- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

When confronted with the terms "Linear, Arc and Vector," one might feel he/she is entering a trigonometry class. Not so in this case, for those words describe the three trim levels of Saab's new 9-3 sports sedan.

Happily, Saab's engineers used trigonometry and vast amounts of other branches of mathematics to create a terrific new car, so the only math the customer has to perform is deciding which model to buy.

The all-new Saab 9-3 is the company's first foray into the premium, compact sport-sedan segment currently dominated by the likes of Audi A4, Volvo S60 and BMW 3-series.

These are fun-to-drive, stylish cars that are well balanced, comfortable and offer a considerable amount of feedback to the driver.

That means, simply, that buyers flock to this segment because they really enjoy the driving experience. Those buyers should rejoice, because now there's another strong competitor in the 9-3.

Based on GM's Epsilon platform, the 9-3 is the most extensive product development in Saab's history.

Its styling is a combination of aggressiveness, sporty yet refined, but with enough traditional Saab features to remain "one of the family."

Sharing the Epsilon platform, Saab capitalized upon GM's ownership to reap everything it needed from GM's vast storehouse of technology for the development program.

That yielded an incredibly stiff chassis, new powertrain, five-speed automatic and six-speed manual gearboxes, passive rear-wheel steering, enhanced safety and the incorporation of GM's OnStar telematics system.

The base model 9-3 Linear is a bargain, starting at $25,900 in five-speed manual configuration (all models offer a five-speed Selectronic automatic transmission for an additional $1,200).

For that money the buyer gets a new 2-liter, 175-horsepower turbocharged engine, leather seats, electronic stability control, power windows and locks, heated outside mirrors, cruise control, premium audio system (150 watts with CD player), 12 months of OnStar, and even fog lights. No-charge scheduled maintenance comes with all models.

Also, a special "launch package" is available through Dec. 2, which features a seven-speaker Infotainment system, power sunroof, color-matched exterior trim, 16-inch wheels and power driver's seat. It adds $2,595 to the price.

The upscale Arc is fitted with the same 2-liter engine, tweaked out to 210 horsepower and coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox.

At $29,995 the Arc adds premium wood trim, automatic climate control, a 300-watt 13-speaker sound system, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass and express up/down power windows with remote control.

Both the Linear and Arc deliver a near-perfect combination of handling, braking and ride that makes for pleasant driving and superb control.

Whether lazily rolling over the countryside or blasting through an autocross track (we had the opportunity to do both), the car feels very much like an extension of the driver's arms and legs.

Its unique passive rear-wheel steering, while only adding in a fraction of a degree of wheel angle, makes it track authoritatively into turns.

For all its performance, the 9-3 remains quiet and comfortable, with a very compliant ride that belies its low-profile tires. Acceleration is always smooth, strong and without the fussiness exhibited by so many small-displacement, high-revving engines.

For the serious enthusiast, Saab offers the Vector. It is characterized by a Sport exterior body trim, 17-inch wheels, higher-rate dampers, larger-diameter stabilizer bars, matte chrome interior trim and Sport Seat, one of the most comfortable in the business.

It's a world-class driver, but a bit too stiff and jouncy for everyday commuting purposes.

The Sport Seat should be an available option for the Linear and Arc, but at present it isn't.

No matter which model one chooses, the 9-3 is one of the safest cars on the road.

Its body and subframes are engineered to provide maximum crash protection.

Structural components are made from high-strength steel and all joints are designed to deflect and/or absorb energy through three distinct "load paths" to prevent injury to the passengers.

Its "B" pillar even bends inward at the bottom, deflecting lateral forces downwards toward the floor, away from the more sensitive occupant head and chest areas.

Inside are second-generation active head restraints, side-curtain airbags, adaptive front airbags and seatbelt load limiters.

Added to these are standard electronic driver aids including ABS, traction control, electronic brake-force distribution, cornering brake control, mechanical brake assist and electronic stability program.

All of these systems work independently or jointly to keep the car in control in virtually any situation.

Saab's new 9-3 is, simply, a joy to drive. It's fun, safe, roomy, comfortable and reasonably thrifty at the gas pump (22 miles per gallon city, 31 miles per gallon highway). It's one fine car.

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