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Long-term Update: 2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

Sep 6, 2003
0310_01z+2003_Saab_93_Vector+Front_Driver_View Photo 1/1   |   Long-term Update: 2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

"Super-model with great personality, MBA, Ph.D, loves kids, animals, home improvement, sports, music, canyon runs, blasts to Las Vegas, gourmet cooking. ISO like-minded individual. No fatties."

It's rare to find a personal ad like the one above. And if you did, would you find it believable? Probably not. Such goodness usually comes at a hefty price. In regard to the Saab 9-3 Vector, however, it is pretty much spot on. My grandma once told me to marry a beautiful, intelligent woman, because, as she put it, "You're going to be looking at that face for a long time." If you're looking for a great automotive commitment, you could do worse than hook up with a new Saab. The 2003 9-3 Vector blends utility and performance into what I think is the sexiest, most capable car Saab's ever built. It's got the sort of go-anywhere, do-anything personality that makes it a great choice for schlepping the kids to school, week-end blasts to the mountains or the rare times the Mrs. and I play dress-up and go out like we did in 13 b.c. (13 years ago, before children). We're hip, randy 30-year-olds once again as we chuck the keys to the valet and watch the Vector assume an alpha position in the parking grid.

I've been driving our Saab for nearly 2 months, traversing the extremes of the western coast, and have found it more than capable of doing everything asked of it. It's got a few quirks, but they're out-numbered by so much sheer goodness, you forget them.

A few years ago ec staffers drove a 9-5 Aero wagon for some 30,000 miles. When we returned it to Saab, I cried myself to sleep that night. It was a great car and was mourned for weeks. The new 9-3 promises to have the same effect. I think it looks hot, standing still or blasting through turn 9 at Willow Springs. Compared to its predecessor, the 9-3 is 2.1-in. wider and 2.8-in. longer but features shorter overhangs, so the car now looks muscular and purposeful. The change from hatchback to proper sedan has done wonders to its form. A few onlookers have seemed positively baffled there's not a big V8 lurking under the raked hood. The Vector package takes it a step further with understated side sills, bumper extensions, front and rear spoilers and 17-in. alloy wheels. At speed, the 9-3 Vector punches a very small hole in the air with a 0.28 Cd, the lowest of all contemporary sport sedans. At 80 mph in sixth gear, the Vector turns a paltry 2450 rpm, and the cabin is quiet enough to hear your passenger's thoughts. During a recent 600-mile road trip, the Vector recorded 31 mpg on the highway; I probably could have done better had I stayed out of hard boost and under triple digits. Perhaps the only downside to the Vector body is its front-end clearance. Although the lower front lip spoiler is very pliable, it scrapes over all but the smallest of inclines. However, it is comprised entirely of a black polymer so scrapes don't really show, and it detaches easily from the lower bumper for easy replacement.

The Vector's sport-tuned suspension and low-profile rubber (225/45R-17 P Zero Rossos) provide a superb compromise between comfort and control. On high-speed stretches, the Saab hunkers down and tracks with laser-like precision. Over the twisty bits, the Vector's chassis exhibits very little roll and overcomes road irregularities well. Through one of SoCal's popular canyons, the Vector and a new M3 played follow-the-leader, and the Saab performed admirably. Sure, the BMW tore up the straights, but through the corners the Saab was right there--not bad considering it was packing 100 fewer ponies. Unlike its older siblings, the 9-3 is not so apt to push (understeer) under hard cornering loads.

The new four-link rear suspension layout (Saab ReAxs) dials in passive rear-wheel steer via careful tuning of both inboard and outboard suspension bushings. Basically, the tail of the car follows the front wheels for more precise turn-in. And while this does great things to the front-hooker, Saab's over-zealous traction control can step in too soon and shut down the fun. ESP is great in snow, rain and ice, but on dry surfaces it's too aggressive. I don't like the power turned off so quickly and turn off ESP the moment I get in our Vector, turning it back on in crappy weather.

Saab's new generation of all-aluminum turbocharged engines does all the good things. Rather than spike hard and leave you wrestling with the steering wheel, the power comes on in a much more linear fashion. And there is no more torque steer. Period. The six-speed gearbox and cable shifter have made shifting duties much better--decent as opposed to sloppy, but there is still room for improvement. The Vector's steering feedback is very good, exhibiting good on-center balance and letting you know what's going on at the front wheels. Saab has done a great job reducing unsprung weight through extensive use of aluminum suspension bits bolted to the most rigid body shell it has ever produced. The damn thing is tight and feels very much like a sports car.

We use the Vector as the daily lunch-run car; it has enough room to ferry four adults in genuine comfort. The Vector package includes the ES2 audio system (150 watts, 13 speakers/in-dash six-CD player/radio); it is one of the best stereo systems I have heard. The radio controls are a little funky and require some time to learn, but the remainder of the cabin is laid out beautifully and covered with a tasteful blend of leather and synthetic materials. I also use this car as my photo-rig, because the rear 60/40 fold-down seats give me enough room for copious amounts of gear and allow me to shoot from the open trunk..

In the 2 months since our Vector was delivered, we've managed to put nearly 5,000 miles on the clock. The 9-3 succeeds on many levels: It's handsome, fast, tenacious and very utilitarian. Oh yeah, it's also a lot of fun. If you're looking for a life-mate, the 9-3 might just be the one.

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