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Saab's hotter 9-3 models look a bargain

  • Driver

Like Goldilocks' porridge, Saab's new 9-3 sports sedan comes in three temperatures: cool, warm and hot.

Initially, the front-drive four-door sedan was offered only in the coolest version – Linear. Now, both mid-range Arc and top-ranked Vector fill out the menu.

Saab's brochure writers got quite a workout trying to explain the differences between the three trim levels (called "forms" in Saab-speak). Linear is "the closest to the heart of Saab design. Scandinavian natural simplicity.

Refined, clean and modern." Arc is a "modern interpretation of understated classic elegance." Vector "exudes performance and dynamics." Sure, if you say so.

The biggest difference is the engine. Linear has a low-pressure turbo 2.0-litre 16-valve twin-cam inline four with 175 horsepower at 5500 rpm, and 195 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm. Arc and Vector get the high-pressure turbo variant of that same engine, which generates 210 horsepower at 221 lb.-ft. of torque at the same rpm levels.

On Arc and Vector, a six-speed manual transmission replaces the five-speed on the Linear. A five-speed automatic is optional on all versions, and includes a manual-override shift feature with up- and down-shift buttons on the steering wheel spokes.

Both Arc and Vector get upgraded trim and equipment over Linear.

Linear is a bit stark, frankly with a matte black dash that looks too sombre. Arc gets some light poplar wood dash accents and leather inlays in the door panels, armrest, steering wheel and shift knob. Vector gets a similar treatment but with different materials.

What visually sets Vector (my ride) apart from Arc is a "sport" body kit and 225/45R17 tires on specific "twin-spoke" alloy wheels. The car's low-slung appearance attracted eyeballs wherever I drove it.

As befits Saab's leadership role in safety, all 9-3s get four-wheel disc ABS brakes with electronic brake force distribution, and "ESP" (Electronic Stability Program), Saab's clever name for dynamic stability control.

Saab passes all governmental crash tests with flying colours.

More to the point, they have made some real-world safety gains not covered by legislation, most notably in their active head restraints.

In rear-end impacts, the head restraint cradles the head and neck. The first-generation design introduced several years ago resulted in a claimed 75-per-cent reduction in serious neck injuries (the whiplash-type are so easy to get, and so hard and expensive to treat). The second-generation design is said to be even more effective, especially at lower speeds.

Saab believes wholeheartedly in turbocharging, feeling it gives the best combination of six- or eight-cylinder performance when you want it, and four-cylinder economy when you need it.

While the power delivery is never quite as, um, linear as in a naturally aspirated engine, there is lots of grunt in the mid-range, where it has to be for two-lane road passing or freeway on-ramps.

This lack of typical turbo peakiness is also at least partly responsible for taming the torque steer that has plagued powerful Saabs in the past.

I drove the Vector some months after the Linear; frankly, you might find the subjective power difference not as great as the horsey-count numbers might predict.

You'll also be into the gearbox fairly soon, as that modest 5500 rpm power peak means the engine runs out of revs quickly.

The gearbox feels better than Saabs of the past: the shifts are light and direct, although the shift quality isn't as slick as, say, a BMW's.

Suspension on all models is MacStruts up front, with a four-link independent setup at the rear. The Vector's tuning, plus those low-profile tires, make the ride a bit jarring on the broken pavement that seems a constant part of our urban life in this country.

But there's a solid feel to this car, an all-of-a-piece sensation that you will notice even in the first few metres of driving.

Saabs have always been about logic and functionality. That has sometimes resulted in cars that are clearly out of the mainstream. While this has generated fanatical fans, it hasn't generated enough of them.

The seemingly inevitable homogenization has begun with this iteration of the 9-3.

However, the 9-3 still has the ignition key on the floor.

(I'm sure Saab has its reasons.) And it also still has the "Black Panel" feature: push a button and all the gauges but the speedometer stop working, unless something goes out of limits. The theory here is that you only need to see something if it goes wrong; this way it's brought much more obviously to your attention.

Saab says this is aircraft-based (Saab stands for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, or Saab Aircraft Company). A friend of mine, a retired Air Canada pilot, says this is true. "A black panel is a happy panel," he says.

Saab faces the same challenges that led BMW to develop the infamous iDrive on-board computer system. Namely, how do you allow the customer to select and operate all the functions and features in today's cars without festooning the dash with innumerable buttons? Well, the 9-3 still has buttons. I lost count, but it must be more than 50.

But they have also introduced a number of programmable features that you can call up to your taste. All car ownership experiences would be enriched if said owner would just read the owner's manual.

For the Saab 9-3, this is truly mandatory for you to get the most out of the car.

For the most part, however, the Saab 9-3 will require you to make very few apologies for its quirkiness.

There's loads of room, for passengers and stuff.

It's beautifully built. It looks great. It goes well. It is very quiet.

Is it a BMW? No.

Can it compete with a BMW? Absolutely, especially at these prices. Linear starts at $34,900, Arc at $40,500 and Vector at $43,500. My test car had the "Touring package" for $1,700 (parking beepers for pain- and dent-free reversing, bi-Xenon headlights, six-CD in-dash player, rain-sensing wipers that switch on automatically when it rains), a $1,400 power sunroof and metallic paint that added another $500, for a total of $47,100.

All customers need to do now is decide which temperature of 9-3 is just right.

Jim Kenzie can be reached at jim @ jimkenzie.com

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