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Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Arc sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, interior space, ride quality, chassis integrity, handling, steering response, equipment
Room for improvement
Loss of hatchback space, complex trip computer, disguised handbrake

11 Nov 2003

IF there was one thing that couldn’t be said of the previous Saab 9-3 it’s that it was roomy inside.

Picking up the Opel Vectra/Calibra base platform, it was always a little slight around the waist and, especially after adopting the front seats from the larger 9-5 model, more than a little tight in rear-seat legroom.

Its saving grace was the hatchback configuration (although Saab never really liked describing it as a hatch) that gave a really useful boot that, when the back seats were folded, almost allowed it to act as a mini station wagon.

The latest version of the 9-3 has absolutely no connection with the previous car, even though both came from GM platforms, and as a result carries over none of the old shortcomings - particularly regarding interior space.

However it’s now a sedan, not a hatch, so the boot becomes just that – a conventional 425-litre container. At least it’s accessible via a standard-equipment split-fold rear seat, which is not always the case with European prestige sedans.

The style is pure Saab, from the familiar design cues like a beetle-browed windscreen and distinctive grille, to an overall shape that suggests a hatchback even though it’s not. The design works aerodynamically too, with Saab claiming a very respectable 0.28 Cd figure.

The interior is also clearly a Saab, with the instrument panel looking more like a modified version of the previous model than something entirely new – which it is. But the extra length, width and height of the all-new model makes the interior a much more roomy place to be, with gains over the previous 9-3 in every dimension.

However, despite the rear-seat legroom being much better, that still doesn’t make the 9-3 a class-leader in a category where the back seat seems relatively unimportant anyway.

Dynamically, the new 9-3 sidesteps all the problems that plagued the previous model and were never really satisfactorily sorted out, even in the final iteration.

Now, with an all-new, fully independent suspension system comprising more than a little alloy to keep unsprung weight down, the 9-3 is light on its feet, accurate in the steering and absorbent of ride.

Much of the dynamic improvement comes from much wider front and rear tracks that give a better lateral balance, and from the longer wheelbase that enhances ride quality.

The 9-3 no longer tackles corners with a slightly reluctant heaviness, but responds quickly and accurately via a much-lightened steering. It employs all sorts of refinements that isolate noise and vibration, while also gaining steering accuracy from a notably more rigid body structure.

Saab says its response to steering input is at the top of the list in its category.

At the same time, all versions of the 9-3 (the Arc tested here is the second-rung model, up from the base Linear) are gifted with a full bottle of electronic dynamic aids including stability control, traction control, brake assist and electronic brake force distribution on top of a four-channel, all-disc ABS system.

The Arc, which is priced in the mid-$50,000s and mixes it with the best of the class (it is one of the more expensive cars in its category), gets enough luxury gear to help justify the price.

Alloy wheels, leather seats, real wood trim, climate-control air-conditioning, heated front seats (with power adjustment on the driver’s side only) and a full-blown trip computer are all standard in the Arc, giving it a small edge over comparable C-class Mercs and 3 Series BMWs.

The interior is a very nice, very Saab place to be. It has all the usual, somewhat contrived quirks like the central ignition key, night panel instrument illumination that extinguishes all but basic lighting at the press of a switch to avoid driver distraction, and an overall cleanliness of presentation that helps minimise driver confusion.

The only thing that takes some getting used to is the more complex trip computer function that allows the driver some personal tailoring of the information presented. That, and the disguised handbrake lever that is apt to snag the occasional finger as it’s released.

Airbags are in abundance in the 9-3, appearing on the dash and front doors as well as at head height, running from front to rear of the cabin

Another design feature that is a given at Saab is the "active" front seat head restraint system that moves the restraint forward to "catch" the passenger’s head in a rear-end collision, helping prevent whiplash injury.

The 9-3’s engines are all-new, too, constructed of alloy and running Saab-designed multi-valve, twin-camshaft cylinder heads. Engine management is the latest version of Saab’s Trionic system and, of course, all are turbocharged.

In Arc models, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder pumps out a decent 129kW, along with a useful 265Nm of torque at a low 2500rpm (Saab says the engine is producing around 90 per cent of its best torque by just 2000rpm).

The base Linear engine produces 110kW and the pumped up Aero version winds up to 155kW. There’s also another 9-3, the Vector, that uses the same 129kW engine as the Arc, but presents in a generally more aggressive way with larger, 17-inch alloy wheels, partial bodykit, "sports" seats and matt chrome finish in place of wood trim.

Transmissions comprise a five-speed manual (the Aero gets a six-speed) and a five-speed auto, basically borrowed from the 9-5. The important and worthwhile difference is that the 9-3 version picks up a sequential shift arrangement.

All this adds up to a 9-3 that is clearly a front-running, entry-level prestige car. Forget about deficiencies of the past.

With its top-notch dynamics, the latest 9-3 is a rewarding drive and is a comfortable passenger conveyance with quality and equipment levels equal to anything in its class.

Perhaps its only deficiency is that the style is a little too carefully conservative and tends to blend too easily into the background.

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