In form and function, there never was an appliance that captured the imagination (and the wallet) of the American consumer quite like Apple Computer’s original iMac. Within half a year of its debut, it seemed that all other products, from toasters to toothbrushes, were trying to mimic Cupertino’s translucent masterpiece. That’s also how it is in the premium-sport-sedan market, where the BMW 3-Series is what’s hot. Mixing top-shelf luxury, muscularity, Teutonic good looks, and (relative) affordability, BMW created a cocktail that has the rest of the auto industry drunk with desire. Everybody, it seems, wants a Three.
Saab became the latest automaker to belly up to the bar when, for 2003, it introduced a reinvented 9-3-mainstreamed, sported-up, and sedan-shaped. Nerdy hatchback loyalists around the world were despondent over their brand’s apparent abandonment of them, but there was no denying the new car was eons more evolved than the one it replaced. So, after an enjoyable turn in a red 9-3 Vector during our annual All-Stars romp through Kentucky and Tennessee in the fall of 2002, we decided to spend a year with Trollhttan’s newest ride. Was it worthy of its crowned griffin emblem, or was it just the industry’s latest Three-peat?
Attempting to maintain some semblance of frugality but not wanting to spend four seasons feeling deprived, we selected the middle trim level for the 9-3, the Arc model. For a base price of $30,670, it came with leather seats, poplar wood trim, power everything, and the 210-horsepower turbocharged four (2.0T) from the top-trim Vector (since renamed Aero) in place of the base Linear model’s 175-horsepower version of the engine (2.0t).
Whatever we saved by choosing the Arc we squandered with a few checks on the optional-equipment order form. We ponied up for a metallic paint job ($475), Saab’s Sentronic five-speed manu-matic gearbox ($1200) in place of the standard six-speed manual, a power sunroof ($1100), heated front seats ($495, paired with headlamp washers), a set of seventeen-inch alloy wheels ($1000), and the Touring package ($1195), which included rain-sensing wipers, rear park assist, an in-dash six-disc CD changer, and truly spectacular bi-xenon headlamps. Good stuff, all of it, but when the smoke cleared, the bottom line for our car had bloated to $36,135.
Money issues aside, praise for the 9-3 flowed freely during its early days at 120 East Liberty. The car employs GM’s stiff and sophisticated Epsilon chassis architecture (which also underpins the new Chevrolet Malibu and the upcoming Pontiac G6). Those seventeen-inch wheels did give the car an aggressive look and feel, but the price paid was a jittery ride and a distinct aversion to “high-frequency, low-amplitude ridges-it would be a nightmare on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles,” as executive editor Mark Gillies noted.
Saab has been the master of the force-fed four-cylinder engine ever since the 99 Turbo showed up in 1978, and our 9-3’s high-output, 2.0-liter powerplant earned its share of accolades. Technical editor Don Sherman recorded a brisk 7.7-second 0-to-60-mph time, putting the car on par with most of its prime rivals, including the BMW 325i and the Audi A4 1.8T. The maddeningly elastic throttle response of the old 9-3’s engine has been softened some-what, making the new car far friendlier in city traffic, and that old Saab turbo hobgoblin, torque steer, is notably diminished, too. As one tester noted: “The steering is light and a bit vague on the highway, which is one way of getting rid of the wheel tug that plagued the old 9-3 under throttle.”
Yet, as pleasant as the engine proved, one staffer recalled the cylinder-count quandary that befell the old Lotus Esprit: “Why would buyers shell out premium bucks for four high-strung cylinders when they could have an easy six under the hood for the same money?” Well, fuel economy is a good reason: we usually matched the EPA-stated 21 mpg around town and 30 mpg on the interstate-not bad, considering the engine’s 105-horsepower-per-liter output.
The interior was roundly praised. Gillies again: “The quality is very good: mostly soft-touch plastics and lots of rubberized, good-to-touch buttons, and the way of accessing all the driver info is so intuitive, it makes you wonder whether Saab actually is part of General Motors.” To which Sherman barked back, “Intuitive?” He then bullet-pointed half a dozen of the cockpit’s less-than-intuitive aspects, including some fifty (by his count) tiny buttons on the instrument panel, the Saab-trademark floor-mounted ignition, and a headlamp switch that turns on with a counterclockwise twist (picky, picky). He then pointed out the 256-page owner’s manual, “not counting an infotainment supplement.”
There were a few mechanical problems. Early on, some staffers wrote of cold-start issues, and there were mentions in the logbook of stalling in below-freezing temperatures.
At 16,588 miles, the driver’s-side window fell off its track.
At 23,364 miles, the 9-3’s keylike electronic fob (there is no key in the traditional sense) refused to recognize the car: The door locks wouldn’t work, and the engine wouldn’t start. The car was extricated from our parking garage and towed to the service department at Ann Arbor’s Goodman Automotive Group, where tests confirmed the key-fob transponder failure ($204.70, replaced under warranty). Further testing indicated an engine misfire, which may have had something to do with the aforementioned cold-start issues. A check of the spark plugs revealed heavy carbon deposits; plugs were replaced, and the engine’s idle speed was raised by 40 rpm. Two frustrating weeks passed before the car returned to 120 East Liberty.
At 25,167 miles, an apparent electrical fault (possibly caused by a map light left on) caused the battery to drain and die, so we were back at Goodman for a replacement. On a hunch, the plugs were pulled and checked. They were fouled again-and replaced again under warranty. Confidence in the Saab started to fade, and it began to languish on the test-car sign-out board.
At 27,668 miles, complaints about a severe shudder during acceleration prompted yet another visit to Goodman. Once again, a diagnostic test revealed evidence of misfiring. To address suspected ignition-system issues, plugs were changed out, and the number 2 and 3 coils were switched. The problem persisted, so the number 2 fuel injector was replaced, which solved the predicament.
At 27,701 miles, we filled up the 9-3 for the last time; its twelve months with us drew to a close not with a bang but with a whimper. And yet, despite underhood uncertainties, the question “How was it?” seemed strangely less important than “Why is it?” No one seemed sure where this compact Saab for the new era fit into the automotive firmament. Senior editor Joe Lorio wrote, “When I first drove this car, I pondered what would make it stand out among the vast field of $30,000-or-so sport sedans, many of which are exemplary autos. I still wonder. The 9-3 is not a standout in any area. That’s bad news for a small-volume brand in a segment where automotive excellence is widespread.”
Our 9-3 never managed to win the collective heart of Automobile Magazine. Sure, it had its early advocates on the staff, including this writer, engaged by its pleasant front-wheel-drive dynamics and attractive profile and still charmed by the last wisps of Saab non-conformity. But questionable reliability sapped our enthusiasm, and a wave of fine new rivals-including the Acura TSX, the Infiniti G35, and the new Volvo S40-pushed the 9-3 farther into the shadows.
It’s always a little sad when a once headstrong, thoroughly vital old brand loses its way. Saab built a reputation and earned a loyal following for-as the ad line goes-finding its own road, not for merging into rush-hour traffic. As World War II drew to a close and demand for military planes dried up, Sweden’s premier aircraft manufacturer, Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget-abbreviated SAAB-determined that its survival depended on diversification. In addition to pre-fabricated houses, ready-made kitchens, and home appliances, the company considered engaging its talented workforce in the production of motorcycles, commercial trucks, and automobiles. The motorcycle market in Sweden was owned at the time by Husqvarna, Nymans Verkstder, and Monark, and the truck market was dominated by Volvo and Scania-Vabis. So, rather than resign themselves to also-ran status (or worse), the company from Trollhttan decided to do what everybody else wasn’t doing. It built a car.
In the end, the world doesn’t need another knockoff 3-series. The world needs a Saab.