The staff remembers with great fondness the Saab 9-5 wagon long-termer that graced our garage in 2001. It was trouble-free, practical, comfortable and powerful, great for long-distance cruising, parts hauling and plain just having fun with.
On the other hand, our most recent stints in the previous generation Saab 9-3 left us hungering for more--balanced handling, modern ergonomics and a fresh look. It's not that we hated the old 9-3, it's just that it was running a lap down from the competition.
Then that changed with the new 9-3. We previewed the car in our October 2002 issue, in which I reported on a drive in Sweden of a "base" 175-bhp version. To say I was quite taken with the car is an understatement. So much better was it than its predecessor that I wrote, "The new 9-3 is nothing less than a very big statement from a small group of passionate protectors of the Saab faith." Still, one day's drive on smooth Swedish roads isn't enough to judge whether the restyled sedan has the goods to compete in a very tough segment. So many excellent cars are available in the $25,000-$35,000 range that even experts have a tough time recommending a "best" car out of them all.
We decided to wait for a chance at the top dog in the 9-3 lineup, and it wasn't until the end of April that a new 9-3 Vector showed up in the parking lot. Dressed in black with a Parchment (think lighter than beige and much more agreeable to the eye) interior, it had been used for a short time as a press launch car, so about 3,000 miles were already on the clock when it was delivered.
The black sports sedan is equipped with the stronger of the two four-cylinder all-aluminum turbo engines offered in the 9-3. The 2.0-liter 16-valver is rated at 210 bhp at 5500 rpm, with an impressive 221 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm. (The base engine outputs 175 bhp.) It's controlled by Saab's vaunted Trionic engine management system, now called Trionic 8. For the new 9-3, Trionic now incorporates engine start-up and temperature control, plus further refinements for improving torque management and throttle response among its many duties. As an example of its sophistication, Trionic 8 monitors ionization rates at each spark plug, which involves about two million calculations per second, to individually control and adjust the combustion process for each cylinder.
We like to row the gearshift lever, so ordered it up with the six-speed manual transmission, passing on the optional five-speed Sentronic box. It's an all-new six-speed with improved syncromesh for more precise shifting, and double output shafts for lightness and compact size. The sixth gear is very tall for economical cruising.
Chassis dynamics are also much improved, beginning with a longer wheelbase and wider track. Front suspension is MacPherson strut, the lower A-arms mounted on a rubber-isolated subframe, plus coil springs and an anti-roll bar; in the rear is a four-link independent setup, including Saab's new Re-Axs passive rear-wheel steering system. Advanced electronics aid the stability of the car, including Electronic Stability Program, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Cornering Brake Control and Traction Control System. It sounds obtrusive as hell, but Saab's engineers tuned the various aids to be virtually transparent, retaining the feeling of driver control over all dynamic ranges. The front and rear disc brakes are larger than the previous 9-3 and, of course, are augmented by ABS.
The body itself is much more torsionally rigid than before, adding to Saab's already excellent levels of passive safety. Restraint systems include seatbelt pre-tensioning and load limiting for front seats, combined with dual-stage front airbags, seat-mounted side airbags and new side curtain airbags. A Saab innovation, and now in its second generation, Active Head Restraints help prevent neck injuries for front seat occupants during rear-end collisions. Options on the $32,495 Vector are the Touring Package ($1,195), which consists of rain-sensing wipers, Saab Parking Assist, bi-xenon headlights and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. The power glass sunroof added $1,100 to the base price, front heated seats tallied another $495, and including the $625 destination charge the total MSRP for the Vector model was $35,910.
Over the next year we'll be putting the Saab through the rigors of L.A. freeways, have it climb high into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, traverse the heat of Death Valley, and even, maybe worst of all, use it to ferry children around town. Stay tuned.
Interview: Michael Mauer,
Executive Director, Saab Design
"One of my tasks is never to be satisfied, always be looking for the next step."
Saab has recently spent $450 million to upgrade machinery, expand facilities and production capacity while planning to sell 200,000 cars a year by 2008 (up from the current 130,000). Saab has a lot riding on the new 9-3 and it's upcoming variants. Three years ago, Michael Mauer left Mercedes-Benz, where he was responsible for the SLK and Smart, to join Saab. While the designs for the 9-5's facelift and new 9-3 were already frozen--"I say I'm responsible for the 9-3 wheel program," he said, bemoaning the auto industry's long lead times--the affable 40-year-old German guided the creation of the iconic 9X concept car and will be responsible for the upcoming 9-3 convertible and all other 9-3 variants. Saab has a lot riding on Michael Mauer and his vision. I spent an hour talking with him. Some excerpts. Why Saab?
"A lot of journalists ask me why I left Mercedes, a big company and strong brand. One of the things that attracted me to Saab is that the company has always stood for individualistic cars. Peter Augustsson [Saab's global president and CEO] especially was asking for this, knowing you have to be distinctive to be successful in the marketplace. What he offered me was a chance to be a part of the journey, to be kind of a co-pilot and not a passenger sitting in back waiting to react. There is a great opportunity here to set up, together with others, the destination where we are heading. That is such an attractive thing, you can't resist."
On Being Executive Director
"In the end, it is the major task of the chief designer to initiate discussion, to motivate the designers to think in different directions and--since these guys are so involved in their daily business--to recognize, to sense, to feel, that there is something new in the sketch. Sometimes the designers are not even aware of it, and I see something else. Based on cross-functional discussion, I push it in a certain direction. Design is always teamwork. But, for sure, I'm a human being, and I push in directions I'm convinced about.
"I hope that I can influence a lot, but we are just one unit of a big company. It is a daily fight. Some days you are frustrated, sometimes you are happy. But that is just part of the business and something all designers go through."
On The Move To Sedans and Forsaking The Hatchback
"Saab has ignored the very attractive segment of smaller premium sedans. Most of our competitors make a lot of money in this segment, and we just ignored it. We did our hatchback car, which a lot of people loved. In Great Britain they are screaming, but in the U.S. people love their sedans, and we will be able to grow. That was one of the major reasons to move away from hatchbacks. I personally regret this. I think if you did a hatchback in the right way, there is a lot of potential. I have it on my personal agenda for the portfolio."
On Designing For Saab
"I think a slight advantage, maybe, is that Saab customers expect Saab to be different. If you look at other company's customers, they might be shocked if the new product is really pushing the limits. In terms of Saab, I think people are much more willing to accept these steps might be a little bolder. On the other hand, the history of Saab shows us that some of the cars that created this reputation, in the end, people didn't buy."
"You will see a lot of very interesting solutions in the future. Design mores are changing, our customers are changing and you have to respect this. That is partly what we tried to do with the 9X, not for just the sake of being different but to better meet the requirements and expectations of our customers. In the case of the 9X, I consider myself one of the targeted customer group. I would love to have exactly this car. There is a lot from myself poured into this car. "Since Saab would like to have sporty, multi-dynamic cars, and these are the cars I would like to have, the approach is pretty much 'I draw the car I would love to drive.' This helps me a lot. I can identify myself with this company. For me, it would be much tougher to create a Maybach or Rolls-Royce. It would still be fun, but I don't see myself in a Rolls."
On Working With A Company With Fewer Resources Than Mercedes
"I'm not complaining. Tooling is very expensive to change, and you have to be more disciplined. You know the decision you take is the final decision, and you can't fiddle around later. That's fine, but I had to learn this."
"The front of the car is the most important. There are a lot of other elements we go through, but in the end the front makes the biggest impact. I always explain to the designers what I want with pictures.
"As a designer, you always want to be very progressive. But there are examples in the car industry where the product was too far ahead, the stone was thrown too far, and it was impossible for the average customer to follow. On the other hand, if you want to create a product that creates an impact, you have to go further."
On The State Of Saab Design
"In one corner you have Mercedes and Saab and Audi, etc., and the Mercedes is saying, 'I'm the Mercedes!' while the 9-5 is raising it's left front tire and saying, 'But hey, I want to be part of your group.' The 9-3 has a little bit more self-confidence, more shape, is more three-dimensional and is already telling you, 'Hey, I'm here as well, so respect me.' The 9X, and this is the picture I gave the designers, tells everybody, 'I'm Saab and you better get out of my way!'"
"Car designing has always been a compromise. If we go back 20 years, there was a package that was set up by engineering. These dimensions and hard points were given to designers whose task was to wrap it nicely. A lot of cars really show they were engineered rather than designed. It was always the design dept. that had to compromise when engineering wanted to have something."
"Now, more and more, in part due to technical solutions, manufacturers have recognized that design has become the major differentiator. There is a different prioritization; now engineering has to follow design much more than they are used to!
"Three years ago, when I joined Saab, I set up an Advanced Design Group whose only task is to work together with the engineering community in a very, very, very early stage to influence the hard points, the packaging, in a way that later on when you start to wrap the cars gives you a much better base.
"You can't measure design. There are always two or three or four solutions, and the designer is claiming, for the look of the car, this is the best solution. But it may not be the cheapest; it might require engineering to change some hard point. This looking for new solutions is giving them a hard time; they are under a lot of time pressure. There are a lot of reasons people tend to say, 'Isn't it much easier if design just quickly changes?' It has a lot to do with trust and confidence, because it is so hard to prove that this solution will be more successful than that one.
"I'm crazy about cars. I love to drive. You have guys in development who are responsible for the engine, the transmission or the suspension. Design is responsible for the whole car. You start with a small sketch and, if you're lucky, in a couple of years you drive this car. I believe, in the end, if I succeed, there will be a part of Micheal Mauer in all the new product. That is what makes this job so attractive. I love it."
"You will see a lot of very interesting solutions in the future. Design mores are changing, our customers are changing and you have to respect this."
"I'm crazy about cars. I love to drive. You have guys in development who are responsible for the engine, the transmission or the suspension. Design is responsible for the whole car."