Review and road test of the Saab 9-3 (1998 - 2002)
HIGH RESOLUTION SCAN
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Saab 9-3 range is the mainstay of the company's recent commercial success. Aiming to compete head-on with the likes of BMW's 3 Series and Audi's A4 models, the 9-3 represents a slightly quirkier alternative. Since acquiring Saab, parent company General Motors have done an admirable job of improving quality whilst still allowing the cars to retain their inherent 'Saab-ness.'
The range consists of three-door coupes, five-door saloons and a very attractive array of convertibles with a number of somewhat complicated engine options and trim levels. For a stylish method of racking up big miles in an effortless manner, a used Saab 9-3 is a good bet.
(3 dr coupe, 5 dr saloon & 2 dr convertible 2.0, 2.3 petrol, 2.2 diesel [S, SE, Aero, Viggen, Airflow])
The 9-3 marked a completely new philosophy at Saab. It's predecessor, the 900 range was never quite sure what part of the market to target, with a very wide spread of models. The 9-3 was launched just after the bigger 9-5 range, the '3' and '5' designations making it clear which of BMW's ranges Saab were tilting at with the new cars. A fourteen car 9-3 range was launched in March 1998, with three trim levels, base, S and SE, and four engines. These consisted of 2.0i (130bhp), 2.0T (185bhp) and 2.3i (150bhp) petrol installations and the 2.2 TiD (115bhp) diesel unit. Factor in the three body styles of three-door coupe, five-door saloon and two-door convertible with two transmission options and the available permutations start to skyrocket.
To try to explain further, all engines are available with all trim levels bar the following. The 2.0 T and 2.3i engines were only available in S and SE guise in fixed roof models, and SE trim only in the convertible. The 2.2 TiD diesel engine was only offered on fixed roof five-door cars. The range was added to in June 1998 with the launch of a light-pressure turbocharged version of the 2.0T engine. Helpfully called the 2.0t, it developed 154bhp and replaced the 2.3i versions.
In November 1998 another engine variant was launched, the HOT designation, basically a powerful 2.0 turbocharged unit developing 200bhp. June 1999 saw the launch of the Viggen 2.3i versions, which developed a mighty 225bhp and were available in all three body styles. September 1999 saw the introduction of the Aero models with the 2.0 HOT engine. These models boasted a striking bodykit and a lavish equipment list. The diesel range, which by now also came with three doors, also gained a short-term Airflow edition, which looked sportier and was priced to sit between the S and SE trim designations. In August 2000, the 2.0t engine was improved with extra torque, though outright power dropped to 150bhp. The turbo diesel was also improved. Meanwhile, the Viggen was dropped due to poor sales and the Aero models upgraded. In late 2001 the appeal of the 9-3 range was boosted with some tweaks to standard trim and a rethink of gear ratios resulting in a 5% improvement in economy. Saab also curiously started dubbing the three-door version the 9-3 Coupe.
What You Get
It's reassuring to sit in a 9-3 and notice that it is still very much a Saab. Fears that the essentially quirky character of the Swedish manufacturer would be ironed out by General Motors have, thankfully, not materialised. You are still faced with a sheer wall of dashboard, the ignition key still slots home just ahead of the handbrake, and the chrome grille is in the classic wing shape. The 'interesting' styling of Saab's not so distant past has mellowed, and the 9-3's is a far cry from the quirky 900 shape. Perhaps Einar Hareide, Saab's Head of Design, had a moment of clarity, realising that it wasn't compulsory for Saabs to resemble inbred country cousins.
The Saab core values of safety and reliability haven't gone amiss either, with the cars still feeling bulletproof and a number of considered safety features being incorporated. These include twin front and side airbags on all models and SAHR, the Saab Active Head Restraint that aims to reduce whiplash injuries. In addition to championing these values, the all-turbocharged 9-3 range also looks to trump its German rivals in terms of value for money.
Equipment levels are reassuringly high, but it's only when comparing model for model that Saab's advantage becomes apparent. Whereas a used 154bhp Saab 9-3 2.0t S can be bought for under £13,000 for a 1998 example, an equivalent year BMW 3 Series starts at £16,000 for a weedy 105bhp 316i. These comparisons stand true right across the range, and make the Saab a good way for the used buyer to get a prestigious badge without the brash image.
What to Look For
Few other manufacturers share Saab's reputation for longevity. A well maintained 9-3 should be good for at least a 200,000 miles, so don't be afraid of higher mileage cars. Just be sure that they've been given regular doses of main dealer TLC. One area which is worth checking, especially on the more powerful models, is front tyre wear. As with any powerful front wheel drive car, expecting the front tyres to cope with the demands of steering such a weighty beast and transmitting all that horsepower to the ground is a serious task. A heavy right foot can see front tyres waving the white flag within 5,000 miles, dependent upon make.
With the convertible models, check the hood for signs of rips, leaks or damage. Raise and lower it a couple of times to make sure the electric motors are all in good shape and haven't been damaged by ignorant users attempting to operate the hood manually. The hood is a fully insulated triple-layer item with a proper heated glass rear window, and is one of the best on the market for insulating against wind noise. If there's a whistling or drumming at speed, the hood may well be damaged.
(approx based on a 1998 9-3 2.0i) It's apparent where Saab have taken a delve into the capacious GM parts bin. Certain items are very cheap, especially for a car that competes head on with the BMW 3 Series and Audi's A4. A clutch assembly is in the region of £250, and brake pads are £50 a set for the fronts and £35 a pair at the back. A radiator is a fairly reasonable £200, and a headlamp unit is comparable to most major rivals at £170. A starter motor won't see change from £180, whilst an alternator will only see small change from £260. An exhaust system is around £310, again, not unreasonable for a classy executive car.
On the Road
It has to be said that the 9-3 is a competent, comfortable and reliable car, but the exciting sports models are exciting for the wrong reasons. Any car trying to deploy 230bhp through its front wheels is on a sticky wicket and the Viggen models of the 9-3 range were never the happiest handlers, displaying chronic 'torque steer' - the condition where the car seems to veer about as its wheels scrabble for grip. Unless you find enormous tyre bills amusing, its best to stick to cars with engines no more powerful than the 185bhp 2.0T.
The 2.0T models are a different story. Smooth, refined and well equipped, they are definitely the pick of the range. The turbocharged engine despatches the 0-60 increment in just 7.1 seconds on its way to a 138mph top speed - fast enough for most. The 2.0t and 2.2 TiD engines are also impressive. The diesel in particular deserves special praise, as it's testament to General Motors' development budget that Saab's first diesel engine is an absolute corker.
With the 9-3 range, Saab has aimed to offer individuality without the downsides. The larger engined models can't really be recommended as their power deployment leaves a bit to be desired, but track down any of the others and you're likely to have a sound purchase on your hands. The diesel and 2.0T models are especially good, and the convertible is one of the most suave and urbane on the market. As Swede as a nut? They just might be.
Saab 9-3 (1998 - 2002) review by ANDY ENRIGHT