A person looking for a front wheel drive sedan with personality
Comparable models in this class:
Acura TL, Audi A4, BMW 3-series, Cadillac CTS, Mercedes C-class, Volvo S60
2003 Saabs Debut New Looks and Personality
In its third year of General Motors ownership, Saab has introduced three fresh and interesting models of the 9-3 sedan, representing a significant rethinking of a brand once known for its quirkiness.
The three forms of the new Sport Sedan: Linear, Arc, and Vector, are aimed squarely at owners and potential buyers of BMW 3-series, Audi A4, Mercedes C-class, Volvo S60, and Acura TL. To accomplish this marketing goal, GM and Saab engineers and designers did nothing less than put a new engine in a new body on a new chassis.
The result: a less Saab-like Saab, this one bigger, quieter, and more high-tech. Faster, smoother, tighter, more luxurious, and . . . not a hatchback to be seen. According to Saab USA marketing veep, Hans Krondahl, the traditional hatch was dropped because a survey showed that only 16 percent of Saab's target market wanted a 5-door. [But our inside info is that Saab will partner with a Japanese company to bring out an all-wheel-drive compact performance sedan with a hatch in spring of 2004.]
So the new General-ized Saab is an auto that will appeal to Saab loyalists and also have a good shot at capturing converts from the ranks of those other luxury manufacturers. Saab aims to do that by offering lots of good stuff standard and by specifying high power-to-weight-ratios for the Sport Sedans.
Every 9-3 Sport Sedan has a standard leather interior and OnStar telematics. Two smooth 2-liter turbocharged engines are offered: 175 hp/195 lb.ft. of torque and a 210/221. To get the power to the wheels are two never-before-offered transmissions, a 5-speed automatic with U-shift-it capability, and a 6-speed manual. The cars weigh around 3200 pounds, very light for their size and space, and an easy load to pull fast with 175 to 210 horses.
Both engines are turbocharged, meaning they employ free heat energy from the exhaust to yield more output from the small-displacement engines. Exhaust gases, usually nothing more than a waste product, are used to spin a turbine which then forces more air and fuel than usual into the cylinders. Saab, now an all-turbo company, believes in maximizing efficiency and MPG by using lightweight fours that have the same kick, but less weight than six-cylinder engines.
Improvements and Upscale Details
This year, the company also seems to have smoothed the power curve. Instead of having to wait for a sudden burst after stomping on the gas pedal, the power now comes on with no rough edges. This is all done with software through the engine management system, another way to make the new cars more palatable to a wider range of customers. And through suspension modifications and traction control, these Saabs dont involuntarily pull to one side or another under hard acceleration from a standstill. Its difficult to not be sarcastic about cars that steer themselves where they want to go (last years models). There, I resisted. Anyway, its fixed.
Also fixed are the former buzzy engine vibrations and the rubbery stick shift, two character traits that did not jibe with the brands upscale image. And upscale it is. Starting at about $30,000, youll find construction quality, fit, instrumentation, trim, and upholstery that deservedly place the Sport Sedans in the luxury or near-luxury category. But whatever the taxonomy, youll find that driving or passengering these Swedes feels really good.
Everyone is comfortable, with firm, supportive seating, better legroom in the rear, power seats right and left (Arc and Vector), and 2-zone heat and air. The interior is silent because wind-tunnel testing led to a smooth body shape that doesnt cause objectionable wind noise. Good thing, because the sound system was so bad, I wouldnt use it even to drown out noise. A company spokesman claims that production model radios are much improved.
Attention to detail is exemplified by little ideas like the cupholder that does the Saab dance. When you first see it in action, you have to laugh at the contortions of this plastic butterfly. And there are other thoughtful things like door handles that can be gripped from top or bottom and opened with gloves on. And a big, tall trunk. Youll also appreciate the heads-up display in the drivers line of sight that shows audio-system settings and which gear the automatic is in. It glows a very readable green, powered by a central LED engine that provides illumination and readouts everywhere, plus a bright third brake light.
But Is It a BMW?
In calling the Linear, Arc, and Vector Sport Sedans, Saab does not want you to confuse their latest progeny with the family mushmobile. These new guys have crisp handling and sharp reflexes, much like the other members of this competitive class. By the stopwatch, the Saabs belong there. And engine torque peaks at a very low 2300 rpm, so that most of the oomph is on tap without having to downshift or use the kickdown. Best 0-60 times are in the low sevens for the Linear, and high sixes for the Arc and Vector with 210 horsepower .
In a contest arranged by Saab, I drove the Linear, BMW 325i, and Audi A4 Turbo through an autocross slalom a number of times. After the officials tore me away from this experiment, I found that the Saabs and Bimmer were 100ths of a second apart between 43 and 44 seconds, with Saab winning some sprints and BMW winning others. The Audi hung around 45.
What does this prove? In a tire-smoking-and-screeching tight course, the rear-wheel drive entry from Munich and the front-wheel-drive Swede were equals using two different ways to achieve the same end. The Saabs required more cranking of the wheel and suffered from a bit more understeer than BMW, but in real life, they will both get you there quickly and safely.
This is probably all that Saab wanted to know, that they can compete in the same league with BMW. If enough buyers prefer Saabs combination of looks, sounds, features, colors, comfort, and feel, theyll have a winner at the box office. The company estimates calendar-year 2003 sales of 25,000 units.
Standard on every 9-3 is a sextet of software-controlled driver aids: ABS, CBC, EBD, ESP, MBA, and TCS. Although the acronyms sound like TV stations or advanced degrees, they represent a collection of safety features that, for the most part, free you from worrying about traction and braking surprises. Translation: This stuff makes anyone look like a good driver. Speaking of safety, Volvo no longer owns the personal security field. The Saabs have active anti-whiplash head restraints, a three-stage crumple zone, and beaucoup airbags.
If youre in a hurry, these sedans get underway with a whoosh and a whir, rev freely, and then cruise quietly. The steering is precise and feeds back sufficient road feel to tell if youre on smooth concrete or nubby asphalt. Compare this with the numb and isolated steering of some other vehicles.
The Linear has 15-inch alloy wheels. Arc upgrades to 16-inchers and beautiful real poplar wood. Vector has 17-inch wheels and the serious look of matte chrome trim. The Arc and Vector wont be available until 2003, but for the remainder of 2002, there is a promotional package on Linears, featuring 10-spoke 16-inch wheels, a 150 watt audio system with 6-disc. changer, and power sunroof.
It's possible to pick up a Linear for $26,000. If you hurry, you can take advantage of a promotional package on Linears, featuring 10-spoke 16-inch wheels, a 150 watt audio system with 6-disc. changer, and power sunroof. Vectors start at $32,500. Fully-tricked-out, they are under $37,000, $6,000 less than a comparable BMW 330i.
All Saabs are covered by a four-year/50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, roadside assistance, and free scheduled servicing for three years or 36,000 miles. EPA mileage for the 175-hp engine is 23/31 with the manual transmission and 21/31 with the automatic. For the 210 horse engine, it's 22/31 with manual, and 21/30 with auto.
90 octane (plus) gasoline is recommended for the Linear's 175 hp motor; 93 octane (premium) for the 210 horses of the Arc and Vector. But if for any reason you have to use lower-rated fuels, the engine management system will recognize it and adjust spark timing so no damage will be done. Power will be lowered somewhat, but it might not be apparent in ordinary driving.
Joel Levin writes about autos, wine and food, entertainment, and travel copyright Joel Levin 2002