A year ago I drove and reviewed the then-new 9-3 in base trim, Linear in Saab parlance. I found it overly bland, especially for such an idiosyncratic marque, and hypothesized that the performance model, the Vector, could be better. Well, it took me longer than I expected, but I returned to my local Saab dealer to investigate this hypothesis not long after the 2004s arrived. There will be no Vector for the 2004 model year, however. It seems that the owner of the defunct Vector supercar company still holds automotive rights to the name, and wasnt about to let Saab have it. So the Vector is now called the Aero.
For my review of the Linear click here
Saab 9-3 Reliability
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The automotive press has made much of the new 9-3s use of GMs Epsilon platform (along with the Opel Vectra and 2004 Chevrolet Malibu) and its lack of a hatch. Both points have been overblown. The last time Saab developed an all-new sedan platform independently was in the late 1960s. The 1986 Saab 9000 shared a platform with three Fiat sedans, and both the previous 9-3 and current 9-5 had an earlier Opel Vectra (a compact sedan not offered in the U.S.) as their basis. More of an issue than the origins of the cars underpinnings is whether GM will dilute the brand by restricting differentiation. Especially with the Subaru Impreza- and Chevrolet TrailBlazer-based Saabs on the way, this remains a live issue.
Those professional reviewers who make much of the lack of a hatch seem to have forgotten that in the in the 1980s if you got the 900 (the old name for the 9-3) with four doors it came with a trunk, not a hatch. A five-door was available elsewhere, but not in the U.S. (at least not after 1983, the earliest year I personally paid attention). The 5-door was introduced for 1994, under GM ownership and using a GM chassis from the Opel Vectra. So the return to a four-door sedan configuration cannot be blamed on GM. An independent Saab took the same route two decades ago.
The new 9-3 retains some Saabishness to the styling, mostly in the wedge profile, outline of the side windows, and prevalence of sweeping curves. The upright windshield of pre-GM Saab 900s is long gone. Though it looks better in photos, in person the car still looks pretty good, just more generic than I expected. From some angles it looks hunkered down and aggressive (especially with the 17 wheels optional on the Linear and luxury-oriented Arc or those standard on the Aero), as intended. From others it looks a bit portly in a Germanic way. From other angles still it just looks plain. Overall, I prefer the 9-5. At any rate, the 9-3 and its Malibu cousin look nothing at all alike. Whats more, the Pontiac G6 that will replace the Grand Am next fall looks nothing like either car. The three might share a platform, but they have been thoroughly differentiated.
I like areas of the interior better. Not the dash. Its far too busy and full of matte black plastic. But the door panels and center console are artfully executed. The materials look and feel of premium quality, though more solid than luxurious. The Aero has unique seats with larger side bolsters and silver inserts just inside said bolsters. I personally could do without the inserts, though I imagine theyre someones idea of sporty.
The extra bolstering does improve upon the near total lack of side bolstering in the regular 9-3 seats, but it could be much better still. Initially these bolsters seemed to do nothing for lateral support, though towards the end of the test drive I noticed some benefit. I suspect I sank a bit into the seat as I drove. I much prefer the seats in the 9-5, which are both cushier and better bolstered.
The driving position is not as good as in the 9-5. The seat is lower, and the cowl (top of dash) a bit higher. With the seat in its lowest position I feel as if the steering column was mounted a bit too highsomething Ive also noticed in BMWs. Raising the seat an inch fixes this. I like the driving position in the 9-5, with its considerably more open view forward, much better.
The secondary controls on the dash are poorly designed. Their layout makes little sense, and the salesman had to show my how to access many radio and climate control functions. As in many recent European and Japanese luxury cars, an attempt at hi-tech has created much unnecessary complexity. Like other Saabs, the new 9-3 has the ignition mounted down between the seats. This I dont have a problem with.
The padded door armrest is a nice feature for those of us who like to steer with only the left hand. In the Linear this armrest is a woven cloth, even with the standard leather seats. In the other models it is leather. I actually prefer the Linears cloth for its additional comfort and interesting texture.
The rear seat was more cramped than I expected, especially in terms of knee room (toe room under the front seats is better than in most cars). About equal to those in a 3-Series or A4, but much less room than in the 900s of the 1980s, which were virtually midsized in many interior dimensions. (In the 1990s the 900 was renamed the 9-3.) Overall, the rear seat was just adequate for my 5-9 frame.
Storage space is plentiful, both inside the car and in the trunk. The rear seat folds to create a pass through. Unlike in the 9-5, the seat cushion does not have to be tilted forward before folding the seatbacks. The tradeoff for this convenience is that the resulting floor is not flat; instead there is about a two-inch lip.
On the Road
I did not greatly enjoy driving the Linear last year despite Saabs claim that the 9-3 was developed with driving enjoyment as the top priority. Well, the Aero is more fun yet still unexpectedly refined. The 210-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo four (up from 175 in the Linear courtesy of a few more pounds of boost) is based on GMs corporate Ecotec 2.2 liter (Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Grand Am, Saturn ION, etc.). It moves the car very well once the turbo spools up. Although boost lag is less than in turbos of yore, its still there. Consequently, the engine feels a bit soft at initial tip-in. The short gearing of the six-speed manuals first few gears helps here. Still, as with nearly any turbo, planning ahead a bit is necessary to get power precisely when you want it. On the positive side, the engine sounds and feels very refined for a four-cylinder, and torque steer is absent. (The Saab-designed 2.3-liter four in the 9-5 Aero felt about equally refined, but a minimal amount of torque steer was present along with significantly more torque.)
Saabs have never had great manual shifters, and the 9-3 does not break with this tradition. The six-speed in the Aero does feel less vague than I remember the five-speed feeling in the Linear, but it has been a year. Ill grant the Aeros shifter a purely average rating, memorable for neither good nor bad qualities, and move on.
The clutch requires almost no effort to depress. While this is a good thing, especially for city driving, it took me a few minutes to get used to.
The Aeros suspension is stiffer than the Linears and Arcs, and this pays off in less lean in turns and considerably sharper responses to steering inputs. The steering itself is very precise and provides good feedback. (Thankfully Saab opted out of the electric-assist system that afflicts the Malibu.) The Aero as a result is considerably more fun to drive. The car feels lighter and more nimble than its closest competitors, a good thing in my book. Through hard turns the car feels very balanced and safe, especially for a front-driver. Understeer is minimal. Despite the stiffer suspension ride quality remains smooth, if not quite as smooth as the Linears. No harshness over the rough stuff at least. Noise levels are low.
All in all I much more enjoyed driving the Aero. Still, I did not come away desiring the car. I can see it as an intelligent choice, but hardly an emotional one. I suspect there is much room here for a more highly-tuned car, a new Viggen perhaps? That would be nice.
I have also recently driven the new Malibu. The two cars feel no more alike than they look. No one will be buying a Malibu to get the Saabs handling for less money.
Usually I dont talk about safety, but the 9-3 does possess more standard safety equipment than just about any other $30,000 car: ABS, stability control, brake assist, curtain airbags, safety headrests, and on and on. The Swedes are known for this sort of thing. An Infiniti G35 claims as much standard safety equipment for a few thousand more comparably equipped. But I wouldnt count on as thorough an execution.
For quick, up-to-date pricing, and especially user-specified price comparisons, check out the website I created: www.truedelta.com
. Why yet another vehicle pricing website? Well, I personally lacked the patience to keep using the others. They were too slow and required too much effort, especially when trying to compare prices. So I taught myself some programming and created a site where there is no need to dig through option packages, prerequisites, and the like one by one -- the TrueDelta
algorithm figures these out for you in one swift pass
The rest of this section is from when the review was originally written.
As I pointed out in my earlier review, the Linear is very reasonably priced, at least until you start adding options. The Aeros $33,360 base price is unfortunately $6,600 higher. For this sizable chunk of change you do get the more powerful engine, 17-inch wheels, sport suspension, more leather, memory for the seat adjustments, dual zone climate control, an upgraded sound system, and OnStar. I dont see $6,600 worth of content here. Add on the sunroof, heated seats, and metallic paint (its a premium Euro brand, so metallic costs you), and the sticker climbs to $35,560. Incentives are currently generous on the 2003s, but on the 2004s are limited to low-interest financing. According to Edmunds, the typical dealer discount brings the price to about $34,700. This seems high. Count on large incentives once the 2003s are cleared out.
At nearly $35,000 a number of very good alternatives are available. An Infiniti G35 with sunroof and Bose audio lists for $32,295, and dealers knock a few hundred off that. The Saab is considerably more refined, and its interior materials are a bit richer, but the Infiniti has a larger rear seat, rear-wheel-drive, and a much torquier 260-horsepower six. The newly redesigned Acura TL lists for $33,195. Discounts should be minimal. The Acuras new styling is striking, its interior is nicer than the Saabs, and while its chassis is inferior its 270-horsepower engine is among the better sixes. Within GM, the Cadillac CTS costs about the same as the Saab once discounts and rebates are factored in. For those who prefer a manual, however, the CTS is not a viable option until next year, when the new 3.6-liter engine will be available with a manual transmission. This year the manual is only available with the old 3.2, and many optional features might not be available with itit is unclear if the 3.6/auto trans is a delete option with the 1SB and 1SC option packages.
Clearly you are paying for a European nameplate when buying a Saab. Compared to an Audi or BMW the Saabs pricing looks better. In performance the Aero cannot quite keep up with the 330, but it comes closer to that car than the 325the latter being the target with the Linears lower boost engine. With sport and cold weather packages, leather, and a sunroof the 330 lists for $40,670, and discounts should be minimal. For all-wheel-drive add another $1,750. An Audi A4 3.0 quattro lists for $37,755 similarly equipped (but like the Acura with xenon headlamps, another $500 on the Saab). The typical discount brings this to about $36,600. I did not find the A4 fun to drive, but the newly available ultra sport package might help. The regular sport package harshed up the ride more than it sharpened the handling. Finally, Volvos S60 in most forms does not appeal to me, but the 300-horsepower all-wheel-drive R is a different story. The S60R lacks the Saabs agility, but is much quicker and feels more luxurious. Add in the advantages of all-wheel-drive, and for many potential buyers its worth the extra six grand.
So, how much is a Euro brand worth to you?
Update March 2004: Volvo recently introduced an all-new S40. Its sticker price is much less than a 9-3's, but a $3,500 rebate on the Linear eliminates the gap. While anyone considering the 9-3 should probably also take a look at this car, I found it less satisfying. For the details, see the link to my review below.
I enjoyed driving the Aero much more than the Linear. Sadly, its price is much higher, too high in my opinion. Despite the Saabs virtues in the areas of handling and refinement, I would have a hard time buying this car over the Infiniti or Acura. I do find it more enjoyable to drive than the Audi, though, and the BMW, a better handler in extreme driving but less nimble feeling around town, is far more expensive.
Hopefully a more highly tuned Viggen is on the way, and at a price not too much higher (right). For now, I continue to much prefer the 9-5 Aero. The larger cars sticker is much higher, but comparing lease prices on 2003 models the gap was only about $40 a month. If the gap is similarly small on the 2004s Id spend it. The 9-3 is truly a Saab and a very good car, but the 9-5 is better on both counts, with more character and more driving enjoyment.
Ultimately I wavered between three and four stars for this one, finally going with three because of the price. If incentives later take the price down two or (better yet) three grand, add a star.
Saabs tend to be excellent values as used cars. For example, as I write this you can buy a 2002 9-5 Aero for about $24,000. A new one will set you back about $39,000.
To learn more about my reliability research and sign up to participate in it, visit www.truedelta.com.
My reviews of related vehicles:
Saab 9-3 Linear
Lexus IS 300
Pontiac Grand Prix
Amount Paid (US$):
Model and Options:
Aero, sunroof, heated seats