The new 9-3 is a front-driver that avoids such pitfalls as torque steer and excessive understeer and feels as though all four wheels are contributing equally to the road grip; no wonder...aiding the car's stability is a rich list of electronic systems: Electronic stability program; traction control; electronic brake force distribution; cornering brake control; and ABS, hooked to larger disc brakes. Saab's expertise in electronic management systems-one of the reasons why GM values this division so highly-results in a meticulously orchestrated performance suspension, maintaining exceptional control yet never intruding on that "fun to drive" element considered central to the Saab 9-3 experience.
That experience still means turbocharged four-cylinder engines, perhaps the car's only perceived shortcoming in a premium segment where six-cylinder engines are preferred. Still, the two new all-aluminum 2.0-liter dohc fours feel up to the challenge. The base engine is rated at 175 bhp and 195 lb-ft of torque, and the higher boost version puts out 210 bhp and 221 lb-ft of torque. (Read a first drive of the more powerful car, and full technical details and trim options of the entire 9-3 lineup at europeancarweb.com.) With its low-end torque, absence of turbo lag and willingness to rev, the engine is both smooth and responsive, and dual counter-rotating balance shafts help disguise the number of cylinders in line.
The 175-bhp 2.0t displays all the expected qualities of a performance engine, pulling strongly from low rpm through a strong, torquey midrange. The latest generation of Saab engine management, Trionic-8, helps ensure the driver gets as much power as is asked for, as smoothly as possible, without abrupt transitions from power on to power off.
Just as importantly, a new five-speed gearbox (adapted from the 9-5) allows the pilot to find the car's power curve quickly and precisely. Compared to the rubbery, loose feel of the current 9-3 manual, the new box is a wonder, returning fun to a task I considered a chore when I recently drove a 2002 9-3 Viggen. Also available will be a new five-speed, adaptive automatic with Sensonic manual gear selection and optional steering wheel controls. Sometime after launch this fall, a new six-speed manual will be offered with the 210-bhp engine.
The newness of the 2003 9-3 extends, of course, to the exterior and interior styling. Abandoning the hatchback configuration it has employed for years, Saab decided it needed to attack the market with a more conventional sedan. It struck me as well proportioned and completely in line with Saab's recent styling, the stance is aggressive and the wheels placed perfectly within the wells. The interior was distinguished by ample room, great seats, excellent placement of controls and quality materials. And the expected base price will be under $26,000!
The new 9-3 is nothing less than a very big statement from a small group of passionate protectors of the Saab faith.