It was during one of those mid-morning editorial meetings that usually lose their focus around lunchtime. The procedure is to continue the rap over eats at one of usual bistros. It was Editor Brown's choice this time, so Exec. Ed. Collins and I waited outside while he fetched his ride. As I was being deeply excoriated for some late copy by Collins, I didn't notice what I was climbing into, so, slouched in the back seat, I asked Ed. Brown what we were in, and without muttering a word, he pointed downward, between the front seats.
If there has been one constant from the Saab 99 to the current 9-3, it has been the location of the ignition key. I am serious; I really didn't realize what car I was in until the key was pointed out. I say this with some embarrassment, as I have spent a fair amount of time around Saabs and have even owned a few. It shows just how much the current administration from Trollhaettan has transformed its cars. I wonder, though, if the identity or soul of Saab is being lost and it will eventually turn into just another car company, the nightmare of many a Saab enthusiast since GM took over (quick, what's the Swedish word for Saturn?).
How good is the 9-3 Vector? As a performer, it is very good. The 2.0-liter turbo four-banger pumps out an honest 210 ponies at 5500 rpm. A quick run through the gears makes it feel like an aftermarket chip has already been installed, with a smoothness lacking in many of its similarly priced competitors. Straight off, this may the best overall performer in an already overcrowded class.
My previous ride for a week had been our Mercedes Benz C230K Sport, and comparisons to the 9-3 serve several useful points. Let's start with the gearbox. The ratios of the six-speed in the Saab are well matched, and sixth is very comfortable for those long economy runs with the revs buried low on the tach. The Benz, by comparison, requires the driver to be very busy. At times I found myself looking down at the shifter to check what gear I was in, and I was constantly hitting the engine cut-off in first as I tried to get the most out of the motor. Saab's gearbox is perfectly matched to the 2.0 turbo, which pulls strongly throughout the rev range, and I was pleased at how responsive the 9-3 was in almost any situation. The new platform, courtesy of GM, has helped instead of hurt the 9-3's handling. This package is an altogether different animal than its predecessor's underpinnings.
In terms of its looks, it will be interesting to see where new head of design, Michael Mauer, will be taking Saab. Mauer's time at Mercedes is well respected, but with Saab he will get the rare opportunity to establish his vision for future models.
So let's get to the few missiles I have to hurl. Where all of the car's goodness comes undone is from one of the most complicated dash layouts I have ever experienced. While I have no doubt that spending a few minutes with the manual would educate me to a decent understanding of how everything works, that isn't the reason why I like to drive a car. There are very few cars that require such an initial effort. (I leave iDrive out of this rant.) The multi-function radio/CD system is frustratingly ambiguous in operation, and dealing with it in traffic is not recommended.
This seems to a case of being too clever for the sake of being clever. Electronics have replaced mechanicals as the number-one warranty problem these days, so is it really necessary to have miles of wiring for features that sound cool but don't contribute to the reason for wanting a particular car in the first place?
The Saab 9-3 has almost everything going for it: design, great mechanicals, first-rate construction and high quality. Now if they would just clean up the mess on the dash.