Car Test   R0285
December 2002
  Saab 9-3
Printer Friendly Page Featured model: 1.8t Vector automatic
Despite support from a loyal band of followers, small-scale Saab has struggled to keep pace with big-budget bruisers like Audi, Alfa and BMW in the sports saloon market. Itís relied on individualism and fiery, turbocharged engines to mask a certain lack of chassis sophistication and refinement.
   But that was then. Now, with full General Motorsí backing, a new 9-3 has emerged with a brand-new platform thatís already proved its worth in the latest Vauxhall Vectra.
   So far so good. Some dedicated Saabists, however, will regret the passing of the hatchback body, but Ďsports salooní has that rather rakish ring that lifts it above the humble hatch. Anyway, it makes the smooth, stylish body twice a stiff as its predecessorís.
   Such rigidity, combined with a wider track and a longer wheelbase, endows the 9-3 with a sharper feel and improved handling with, in this case with sports suspension that ensures crisp, roll-resistant cornering. Itís a mixed blessing, though, because it does nothing for the ride; itís hard and harsh on potholed tarmac and doesnít really mellow much on a motorway.
   Although giving an impressive 1g best stop, the fade-resistant brakes prove overlight on firm pedal applications, and the rather awkward handbrake is heavy to apply hard.
   The boot lid badge says 1.8t, but the engine is a torquey, turbocharged two-litre that revs with balancer-shaft smoothness. Itís a really willing performer, too, even though the £1115Ėextra automatic transmission adds a second or so to the 30-70mph time.
   Thatís a small enough price to pay for a smooth-shifting auto 'box, although the changes donít have exemplary unobtrusiveness. You can make manual sequential shifts if you like, but the carís no quicker though the gears that way. Itís only sort of semi-manual, anyway, because it bars or takes over gearshifts if you try to drive outside pre-programmed shift patterns; you canít select 4th or 5th below 2000rpm, for example.
   Saab has stamped its mark of individuality on the 9-3ís carefully crafted, climate-controlled cabin with items such as an ignition switch between the front seats, night-panel instrument lighting and a sophisticated Ďinfotainmentí system. There are, however, an awful lot of centre console buttons that arenít easy to prod with precision after dark. A comfortable, multi-adjustable seat and steering wheel give an excellent driving position, but we recommend the optional rear parking sensors Ė rearward vision isnít ideal.
   Rear passengers have less inviting seating (itís fairly upright) and legroom is modest compared with, say, the (shorter) BMW 318. Foot space and headroom are good, though; there are separate individual roof lights and heating/air-con vents, as well.
   Thereís a prominent rear sill to lift luggage over, but the boot beyond it is a roomy, practical shape. Folding the backrests almost doubles its length.
  considering size, price and rivals
Overtaking Ability
Fuel Economy
Safety Euro NCAP
Security, theft of  not available
theft from  not available
  • vast range of options on offer
  • excellent interior, footwell and puddle lighting
  • rear backrest release triggers in boot
  • rear head restraints lower flush into seatbacks
  • thumb-snagging handbrake lever
  • light shelf trim reflects in back window
  • loud tyre noise on coarse surfaces
  • back seat locking hoops intrude into load area
Saab has done a first-class job with this latest comfortable, soundly built, well-equipped 9-3. Itís a markedly better car than its predecessor, enabling it to stand close comparison with its more illustrious rivals. However, in this particular model, both the sports suspension and automatic transmission leave something to be desired Ė theyíre odd bedfellows, anyway. Itís worth sampling the standard springing and perhaps the manual 'box before making any rash decisions.

engine 1998cc, 4-cylinder, petrol; 150bhp at 5500rpm,
77 lb ft at 2500rpm; chain-driven double overhead camshafts, 16 valves
  transmission 5-speed stepped automatic with manual sequential override; front-wheel drive; 29.7mph/1000rpm in 5th, 22.5 in 4th
suspension front: independent MacPherson coil spring/damper struts, anti-roll bar.
rear: independent four-link with coil springs and telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
  steering hydraulic power assistance; 3.0 turns lock-to-lock; 10.8m diameter turning circle between kerbs (16.0m for one turn of the wheel)
brakes ventilated discs front, solid discs rear, with ABS, EBD, brake assist and cornering brake control   wheels/tyres 7in alloy with 215/50R17W tyres (Michelin Pilot Primacy on test car); temporary-use (steel) spare

size and type upper-medium (premium priced) four-door saloon   trim levels Linear, Arc, Vector, Aero
engines petrol: 4 cyl/2.0 litre/150bhp, 4/2.0/175, 4/2.0/210
diesel: 4/2.2/125
  drive front-wheel drive; 5-speed manual, 6-speed on Aero (5-speed stepped automatic available on all petrol models)

HOW THE SAAB 9-3 COMPARES engine (cyl/cc/bhp) revs at 70mph (rpm) 30-70 through gears (sec) 30-70mph in 4th/5th gears (sec) fuel (mpg/CO2) brakes from 50mph (kg/m) maximum legroom - front (cm) typical leg/kneeroom - rear (cm) steering turns/circle (m) overall length (cm)
Saab 9-3 1.8t (auto) 4/1988/150 2360 9.8 auto 28/226 13/25 106 94/71 3.0/10.8 463
Alfa Romeo 156 2.0 4/1970/155 3310 7.8 15.7/22.6 31/206 22/26 106 95/76 2.2/11.4 443
Audi A4 2.0 4/1984/130 3170 9.9 16.9/25.4 34/192 18/25 112 97/71 2.9/10.8 455
BMW 318i 4/1995/143 3290 9.0 15.8/20.4 36/175 17/24 112 100/76 2.9/10.3 447
Volvo S60T S 5/1984/180 2880 8.4 15.3/20.0 30/218 16/25 115 98/73 3.0/11.5 458
Jaguar X-Type 2.0SE 6/2099/157 3140 10.3 17.8/26.0 29/219 18/25.5 110 100/75 2.7/10.8 467

Excellent driving position and clearly marked dials with partial blackout facility at night. Convenient central ignition switch, but mass of centre console switches confusing. Auto shift falls short of exemplary.
Wot, no torque steer? Power goes down straight and clean aided by TCS, while sports chassis up-grade keeps car taut and roll-free through bends. Nicely weighted steering impresses, but not quite in Alfa 156 class.
Stiffer suspension makes ride firm and fidgety at best, harsh and thumpy at worst. Driver has nicest (electric) seat, rears rather upright. Excellent lighting plus versatile climate control and 'infotainment' systems.

A lovely motor, this subtly turboed two-litre - a smooth, swift performer despite automatic's slush-pump drag. Auto shift points well chosen, but excessive 'big brother' control over driver in manual sequential mode.
  acceleration in seconds autoshift between 5800 and 6100rpm
  20-40mph 2.9
  30-50mph 3.8
  40-60mph 4.7
  50-70mph 6.0
  30-70mph 9.8
  max speed in each gear (* using autoshift in D for best acceleration)
     gear      1st*      2nd*      3rd*      4th      5th
     speed (mph)      38      61      90      119      125 (4210rpm)

Automatic 'box increases thirst by some 12%, but mpg vary considerably depending on driving style; 35mpg on a 70mph cruise about the best you can expect. No tank-filling problems. High CO2 means top tax band.
  type of use (air conditioning off) AA test (mpg) 
    urban (heavy traffic) 19
    rural (gentle driving) 30
    overall mpg 28
    realistic tank capacity/range (litres/miles) 53/325
    official mpg (urban/extra urban/combined) 20.8/40.9/30.1
    CO2 emissions 226g/km
    car tax band E

The 9-3 gets a 5-star NCAP rating straight out of the box, but don't get run down by one! Excellent safety features include full complement of airbags, active front head restraints and child protection measures.
  November 2002
  from 50mph (with brake assist/ABS)
front impact     81%
side impact     100%
overall     89%
overall safety rating    
pedestrian rating    
pedal load     stopping distance
unhurried 10kg     28.5m
sudden 13kg     25m best stop
+ 4kg ie 17kg     25m ABS on
fade resistance/consistency    
Euro NCAP = European New Car Assessment Programme: independent crash safety tests evaluating protection for occupants and pedestrians in an offset frontal collision, side impacts and pedestrian strike conditions
click here for more NCAP details/test results etc.

Plenty of room up front, but disappointingly compact in rear compared with rivals. Good boot space, though; seatbacks fold easily with head restraints in situ, to give long (stepped) load deck; lockable ski-flap, too.
  in centimetres (4-door saloon)
  length 463
  width - including mirrors 204
    - mirrors folded 183
  height 145
  load sill height (inside/outside) 17/66
  turns lock-to-lock 3.0
  turning circle (metres) 10.8
  easy to park/garage?
  front - legroom 91-106
    - headroom 90-95ß
  rear - typical legroom 94
    - typical kneeroom 71
    - headroom 91
    - hiproom 137
  load area(all seats in use)
  load space
(litres/cu ft)
  load length 94-172#
  load length to facia no
  load width 101-139
  load height 53
ß no sunroof  # rear seat folded

No NCSR ratings yet, but enough anti-theft kit to confound the light-fingered, including digital ignition key, electronic steering lock, secure boot. Also helpful 'halo' approach lighting and panic alarm.
central locking  
remote control  
remote window closing  
alarm (perimeter + interior)  
self-locking (static)   
two-stage unlocking   
attack-resistant glass   
see-me-home headlamps   
AA load area security rating
=standard    =option    =not available
NCSR - "theft of" not available
NCSR - "theft from" not available
NCSR = New Car Security Ratings: a 1 to 5 star system which rates anti-theft protection, both of the car itself and the theft of valuables from within the car
Visit for more details
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