It was a hot August day, temperatures reaching well into the hundreds. The air conditioning in my house was being replaced, so the family's only relief was to get out of the house. We didn't even need a destination, just a nice long drive to wherever the road led. I loaded up the wife and three rascals, and we were soon enjoying fresh, crisp air flowing from the vents of european car's long-term Saab 9-3 Vector. "This air conditioning works really well," said my wife, sighing with relief and snuggling deeper into the leather seat.
"You're right, it's great," I replied. Surprisingly, I'd driven the car for weeks throughout the torrid Southern California summer, and I hadn't appreciated the A/C. My wife's comment made me realize how comfortable I'd become with the Saab, how it had become one of those good things in life you can take for granted because it never breaks or fouls up.
As the five of us kicked back in the deliciously cool cockpit, I jolted my mind out of neutral to think about other of the car's qualities I may have been taking for granted. Most notable is the performance. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four shows all the good faces of forced aspiration, and the Vector's six manually selected gears can be swiftly explored via improved shift action and clutch engagement. This new 9-3 is simply far easier to drive more quickly than the previous generation Saab.
The handling, especially when contrasted to the old 9-3, is equally impressive, though I'm careful never to demonstrate the car's high slip angles with human cargo aboard. Saab's ReAxs system-the rear wheels steer slightly in the direction of a turn when cornering-is complemented by stability and traction control systems, the result is a car that stays squarely on all fours and inspires a marked sense of security in the driver.
The Vector's Sport suspension includes 17-in. multi-spoke alloy wheels and performance-rated tires. As the car had endured severe track testing before it was delivered to us, little remained of the stock Pirelli P Zero Rossos. In our constant quest to sample as many tires as we can, we replaced them with a set of Nitto Neo Gen tires, size 225/45ZR17. Nitto's latest offering of high-performance rubber, featuring an asymmetrical tread pattern and slanted tread blocks, appears to be holding up well. Despite very aggressive miles early in their lifespan (when the family wasn't in the car!), they haven't chunked or shown other signs of distress, and they are quiet on most road surfaces.
I also think the Vector is visually appealing. Even my six-year-old son, who like any other normal kid prefers race cars, thinks it's cool-especially On-Star. Having driven that hot August day into an unfamiliar part of Los Angeles, I decided to try out the car's recently activated On-Star system in response to the loud chant spilling over from the rear seats ("McDonalds.McDonalds.McDonalds"). I pressed the button on the dash and a soft voice responded over the car's main speaker system: "Thank you for calling On-Star. Can I help you?" After a brief conversation with the representative-my 3-year-old daughter was convinced she was in a talking car (more cool factor points)-we were given the exact coordinates and were on our way. On-Star is a great addition to our long-termer and is far more valuable than just finding fast food fast. Got a flat tire? Contact On-Star and they direct Saab roadside assistance to your exact location. Can't find your car in a crowded parking lot? Call On-Star and they can flash your lights and honk the horn. Still can't find your car? On-Star theft tracking will. There's even an available concierge service, which can locate and route you to a great Italian restaurant and also book the best available table in the house.
As we arrived at Mickey D's and parked the car, I noticed two BMWs, a nicely modified E36 and E46 M3, sitting side by side. Judging from their owners' long stares, the jet-black Saab had really caught their attention. One of the drivers verbalized his approval: "Hey, that thing is pretty cool." Before I could respond, my son piped up, "We know."
Words: Greg N. Brown
european car has three cars in its fleet, each of which I would recommend to prospective buyers of a European sports sedan. The Saab 9-3, Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor and Volkswagen Passat W8 all are capable compacts in the best European tradition, delivering varying but generally above average levels of comfort and performance. However, they're far from interchangeable, and their distinctions go beyond their respective differences in drivetrain layout. There's a "personality" to each model that's separate from the technology, and it's this intangible but real quality that might sway a purchase decision more than 0 to 60 times or fuel economy. Were I simply to identify
a gestalt for each of these cars, I would characterize the Passat as the "friendliest" of the three, the Saab I would call "sincere" and the Mercedes "ambitious."
VW's first foray into the near-luxury segment is supremely comfortable, and its powertrain, though far from overwhelming, is not an underachiever. It's stolid, no-fault driving at its best, but it's also too thirsty for the available thrust and not quite powerful enough for the number of cylinders.
Saab's 9-3 has the advantage of being a clean-sheet car, which allowed engineers and designers the latitude to build a serious contender and not just a quirky niche player. It's good looking, has a competitive powerplant, and the passenger compartment invites its occupants to stretch out and relax. In Saab's attempt to broaden its share of the market, however, the 9-3 might be too much like that neighbor from down the block who's always there to help but whose face you can never remember.
And the Benz? It's the rich kid with brand new sneakers, running the 440 alongside faster, lighter competition. It's trying really hard to be a more exciting C-Class sedan, and it's an ambitious start to a continuing program. But, the flashy shoes and tauter suspension aren't enough. A manual transmission is welcome, but the length of the throws should be reduced and gear selection made a bit more positive, and it should be attached to a bigger engine.