While it doesn't carry the recognizably quirky Saab characteristics that have helped distinguish the brand for over 50 years, Saab's all new 9-3 sedan should appeal to a far wider audience than ever before, in many wonderful ways. The new sedan, which signals the end of the road for the current range of Saab's three- and five-door hatchbacks, is probably more visually acceptable to the masses, yet it has an aggressive, sporty stance and also boasts impressive gains in performance and handling.
This shift in company strategy will ideally position Saab within the largest segment in the premium car market, moving head to head against such proven models as the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, as well as models from Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and even VW. Recipient of the largest program investment in Saab history, the new 9-3 is intended to help position Saab as a global automotive contender. Annual sales are expected to exceed 200,000 units by 2005, a lofty number for the Trollhatten-based manufacturer, but Saab execs feel boldly optimistic.
"This car offers a level of driver involvement and responsive performance never seen before from Saab," said Saab AB president and CEO Peter Augustsson. "It is a formula designed to appeal to young, premium-car buyers who place a priority on a rewarding driving experience, but who also want to express their individuality through choosing a distinctive, less commonplace brand."It was good to hear such phrases as "driver involvement," "built around the driver," "driver adaptability" and "driver-centered design" being used by Saab's representatives There's a lot of promise in those words.
At the very conception of the sedan, producing a "driver's car" was a paramount goal. "The whole idea was to build the car around the driver, focusing on achieving a rewarding, interactive experience behind the wheel," said Saab's chief chassis engineer, Ekkehard Schwartz. "Every element of the design of the car, therefore, aims to enhance communication to and from, involving rather than insulating, the driver."
In accomplishing this feat, Saab's engineers built their best performer ever. I traveled recently to Stockholm to sample the top of the 9-3 lineup, the 210-bhp version known as the Vector model.
The 9-3 will be available in three trim levels, in what Saab refers to as "forms,"--the Linear, a more luxurious Arc and the sport-oriented Vector. This performance model features standard 17-in. alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and that 210-bhp high-pressure turbocharged engine. The test drive wound through gorgeous Swedish countryside outside of Stockholm, and I felt my Swedish roots stir as I motored through the beautiful landscape.
A car is only as good as its basic elements will allow. Over time, Saab cars have offered many impressive features--even some industry firsts in terms of technological innovation. However, they have not always worked in a truly harmonious manner, causing certain key components to compromise the performance of others. The new 9-3 is different.
Case in point: Saab manufactures front-wheel-drive, turbocharged cars. In the past, there have been various issues with torque steer and other handling inconsistencies. With the new car, it looks as though these concerns and others may not have only been addressed but completely eliminated.
While use of the General Motors Epsilong platform kept the overall length of the new car identical to the former 9-3, its longer wheelbase allowed designers to draw more appealing, shorter overhangs. The new 9-3 is also two inches wider and a hair taller. Slippery aerodynamics provide a highly competitive 0.28 drag coefficient, resulting in low lift forces for improved high-speed stability. As I studied its new outward appearance, two words came to mind--smooth and commanding. There's little doubt many will find the sedan's mainstream styling attractive and may even go so far as to call it handsome. Others, loyal Saabians, may not care for the less recognizable notchback configuration. Whatever your expectations, the new sedan possesses perhaps the cleannest, most uncluttered lines of any production Saab. I like its profile well enough but would have preferred the designers had retained more of the brand's singular styling cues.
Subtle styling cues that seem to work well include slightly pronounced wheel arches, a deep front airdam, steeply raked front and rear glass and a mild trunk spoiler. Squared-off headlights have replaced the older, wraparound units. The new look is appropriately matched with a set of stout alloy wheels that tuck nicely beneath the flares for a low, sporty crouch.
As is consistent with previous Saab vehicles, the 9-3's cockpit was designed around the driver. Cabin ergonomics, instrumentation, controls and seating were all developed from the driver's position of command. This makes anyone feel immediately comfortable even if it's their first time in a Saab. There are no surprises from an instrument panel that wraps around the driver with a logical layout, the controls providing good feel and feedback. The steering wheel adjusts for both rake and reach, putting almost any driver within safe reach of the pedals. A nice touch is the placement of the e-brake arm, cleverly designed to sit down and out of the way in the center console--which still contains the ignition switch, a longstanding Saab trait initially incorporated to help keep the driver's right knee free from injury in the event of an impact. It's one of those Saab quirks I'm happy to see retained.
The cabin is very roomy, a vaunted Saab attribute, and especially for rear seat passengers, attributed to a slightly wider exterior shell. I'm well over six feet tall, and legroom in the front was substantial and pedal placement ideal. Additional space and load-carrying potential is achieved via a standard 60/40 split/folding rear seat (also with ski hatch).
The car is bursting with gadgetry, including the highly sophisticated Bluetooth technology. Saab claims to be the first manufacturer to offer the system, which can incorporate a network of wireless devices and applications into the vehicle. Among its features are hands-free voice control and calling via a Bluetooth headset, in addition to wireless dial-up networking using a Bluetooth PDA or laptop. It's a virtual bridge to all of your advanced in-car "infotainment" requirements.
Other available electronic features offer a wide range of functions, most of which can be pre-set according to personal preference, including anti-theft alarm, parking assistance, rain-sensitive wipers and automatic climate control. Also available is a navigation system, complete with fiber-optic efficiency and voice-activated capability. The standard 150-watt audio system with seven speakers and CD player is an impressive sonic nicety.
A driver's information display, which also shows audio settings, is positioned on the top of the dash and close to the driver's natural field of vision. This helps keep your eyes where they belong, on the road, and is indicative of Saab's attention to both active and passive safety.
Occupant safety begins with a stout body structure and computer-designed crush zones, augmented by dual-stage front and seat-mounted side airbags, side curtain protection, front seatbelt pretensioners with load limiters and whiplash-reducing active front-seat head restraints. For added peace of mind, all 9-3s come with OnStar tracking.
Other class luxuries found in the new 9-3 include remote window and sunroof operation, perimeter lighting at night, automatic dimming interior mirror, and a convenient, integrated garage door remote.
With the culmination of GM's global Epsilon platform and huge advancements in Saab chassis development, the new front-driver appears an ideally matched amalgam of drivetrain, suspension and surrounding skin.
The chassis, which features a longer wheelbase (by 71mm) and wider (by 55mm) tracks, notably improves the structural integrity. It's more than 200% stiffer in torsional rigidity over the prior model and nearly double that over the old Saab 900.
This stiffness markedly helps anchor the suspension, which is comprised of a standard MacPherson strut configuration up front and four-link independent, coil-spring setup at the rear. Both front and rear suspensions are mounted on rubber-isolated subframes, each with anti-roll bars for further rigidity. Additionally, and for improved steering response, the front subframe now also serves as a mounting place for the steering rack, allowing it to be physically lower than its former firewall location, which helps eliminate unwanted forces on the steering.
Saab's new ReAxs passive rear-wheel-steering, designed to aid stability during cornering, is yet another impressive aid to spirited driving. As opposed to the rear-steering systems used by some other manufacturers, Saab's unique technology uses bushing deflection to create a slight amount of rear-wheel steering in the opposite direction from the fronts. Thanks to its four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and a host of other chassis dynamics, including a user-friendly electronic stability program (ESP) and cornering brake control (CBC), the sedan is superbly equipped to handle a variety of dynamic scenarios.
These significant changes in chassis architecture have immensely improved the 9-3's road manners overall, with especially noteworthy gains in corner-to-corner positive handling and the complete absence of any noticeable torque steer.
Stellar performance best describes the 9-3's engine line-up, characterized by strong off-the-line acceleration and good mid-range power. These attractive characteristics are largely attributed to Saab's tradition of turbo-inspired performance, but this time around the company reached even deeper into its engineering expertise for a better balanced delivery of the engine's power.The 9-3 houses one of two 4-cylinder variations of a new lightweight 2.0-liter, 16-valve twin overhead cam powerplant. Both fours are tagged with a 2.0 signature, but the base model, with 175 bhp and 195 lb-ft of torque, will be called a 2.0t. The high-pressure 210-bhp version with 221 lb-ft of torque is identified by 2.0T. Simple enough.
A third engine, a 125-bhp, 2.2-liter turbodiesel, will also be produced but is intended solely for the European market.
The two engines destined for our shores are essentially identical save for a difference in turbochargers and boost values. A Garrett GT20 turbocharger (with 10.2 psi) is used on the 175-bhp engine, while a larger Mitsubishi TDO4 (operating with 12.3 psi) is used on the 2.0T. The higher performing engine also features slightly more aggressive camshafts.
A major innovation for Saab is the in-board location of the turbocharger, behind the transversely mounted engine. This position allows quicker warm-up characteristics, as well as benefiting weight distribution. Even greater news is that neither engine suffers from turbo lag. Throttle response is remarkably quick and crisp, and the relatively mild intervention of the traction control system allows full-bore takeoffs without any annoying lulls in power delivery.Utilizing a bore and stroke of 86mm, the all-aluminum engine carries a Saab-unique four-valve cylinder head, maintenance-free chain-driven camshafts, counter-rotating balance shafts, a dual-mass flywheel and an integrated oil cooler. Operating parameters are controlled by the latest Trionic 8 version of Saab's own, 32-bit, in-house engine management system, said to be the most powerful in commercial production
Due to its all-aluminum construction, the engine is much lighter and more compact than its predecessor and is smoother and quieter. A unique "pendulum" engine mount was also fitted to reduce engine noise and related vibrations. Saab says the engine also operates with lower frictional losses for improved fuel consumption and lower exhaust emissions. And speaking of exhaust, the 9-3 emits an agreeable, throaty purr within the lower rpm range, then reaches a higher, precision-tuned pitch on its way up.
Three transmissions are available for the 9-3, including an updated five-speed manual (borrowed from the 9-5), a six-speed manual (Vector) and a five-speed automatic with Saab's semi-automatic Sentronic (with optional steering-wheel-mounted control). It was pleasing to see Saab offer its own version of this technology, however, it was the one area I feel needs more refinement. I found the position of the thumb-activated controls awkwardly placed, mounted too far forward, causing unwanted contact and some interference with the optional steering wheel audio buttons located just below. With some tweaking, this sport-oriented option will be a wonderful addition. There was talk of F1-style paddles sited behind the wheel, but nothing has been decided. Still, just the idea of a traditionally conservative automaker experimenting with these types of exciting features is very welcome.
The only other glitch in an otherwise wonderful new car--also related to shifting--was in the operation of the manual-shifted transmission. Although the system was redesigned with a more refined cable linkage, it still takes a long throw to find the next gear. Don't get me wrong; it's far superior to previous Saab shifters--but, considering the Vector's status as a performance sedan, a tighter shifter would have been a perfect fit.
Saab's extensive, and long, development of this newest platform looks to have paid off. I found this latest 9-3 to be a joy to drive, fast or slow--although I will admit faster is a bit more fun. While testing the car with a rather heavy right foot, the 9-3 proved very responsive to my request to delve far into the southeastern portion of the speedometer. I'm afraid I ruffled a few local feathers along the rural test route, and I'm not talking about the local fowl. Sweden has conservative speed limits, and my dash to well over the century mark had everyone but the military concerned.
This hard-charging character is beautifully tempered by excellent ride quality. The 9-3 is excessively quiet in regard to subduing exterior road noise, door closure and other related mechanical sounds, indicative of the car's many refinements.
With all this refinement, can we expect a lofty price increase for the new 9-3? Hardly. The entry-level Linear is being offered at the same MSRP as the 2002 model 9-3, beginning at $25,900. This makes it one of the best values within the segment. All 9-3s are covered under the Saab No Charge Scheduled Maintenance Program for 3 years or 36,000 miles.
In line with the company's investment, Saab has major plans for the 9-3 family, intending to build at least three, if not four, variants, including a convertible and an all-wheel-drive "crossover" vehicle.
Way back in 1955, the redesigned Saab 93 helped the Swedish company expand sales by opening the doors to international export. Nearly 50 years later, the new 9-3, with its multitude of rewarding features----should similarly open countless more doors across the world car market.
The Exhilarated Driver
During the early development stages of the new 9-3, Saab's chief chassis engineer, Ekkehard Schwartz, was asked to describe the car's core appeal. His immediate response was a quick sketch, but not of the car itself. He drew the image of an exhilarated driver.
The whole idea, Schwartz explained, was to build the car around the driver, focusing on achieving a rewarding, interactive experience behind the wheel. The key element of the sketch is the big grin on the driver's face, Schwartz emphasized. The pure joy of driving is, ultimately, what it's all about.
Schwartz' original sketch has now been adopted as the central image in an international marketing campaign to announce the arrival of Saab's first compact sports sedan. "My artistic abilities may be rather limited, but it is clearly the message that counts," he noted. "Although I think I'll stick to my career in chassis development work."
2003 Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan
ENGINE: All aluminum, inline four cyl., transverse mounted, turbocharged
Displacement: 2.0 liter
Bore x stroke: 3.38 in. x 3.38 in. (86mm x 86mm)
Max. power: 175 bhp @ 5500 rpm (2.0t); 210 bhp @ 5500 rpm (2.0T)
Max. torque: 195 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm (2.0t); 221 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm (2.0T)
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Max. boost: 0.70 bar (2.0t); 0.85 bar (2.0T)
Valvetrain: Double overhead chain-driven camshafts, four valves per cylinder, dual counter-rotating balance shafts
Aspiration: Watercooled turbocharger with intercooler
Engine management: Saab Trionic-8
Ignition/fuel injection: Direct ignition, multi-point fuel injection
TRANSMISSION: Front-wheel drive
Manual transmission: Fully synchronized five-speed or six-speed
Automatic transmission: Electronically controlled five-speed with Saab Sentronic manual selection, with optional steering wheel controls
Steering type: Power-assisted rack and pinion
Turning circle: 34.4 ft
Turns (lock to lock): 3.4
Curb weight: 3,175 lb; 3,285 lb
Max. gross weight: 4,340 lb; 4,450 lb
Distribution, front/rear: 60/40
Fuel capacity: 16.4 gal.
Trunk: 15.0 cu ft.