- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

Well, it probably had to happen eventually. Saab, the Swedish car manufacturer renowned for carving its own roads through motordom’s competitive minefield, is slipping into the mainstream.
  
  And bragging about it.
  
  The vehicle is the 2003 Saab 9-3 sedan, a competitor in the near-luxury sport-sedan category to the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Acura TL, Lexus IS, Cadillac CTS, Infiniti G35, Lincoln LS and Volvo S60. That’s a tough group to play with, but it’s not as if Saab hasn’t been in the game before.
  
  Except now it’s a sedan. That likely won’t mean much to anybody but Saab devotees, but it’s an important distinction.
  
   See, up until now, the 9-3 has distinguished itself by offering the practicality of a hatchback sometimes called a five-door sedan.
  
  Ordinarily, you would consider a hatchback as an advantage. It offers more trunk space, and you can expand the cargo capability by simply folding the rear seat and removing the security shade. Simplicity itself. Practicality itself.
  
  One major glitch: For reasons that defy logic as automotive choices often do American car buyers, especially in this class, simply don’t cotton to hatchbacks. Europeans do, but we don’t.
  
  Saab’s researchers deduced that, with a few minor exceptions, the 9-3’s competitors are all four-door sedans with conventional luggage compartments.
  
   They also figure that 75 percent of their potential customers are shopping for a sedan, compared with the 16 percent looking for a hatchback.
  
  Mixing their metaphors somewhat, Saab’s leaders say the 9-3 now will swim in the deep instead of the shallow end of the pool, and will fish where the fish are.
  
  The new 9-3 is the bait and, though it’s not likely to hook even a plurality of the potential prospects, it is tantalizing.
  
  Start with the styling. From the front, with its distinctive grille, it has a traditional Saab look.
  
   In profile, it now resembles a BMW 3-Series. So far, so good. Viewed from the rear, however, it could be any number of compact economy cars.
  
  From the driver’s seat, it’s a sports sedan with quick moves and nice tactile sensations through the steering wheel and pedals. That applies across the lineup, which is distinguished mainly by power and trim levels.
  
  In Saab’s fussy nomenclature, there are three models: The Linear, Arc and Vector, with the last at the top of the line. Saab introduced the Linear first, buttressed by an optional “launch package” that includes 16-inch alloy wheels, an in-dash six-disc CD changer in an upgraded stereo system, a motorized sunroof and a power driver’s seat.
  
  The package adds $2,595 to the base price of $26,525, for a total of $29,120, which is less costly than most of the competition.
  
  The base car includes a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that sends 175 horsepower to the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox.
  
  A five-speed automatic transmission is optional. Arc and Vector models get the same basic engine, but boosted to 210 horsepower and mated to either the five-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission.
  
   The manual Arc starts at $30,620 and the Vector at $33,120.
  
  Sports sedan aficionados likely will choose one of the stick shifts, and they won’t be disappointed. They both shift crisply, without any of the chunky feel of some of Saab’s earlier manual gearboxes.
  
  Clutch action is light and progressive, making the 9-3 easy to drive smoothly.
  
  For a lot of customers, the 175-horsepower engine will be satisfactory. Figure zero-to-60 acceleration times in the seven- to eight-second range, which is certainly respectable.
  
  Yet there’s not enough oomph to produce much in the way of torque steer that harsh jerk of the steering wheel when the power hits the front wheels under hard acceleration.
  
   However, torque steer does intrude some with the more powerful engine.
  
  With a nicely tuned four-wheel independent suspension system, the 9-3 cuts corners with alacrity as good or better than most of its competitors.
  
   And it’s a good ride besides, taut though compliant on rough surfaces. The front bucket seats are large and well-shaped for enthusiastic driving, though they could stand a trifle more side-to-side bolstering.
  
  Inside, the tested 9-3 Linear has the understated look that finds favor with sports sedan enthusiasts.
  
  Textures are in shades of black and gray on the dash, complemented by a three-spoke sport steering wheel.
  
   In its only nod to Saab tradition, the 9-3 still has the ignition switch down on the center console, instead of up on the dash or steering column as in most other cars.
  
  Saab traditionalists will mourn the demise of the hatch, and some no doubt will loudly complain that their beloved marque has succumbed to crass commercialism because the car division of Sweden’s stolid Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolaget now is owned by General Motors.
  
  But if this new move works, as well it might, their bleating will be lost in a clamor of buy orders.

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