Saab's 2003 9-3 is a sterling example of a small division within a very large company assuming control of its destiny. Challenged to develop a car to take on a very tough crowd, Saab responded with a magnificent effort. Up against the world's formidable array of premium compact sports sedans, this completely new Swede had to be more than just good. After my day-long drive in a pilot version of the car, it became clear that Saab has developed an extremely good car. Not only does this put a tasty new model in Saab showrooms later this year, it dispels fears that parent company General Motors would be nothing but detrimental to Saab's independence and distinctive qualities.

Based on GM's global "Epsilon" platform, which also forms the underpinnings of European Opels and GM models in the U.S., the 9-3 project began in 1998. According to Lars Olsson, Saab's director of technical development, except for certain critical "hard points" dictated by the chassis' layout, the 9-3 grew outward via totally clean sheets of paper-and continued to do so unsullied by Big Brother's meddling. Early development was purposely kept at a slow, measured pace, because the 9-3 would not be a mere "replacement" model in the Saab lineup; it would, stated Olsson, form the cornerstone for the very future of the company.

No pressure there. Just get the basic parameters perfect so that subsequent variants can be developed quickly and inexpensively. Just build a platform so good it can spawn an entire family of vehicles. And don't forget to retain your longtime, loyal buyers while attracting a bunch of new ones.

My first drive in the new 9-3, over the stretch of a long summer's day, was an introduction to new technology, but it was also my first exposure to the "new" Saab. I was immediately taken by the infectious spirit among the crowd of engineers and executives. Despite their reputation for taciturn behavior, the Swedes kept repeating the phrase "fun to drive"; and Kent Bovellan, technical project leader of the 9-3, even insisted I return in the winter, when the ice and snow would make the driving "really fun."

I had to settle for scattered showers during my drive, which slicked up the pavement a few times to no great effect on the car's excellent road manners. The new 9-3's wheelbase is longer by almost 3 in. and both tracks are wider, essential elements of a chassis that's far superior to its predecessor. Add to that a new body more than two times stiffer than the current 9-3's, and it means an outstanding base for suspension tuning.

One of the project's main goals was making the driver feel, at all times, in control. The employed technology includes a four-link rear suspension for increased lateral stiffness (better stability. grip) and longitudinal compliance (better ride); MacPherson strut front suspension, the lower A-arms mounted on a rubber-isolated subframe and the bushings tuned with high lateral stiffness for better directional control; a re-positioning of the steering rack for better feel and faster response to driver inputs; and Saab's "ReAxs" rear-wheel steering, essentially tuning of link bushings to allow a small amount of rear-wheel steer. During hard cornering each rear wheel turns slightly-measured in minutes of deflection-in the direction of the turn, which not only lends more stability during lateral loads but also helps balance the "feel" of the car.

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.

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By Greg N. Brown
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