curvy roads is excellent. Viggen is wonderfully responsive on turn-in. The Viggen suspension is pretty rigid, borderline harsh. It's especially the upward movements that provide the jolt, and the landing is not particularly soft either. It's safe to say the suspension on this Viggen doesn't smooth out the bumps, which can be annoying on a freeway with curves, as it translates into work at the steering wheel for the driver.
We were especially impressed by the standard 9-3'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.
We tested the ABS by flooring the brake pedal at 25 mph in second gear, and were surprised to hear the tires go chirp-chirp-chirp, meaning three brief locks. That would make the system not ABS for anti-lock brakes, but BBS-briefly locked brakes. Finally, annoyingly, the power steering kicked off during parking maneuvers.
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.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.