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2003 Saab 9-3 Near Luxury Compact Sports Sedan

Car Review of the 2003 Saab 9-3 Compact Sports Sedan

Base MSRP Range: $25,995 - $39,995

Base Invoice Range: $24,524 - $37,395

MSRP As Tested: Not Available

Versions: linear, Arc and Areo

Vehicle Category: Compact Entry level Luxury Sports Sedan

Engine Location: Front Engine

Drive Wheels: Front-Wheel Drive

Standard Engine: 2.0-liter, Turbocharged, Dual Overhead Cam, 16-valves, Inline-4 cylinder, 175-horsepower at 5,500rpm and 195 lb-ft torque at 2,500 rpm.

Optional Engine: 2.0-liter, Turbocharged, Dual Overhead Cam, 16-valves, Inline-4 cylinder, 210-horsepower at 5,500rpm and 221lb-ft torque at 2,500 rpm.

Transmission As Tested: Standard 5-Speed Manual, Optional 6-Speed Manual and 5-Speed Automatic with Saab Sentronic manual selection, with optional steering wheel controls.

Fuel Economy (city/hwy): Manual 22/31, 4-speed automatic 21/29, 5-speed automatic 21/30.

Standard Safety Features: Driver and front passenger, front airbags, four channel ">Antilock Brake System, Traction Control Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Saab Active Head Restraint system, In-Trunk Emergency Trunk Release, Remote Keyless Entry.

Competition: BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Lexus IS330, Lexus ES330, Infiniti G 35, Mercedes-Benz C Class

Vehicle History

The original Saab 9-3 was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show in January 1998, and went into production later that year. The car is an evolutionary stage of the Saab 900.

Over the car's model life it has been available as a coupe, sedan and convertible. The convertible 9-3 became the best selling Cabriolet in Europe during its model run.

There has been a performance version as well, the 9-3 Viggen. This product was named for one of the jet fighters, built by Saab (with a Volvo jet engine),currently in use by the Swedish Air Force. When one purchased a Viggen a driving course taught by professional driving instructors was included and held at the Viggen Flight Academy at the Road Atlanta race course in Georgia. What a blast!

The 2003 Saab 9-3 is only available as a sedan for now. However, many variations are planned for release in the near future. This fall, a 2004 9-3 Cabriolet (convertible) will be available. The 9-3 Sport-Hatch Concept will be introduced at the Frankfurt Auto Show next year. The Sport Hatch is a sporty, futuristic, five-door, four-seat car with a 'fastback.' It draws its inspiration from the Saab 9-3X 'cross-over' coupe concept that premiered last year.

Changes Over the Previous Model

The Saab 9-3 Sedan is an all new vehicle for 2003. It is the first in a series of new cars to be based on the 9-3 platform. Although the 9-3 is longer, wider and roomier than its predecessor, it is lighter, has dramatically improved handling and better performance than the model it replaces.

Saab has moved the 9-3 upscale with these changes in order to compete with entry-level sport sedan segment leaders such as the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C Class, Audi A4, Lexus IS and ES 300, Jaguar X Type, Volvo S40 and S60 and the Infiniti G35.

The 2003 9-3 is available in three trim levels, or 'themes' as Saab calls them. Linear is the entry level version. The Arc is the luxury version. The Vector is the 'higher' performance model providing a sportier and more responsive ride and hip styling.

Vehicle Exterior

Saab design has always been interesting, to say the least. People tend to love them, or hate them, with the former being passionately enthusiastic about the styling.

Saabs have distinctive design cues. The grill, with its two small side and single, large split center air intakes, and the shape of the headlights are two such cues.

The downward sweeping rear deck and tailights are also trademark Saab designs. The difference is now it has been refined into a flowing wedge shape with a steeply raked windshield and tapering rear deck. Because of this the 9-3 looks more like a sport coupe than a sedan. This among is the best designs we have seen from Saab, and bodes well for the next redesign of 9-5.

Vehicle Interior

The 9-3's interior design began with the driver. 'Driver focused' design in this case means making the driver feel connected to the vehicle and ready for twisty roads – Saab wanted drivers to have fun when they drove the car. The dashboard has the feel of an airplane cockpit. It wraps around the driver and flows downward to form the center console. The controls are angled so the driver can easily see them. The exception is the Saab Information Display on top of the dashboard, just below the windshield. The display shows information about the entertainment system, heating and air conditioning and data from the trip computer. These controls are all conveniently placed for front passenger use. The steering wheel adjusts for both height and reach.

Located in the center console are the parking brake and gear selector for either the 5-speed automatic, or 6 -speed manual transmissions. The 9-3 includes Saab's trademark center console mounted ignition switch, which is also a feature of the 9-5.

Saab has always had good supportive seats, necessary in a sporty car. All 2003 9-3 models come standard with leather seating surfaces. The entry level Linear has cloth door panels, while the luxury Arc, and sportier Vector, have leather inserts in the doors. The driver and front passenger have a good amount of seat bolstering to keep them in place during spirited driving. However Saab seats are wide enough so that most people will be very comfortable on long drives.

Rear seat passengers have their own heating and air conditioning vents, reading lamps, cup holders and a fold down center armrest with storage. There is a trunk pass-through for skis or other long cargo.

Engine Performance

There are two engine options for the 2003 Saab 9-3. Both are 2.0-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder, turbocharged engines.

The 2.0T light-pressure turbo generates 175-horespower. The 9-3 2.0T high-pressure turbo provides an additional 35-horspower for a total of 210. We recommend the 210-horsepower 9-3 2.0T, not because it's fun for racing around, but because it provides very good over all performance. The added horsepower provides better acceleration for getting out of the way of a dangerous situation. And it's just more fun and worth the extra money.

Two transmissions are offered: a Sentronic 5-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual. If you choose the Sentronic you can still change gears yourself. For even more fun get the 9-3 with the optional steering wheel mounted gear change controls.

Ride and Handling

The 2003 9-3 is much more responsive to driver input than the previous model. Its ride is smooth and comfortable without isolating the driver from the road.

Driving the 2003 Saab 9-3 sedan through the valleys and rolling hills of Napa, California's wine country, was a real treat. This is the kind of driving the car was designed for – weekend drives on winding county or mountain roads. In the mountains, the 9-3 becomes as much a toy as transportation. The handling is much improved over the previous 9-3 helped by the car's much lighter weight.

There was plenty of power for good acceleration. Good acceleration from corner to corner in tight turns, and a very advanced braking system, make the vehicle nimble. Passing other cars on the highway was easy. The high-pressure Turbo engine is the best choice in this vehicle if you want near-BMW ride, handling and performance without the BMW price tag.


The new 9-3 is definitely a Swedish product. With that comes the Swede's attention to safety. And the 9-3 is safer than a lot of vehicles on the market.

The 2003 Saab 9-3 has the company's second generation Saab Active Head Restraint (SAHR) system. Whiplash, or soft-tissue neck injuries, occur when the head is thrown forward, then backward, violently in a rear end collision. Ouch! This simple mechanical system helps to prevent that type of injury by keeping the neck and head from moving backward as much as possible. When the occupant's lower back is pushed into the seat during the initial impact of a collision, the head restraint moves forward meeting the head, preventing the neck from hyper extension. The system even helps those people who don't have the head restraint set at the correct height.

The 2003 9-3 comes with the usual array of airbags expected in a European sport sedan. There are dual stage driver- and front-passenger airbags. This is the first Saab sedan to feature a roof-mounted, side, head-curtain airbag protecting both the front and rear passengers in the event of a side impact crash.

The 2003 Saab 9-3 has one of the strongest safety structures, a steel chassis inside the body to reinforce it.

OnStar – GM's concierge service -- is available as an option. When functioning properly, this system features the automatic dispatch of rescue services in crashes where the airbag is deployed. Once engaged an OnStar representative attempts to make contact with the vehicle to ascertain the condition of the driver and passengers so the proper services are dispatched. This provides occupant protection before and after the fact. With OnStar one can also order flowers, locate restaurants and obtain assistance with many other things.

In Conclusion

The 9-3 is the first of many new vehicles Saab will build on the new platform. Shortly we will test the new 9-3 Cabriolet (convertible), a vehicle with traditionally great appeal to women. It is the best selling cabriolet in Europe. Saab has plans for a crossover vehicle built on the platform as well.

If you are considering a BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C Class, Audi A4, Lexus IS or ES 300, Jaguar X type, Volvo S40 or the Infiniti G35, take the time to test drive a Saab 9-3 sedan. It is an excellent alternative that nearly matches the performance of many, much more expensive, sport sedans, and in some cases, exceeds them.

Editors' Ratings

Pros: Great looks, great handling, great price for a european sports sedan

Cons: Needs more power and a little better finish on the inside

Ratings (1-10)

  • Style: 8
  • Performance: 7
  • Price: 8
  • Handling: 8
  • Ride: 8
  • Comfort: 8
  • Quality: 8
  • Overall: 7.85

More Data

Where Built: Trollhatten, Sweden

Major Options: On Star, 5-speed automatic transmission w/manual-shift capability, Power sunroof

Seating: 5

Number of Rows: 2

Crash Test Ratings:

  • NHTSA Frontal Impact/Driver Crash Test Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • NHTSA Frontal Impact/Passenger Crash Test Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • NHTSA Side Impact/Front Seat Crash Test Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • NHTSA Side Impact/Rear Seat Crash Test Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • NHTSA Rollover Resistance Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • IIHS Frontal Offset Crash Test: Not Yet Tested

Length in Inches: 182.5

Warranties: 4 years/50,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 10 year/unlimited miles corrosion protection, 4 years/50,000 miles free Roadside Assistance, 3 years/36,000 free scheduled maintenance.

Weight in Pounds: 3,175-3,285

Cargo Capacity in Pounds: Not Available

Gross Maximum Vehicle Weight in Pounds: 4,340-4,450

Towing Capacity in Pounds: Not Available

Gas Tank Capacity in Gallons: 16.4

Destination Charge: $675