2003 Saab 9-3 Vector Sport Sedan Review


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SEE ALSO: Saab Buyer's Guide

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

    Have Saab cars changed since the car-making portion of the 
company was absorbed by General Motors a few years ago? Yes. 
Has it been a change for the worse, with Saabs, previously known 
for their unique character and quirkiness, made into little more than 
badge-engineered Opels?

    Not a chance. While there are quite a few parts from the vast GM 
parts bin in the new Saab 9-3, and it is a more mainstream design 
than earlier 900 or 9-3 models, the 2003 Saab 9-3 sedan is a car that 
could be built only by Saab. It is also the first fruit of an ambitious 
development program by the Swedish manufacturer, which hopes to 
use the 9-3 and derivatives, including an all-wheel drive crossover 
vehicle, to double its sales volume.

    Three distinct varieties, given architectural names, of Saab 9-3 are 
currently offered. The well-equipped Linear starts the line, powered 
by a 175-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled engine. 
It is expected to be the high-volume model. The Arc satisfies a need 
for more luxury and performance, with more convenience features 
and a higher-boost version of the 2.0-liter engine with 210 
horsepower. The Vector is the performance model, with the 210-
horse engine, a sport-tuned suspensions, and interior and exterior 
sport styling cues.

    I had the chance to spend a day driving the Linear with a five-
speed automatic when it was introduced to the press last Fall, and 
I've been driving a Vector with the standard six-speed manual 
gearbox for the past week. In either form, the newest 9-3 is a fitting 
heir to the line that started with the first Saab Turbo 25 years ago, 
with a great balance between performance, efficiency, handling, and 
comfort. Saab is covering the market well with the 9-3 choices, too. 
The Linear is priced and equipped to appeal to people who want to 
step up from a the more common domestic and Japanese sporty 
family sedans, while the Arc adds luxury touches. And the Vector is, 
so far, the ultimate Saab Turbo for the faithful.
 
APPEARANCE: One look at the 9-3 and there will be no doubt as 
to the manufacturer. The aerodynamically-rounded front, with its 
three-port grille flanked by covered headlights, is classic Saab but 
leaner and sleeker than the previous 9-3 or the 9-5. It states the car's 
sports mission well, particularly in the Vector, which has a lower 
ride height and deeper air dam than other models, and more 
pronounced side sills. The bulge in the hood and slope of the 
windshield reinforce the 9-3's performance mission, aided by its 
rounded-wedge profile and high, well-defined shoulder line. The 
alloy wheels, shod with ultra-low profile 45-series performance tires, 
fill the wheel arches. The 9-3 Vector is a mature sports sedan, so 
there is no lurid wing at the back, only a discreet ducktail spoiler.

COMFORT: As outside, the interior of the new 9-3 is similar to that 
of its predecessor but leaner and more contemporary. It's also a 
touch larger. The Saab faithful will feel right at home, while 
newcomers will quickly appreciate the logic behind the design. And, 
yes, the ``key'' (now an electronic device) still goes into the center 
console, so as not to cause knee damage in the event of an accident. 
In the Saab manner, the instrument panel has a large face that wraps 
around the driver, cockpit-style, to present gauges and controls in 
clear, logical groupings. Adjustability of the front seats, a tilt and 
reach adjustable steering wheel, and the close position of the 
gearshift lever allow nearly any driver to easily find the perfect 
driving position. Although the three trim levels have slightly different 
interior appointments, all have leather seating. Befitting its sports 
mission, the Vector features more-bolstered sport seats, chrome-
bezeled instruments, and matte-chrome trim on the doors and 
console. 

SAFETY: Saabs are designed for real-world safety, and have been 
since long before any government requirements. The 9-3 has the 
strongest safety cage of any Saab, ever, surrounding the passenger 
cabin, with front and rear crumple zones, side protection, active 
head restraints, and more passive safety features. Good handling and 
brakes help active safety, while several advanced antitheft systems 
discourage thieves.

ROADABILITY: The new 9-3 is slightly longer, wider, and lower 
than the car it replaces, which helps stability at speed. But increased 
chassis rigidity is the main benefit of the new platform, and Saab's 
engineers have taken advantage of this with a new suspension that 
features modified MacPherson struts in front and the ``ReAxs'' 
multilink rear suspension that is designed to give a small amount of 
passive rear-wheel steering to reduce the front-wheel drive car's 
tendency to understeer. The result is top-notch front-wheel drive 
sports sedan handling, especially with the firmer springs and shocks 
in the Vector. 

PERFORMANCE: Saab has been a leader in turbocharging 
technology since the first Turbo model in the late 1970s. The 9-3's 
2.0-liter four-cylinder engine puts those years of expertise to good 
use. Although the aluminum alloy engine block is (more or less) the 
standard GM L850, just about everything else - the cylinder head, 
cams, pistons, rods, and crankshaft - is strictly Saab. Saab's 
``Trionic'' series of engine management systems have always been at 
the forefront of electronic technology, and the Trionic 8 is no 
exception. It helps both versions of the engine make smooth, 
efficient power, with good driveability characteristics. The ``2.0t'' in 
the Linear has 10.2 psi of boost, for 175 horsepower at 5500 rpm 
and 195 lb-ft of torque from 2500 to 4000 rpm. It matches well with 
the five-speed automatic transmission. The Arc and Vector get 12.3 
psi of boost, for 210 hp at 5500 rpm, with 221 lb-ft of torque from 
2300 to 4000 rpm. The excellent six-speed manual gearbox shines 
here, with smooth, precise linkage. Power is good at any engine 
speed above 2500 rpm, with an immediate turbo rush above 3500. A 
high 9.5:1 compression ratio makes the transition to and from turbo 
boost smooth and civilized, with no sudden ``light switch'' power 
spike to upset the car in a corner.

CONCLUSIONS: The 2003 9-3 should please both longtime Saab 
fans and newcomers to the brand.

SPECIFICATIONS
2003 Saab 9-3 Vector Sport Sedan

Base Price			$ 32,495
Price As Tested		        $ 35,910
Engine Type			turbocharged and intercooled dual 
                                 overhead cam 16-valve inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size			2.0 liters / 121 cu. in.
Horsepower			210 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			221 @ 2,300-4,000 rpm
Transmission			6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		105.3 in. / 182.2 in.
Curb Weight			3,285 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        15.6
Fuel Capacity			16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium
Tires				P225/45 WR17 Pirelli P-Zero Rosso
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / vented disc,
                                 antilock, brake assist, and stability 
                                 control standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut / 
                                 independent multilink with coil springs
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		22 / 31 / 23
0 to 60 mph				7.3  sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)		0.28

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Touring Package - includes:
  rain-sensing wipers, parking assist, bi-xenon
  headlights, in-dash 6-CD changer		$ 1,195
Power glass sunroof				$ 1,100
Front heated seats				$    495
Destination charge				$    625

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