2003 Saab 9-3 Four Seasons Test

Matthew Phenix
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George Saitas

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."

Full Overhead View

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.

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