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Second hand: 2003-11 Saab 9-3 had frugal, powerful engine

The Saab 9-3 exhibited great handling for a front-drive car, and earned excellent crash-test ratings.

  • Saab 9-3

Was Saab really born from jets? And do the cars start with an Allen key?

Unlike some automakers, Saab couldn?t boast that it was founded by a clutch of car nuts. Of the 16 engineers originally employed by Svensk Aeroplan AB, only one had a driver?s licence.

Saab was established in 1937 to supply airplanes to Sweden?s Air Force ahead of the looming war. When World War II drew to a close, Saab needed a peacetime product, so Project 92 commenced with the goal of creating a small runabout: the front-wheel-drive Saab 92.

Through six decades and 3.3 million cars built, Saab?s inventive engineering solutions challenged industry conventions ? including an ignition key that, while it couldn?t tighten Ikea furniture, remained unique.

CONFIGURATION

In redesigning the second-generation 9-3 for 2003, GM-controlled Saab dropped its beloved hatchback configuration to the chagrin of Saab-ophiles everywhere. The 9-3 morphed into a four-door sedan, two-door convertible and, in 2006, the SportCombi wagon.

Underpinning the handsome sheet metal was GM?s front-drive Epsilon platform, shared with the Opel Vectra and Pontiac G6, among others. Improved struts and control arms up front quelled torque steer, while a multi-link suspension replaced the old twist-beam layout in back.

Drivers faced a traditional ?7?-shaped cockpit with a multitude of buttons, moulded in Swedish plastic that wasn?t quite world-class.

?The interior plastics were fading and had to be replaced three times. The door handle faded,? griped one owner online.

Despite a 7-cm longer wheelbase, rear-seat legroom remained snug. Conversely, the trunk was vast and the cargo room extended into the cabin when the seats folded down.

A 2.0L Ecotec turbo four-cylinder developed by Opel, GM and Saab engineers churned out 175 hp, tied to a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. Arc and Vector models employed a 210-hp version, linked to the automatic or a six-speed manual gearbox. The 175-hp motor later retired.

The new-gen convertible arrived for 2004, complete with a power fabric top and heated rear window. A roll bar popped up if sensors detected an impending rollover.

In addition to the SportCombi wagon for 2006, Aero models received a new 250-hp 2.8L turbo V6, named one of Ward?s 10-Best engines that year. All 9-3s earned a simplified instrument panel for 2007.

Exterior styling was thoroughly refreshed for 2008, and all-wheel drive became available for the first time. AWD came packaged with a 280-hp version of the turbo V6, using an intelligent Haldex system to direct up to 90 per cent of the output to the rear wheels. The AWD mechanicals spread to the 2.0T models, optionally, in 2009.

A restructured GM sold Saab to Dutch automaker Spyker Cars in 2010. Sadly, Spyker couldn?t keep the lights on at the Trollhattan factory, and production halted last December.

ON THE ROAD

The 2003 9-3 took 7.2 seconds to reach highway velocity with its 210-hp engine and stick shift, while the invigorated 2008 turbo V6 took a more fleet 6.4 seconds. The Turbo X was the quickest factory Saab at 6.0 seconds.

Saab has always been a genteel automobile, with a supple suspension that absorbed potholes well and provided decent, but not stellar, road grip. Manual-transmission drivers complained of a vague, rubbery shifter.

Despite their turbo-fed aspirations, Saabs generally didn?t compare well to the German iron. In published comparisons, the slightly blunt 9-3 perennially ranked near the bottom.

More positively, the 9-3 offered frugal yet powerful engines, exhibited great handling for a front-drive car, and earned excellent crash-test ratings.

WHAT OWNERS SAY

Saab fans tout the 9-3?s lines, fuel efficiency, safety gear and quirky features, including the enduring ignition lock in the centre console. What they despise is General Motors? inept stewardship of the brand, which they blame for the car?s lumpy reliability.

?I?ve lost count of the number of times she?s been in the shop: brakes, radio, transmission, rattles, doors unlocking by themselves, SID display going blank, key replaced, etc.,? reads one online litany.

Saabs are made in Europe, so the electrical issues ? failed door locks, headlamps, computers, alarms, ignition systems ? seemingly go without saying.

Frequent brake service appears to be common, along with faulty throttle bodies, window regulators, wiper mechanisms, fuel pumps, radiators, sunroofs, and the occasional air conditioner and automatic transmission, to boot.

What reportedly endures is the 2.0T Ecotec turbo four ? it?s certainly better than the previous-generation Saab motor that cooked its own oil and seized up with sludge.

If we haven?t dissuaded you, late-model 9-3s (2007s and up) appear to hold up well. These orphaned cars are relatively inexpensive, and local specialty garages pledge to keep them running.

  • Second hand: 2003-11 Saab 9-3 had frugal, powerful engine
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