This Saab 9-3 Vector is a surprising mix. I get used to the turbo torque, and appreciate it. I manage to pretty much not think about the rest of the car, until a friend I'm taking somewhere, or a total stranger at a gas station, tells me how good looking they think it is. Saab has placed a great deal of emphasis on styling lately, and its efforts have been utterly successful.
Thank goodness Saab is all turbo, all the time. Saab is GM's world center of turbocharging technology, a position it has earned honestly. Its Trionic engine management system is potentially more capable than any other. When it is combined with better-matched, more modern turbos, Saab's power delivery and driveability puts VAG's 1.8t to shame.
The 9-3 Vector's engine is superb. Its acceleration is respectable in the company of any comparable compact European sedan, and outstanding in cool weather. Saab reengineered virtually every component of GM's Ecotec engine save the block to make it into a Saab turbo motor. Unfortunately, the basic sound of the engine is determined largely by the resonance characteristics of the block itself, and at idle, outside the vehicle or with the windows down, the Saab still sounds like a Cavalier. Insulation is sufficient that this is not noticed inside the cabin.
The 9-3's engine is mechanically stout. I am told that drag racers building 800-bhp Ecotecs are seeking out Saab cylinder heads. Chevrolet heads are cast with a lost-foam process that yields more precise dimensions but leaves impurities in the material. Saab's conventional, sand-cast heads are stronger, and I'm guessing the ports flow better, too. If one knew one's way around Trionic well enough, the 400-hp street Saab would be a possibility.
When I sat in the 9-3 for the first time, my initial impression was that the dash reminded me of an E39 5 Series, refreshingly conservative in a time when dashboard styling often overrules function. Some details bothered me, though. There is noticeable flash at many mold parting lines throughout the interior, and other fine points of fit and finish are visibly cheaper than Audis and even many Japanese cars. As I have spent more time in the car, though, these details no longer pop out at me. Passengers have all dug on the pop-out cupholder. It's simpler and more elegant than Mercedes' opening-flower design, if not manufactured as perfectly.
As is typical of inexpensive instruments, the 9-3's engine can easily outrun its tach. Even in second gear, on an uphill freeway entrance ramp, the lurch of the rev limiter occurs at an indicated 5500 rpm, rather than the 6300 redline. This 9-3's shifter is behind the curve of state of the art, but it is at least a vast improvement over the old 9-3's clunker. The six speed is a nice little transmission.
I hope that one day Saab will turn the same level of attention toward suspension tuning and handling that it has so far directed at engines, styling and safety. In tuning the 9-3's suspension, Saab sacrificed nearly every other characteristic to prevent the occupants from ever feeling the impact of the front side of a bump. The springs are very soft, with progressive rates for load capacity and generous supplemental polymer springs. Saab shied away from compression damping, attempting to compensate with extra rebound damping. The rebound is especially pronounced in the rear, which does at least help turn-in. The strategy sort of works.
When you go over one, or a series of widely spaced, small road imperfections, the Saab's suspension soaks them up almost invisibly. The impacts of larger bumps are felt more sharply, and the recovery is less than ideal. On one particularly rough road, the dampers actually jacked the suspension down onto the supplemental springs, in the really stiff, progressive range of its travel.
Such a highly progressive suspension has its downside in handling, too. First, it uses up a lot of travel on the outside of the car when cornering, so smaller bumps get into the higher spring rates and disturb the car more. When cornering very hard, the car tends to move its roll axis from the center of the vehicle toward the outside tires, as the working spring rate rises on the outside and falls on the inside. It's less intuitive and confidence inspiring for the driver, and though the average person doesn't recognize what's happening, their inner ear knows its unnatural. On a mountain road, one doesn't have to be driving very hard for passengers to become woozy.
Tall gears and turbo torque make the Saab an awesome high-speed cruiser. Like the 9-5 Aero wagon we loved for a year, the 9-3 is a 90-mph, continent-crossing sofa. I filled the tank at the California state line returning from Las Vegas, drove home and a round trip across LA, plus some errands. The tank average was 338 miles at 27 mpg, truly exceptional for any vehicle in european car's fleet. When your road is straight to the horizon, the 9-3 Vector is a nearly perfect car.