- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

Saab’s 2003 9-3 looks more mainstream than its predecessors, but drivers still have to insert the ignition key into the car’s center console.

Welcome to Saab’s world, where new and old mix uniquely in a sporty four-door that Saab officials want shoppers of all kinds to notice in the busy entry-luxury segment.

The 9-3 was redesigned and now rides on a new platform for 2003. There are new turbocharged four-cylinder engines. And the hatchback body style is gone.

Price is part of the new 9-3 story. With a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $26,670, the base 2003 9-3 Linear, which is a sedan, is some $2,200 less than the base 2002 model, which was a five-door hatchback.

The top 9-3 now, the performance-oriented Vector model, starts at just over $33,000.

In the 9-3, buyers get a sedan with European flavor, but it’s a distinctly different flavor than that in a German tourer.

There’s a solidity to the ride, a sense the 9-3 manages road bumps and still provides a sporty ride. But there’s less of a heavy, Teutonic feel than in some German models.

And the 9-3’s turbo engines add a different, and sometimes dramatic, power sensation. There’s real punch to be had here for assertive driving.

Auto critics debate the new styling of the 9-3, whose previous generation dates back to the 1994 model year. The name 9-3 was pegged to the vehicle in 1999.

Saabs always were known for a sort of odd, rounded — some call it egg-shaped — look. It fit over a hatchback body style.

But there’s no hatchback now as the 2003 9-3 is a sedan only, and the new styling — save for the trademark Saab grille — is so mainstream, it’s not readily recognizable as a Saab.

The new 9-3 sedan is about the same length, overall, as its 9-3 predecessor, but the wheelbase is longer — to 105.3 inches. The new car is a bit wider, too.

Inside, the eminently comfortable leather seats — they feel pliable, yet have substantial side seat bolsters — and tall cowl with trademark, multiadjustable vents are ready reminders this is a Saab.

That ignition — not up on the dashboard or steering column as in other vehicles, but down next to the drivers seat, in the center console as it is in other Saabs — is another big reminder.

So, too, is the Night Panel button that allows drivers to turn off all lighting of the instrumentation, save for the speedometer if they want a low-distraction driver setting.

The test car, the top 9-3 Vector with a price, including options, of more than $35,000, felt responsive in turns and pleasingly stayed on track in long, sweeping curves.

The steering wheel here is less beefy than on the earlier 9-3s. But its still sizable, not some small-diameter wheel as in some other sporty models.

Don’t let that fool you. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is very responsive and does a good job of transmitting street conditions to the driver. There’s no isolation from the road here.

There are two engines in the 9-3 now, both turbocharged, of course.

The standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine offers 175 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque at a low 2,500 rpm. It’s enough to easily provide spirited driving around town and on freeways.

The uplevel, 2.0-liter, double-overhead-cam, high-output, intercooled and turbocharged four-cylinder puts out 210 horses and 221 foot-pounds of torque at 2,500 rpm.

In the test 9-3 Vector, the engine packed strong power as I moved through the manual gearbox correctly, and I could easily tell, without looking at the turbo gauge in the instrument cluster, that this was a turbo at work.

In fact, if I didn’t drive with attention, it was easy to jerk my head — and those of my passengers — back roughly as the car responded readily to a heavy foot on the gas pedal.

Handling felt nicely balanced in this front-drive car.

The 17-inch Pirelli tires gripped strongly in aggressive maneuvers, and I never feared making evasive emergency lane changes because the rigid-feeling 9-3 Vector ably maintained its composure, even if I wasn’t quite certain I could keep mine.

Note that there can be some harshness in the ride in the Vector, however, on major road bumps.

The front suspension uses MacPherson struts. There’s a four-link configuration at the rear.

I liked that this car had roomy door handles outside that accommodate all sizes of hands, even with gloves and mittens on them.

Interior controls were within easy reach for me.

But the cupholder that sprang out from the dashboard had a bizarre, animal-trap look, and it wasn’t immediately clear how to get it back into the narrow slot on the dashboard.

The test car also had an intermittent alert that the OnStar emergency notification system had malfunctioned.

Despite the fact the hatchback is gone, the 9-3 retains some versatility as the rear seatbacks fold down. They didn’t go down flat in the tester, though, and I noticed those seatbacks are heavier than they are in many other cars.

Saabs have a reputation for safety, with the company responsible for many safety innovations over the years.

The new 9-3 includes curtain air bags, active head restraints that are designed to reduce whiplash and antilock brakes.

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