2005 Saab 9-3 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Sports sedan or luxurious convertible.
The Saab 9-3 sedan is an honest contender among sports sedans in its class. It's tight, it handles great, and there's lots of power from the 210-horsepower turbocharged engine on the Arc and Aero models. It's also smooth and quiet, comfortable and nicely trimmed. It feels like the upscale car it is.
The 9-3 convertible is a near-luxury drop top that seats four passengers. It's delightful to drive and quiet with the top up, with creature comforts galore and intuitive fixtures. With the top down, it wraps occupants in the panorama and aromas of the world around, setting a new standard for the class in all respects.
Sedan or convertible, the 9-3 stands apart from the crowd. It looks like a Saab and manages to remain a Saab, yet it's a thoroughly modern car with no quirks or foibles. The 9-3 was completely redesigned and re-engineered for the 2003 model year. And the all-new convertible followed for 2004. For 2005 the line-up includes a Linear convertible that drops the price of dropping the top. DVD navigation is available for 2005 Arc and Aero models.
Saab has always dared to be different. Influenced by its aeronautical background, Saab borrows aircraft design elements for its cars. Past examples of this have been the wraparound, near-vertical windshields and aircraft-style dashboards with instrument lighting that can be switched off at night. Small map lights looked like they came from a cockpit. Outside mirrors were bent at the edges to reduce blind spots. Even when American buyers stopped wanting hatchbacks, Saab stoically shipped them over.
General Motors absorbed Saab a few years back, but it didn't turn out to be the deal with the devil the Saab faithful feared. Granted, the idiosyncratic styling cues have been softened somewhat, edging the car closer to the automotive mainstream, but in exchange, GM funded a long-overdue development of newer and better-engineered cars.
In short, these are the best 9-3s Saab has ever produced.
The 2005 Saab 9-3 is available as a four-door sedan or two-door convertible. Each comes in three trim levels: Linear, Arc and Aero.
Linear models are powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 175 horsepower. Arc and Aero are powered by the same 2.0-liter engine but with a high-output turbocharger for 210 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on Linear and Arc; Saab's five-speed automatic Sentronic ($1,350), which features semi-manual gear selection, is optional. Aero comes standard with a six-speed manual; the optional five-speed automatic comes with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles ($1,350).
The Linear sedan ($26,850) and the new Linear convertible ($37,100) come well equipped. Standard features include leather-appointed seats; five-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels; seven-speaker audio with CD; input for MP3; heated power mirrors; two 12V outlets. For 2005, all 9-3 models come with no-charge scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance during the warranty period.
The Arc sedan ($30,250) and convertible ($39,995) get a higher level of equipment: 10-spoke 16-inch alloys; dual-zone automatic climate control; cruise control; power windows, door locks and outside mirrors; a 300-watt stereo with CD player and 13 speakers; power front seats with driver memory; and front fog lights. Options include heated front seats ($500); Xenon headlamps with high-pressure washers ($650); moonroof ($1,200); and the navigation system ($2,295). Options for the Arc convertible include a Driver's Package ($1,695), consisting of a wood/leather steering wheel, wood shift surround, rain-sensing wipers, rear park assist, 6-disc CD changer, remote top operation, and auto-dimming interior mirror with integrated garage door opener.
The Aero sedan ($32,850) and Aero convertible ($42,600) feature a lowered, sport-tuned chassis; an exterior body kit; 17-inch wheels; a tire-pressure monitor; Sport exhaust; a 300-watt, 13-speaker sound system; and leather-faced seats. A Convertible Touring Package ($1,495) adds remote top operation, an auto-dimming interior mirror with integrated garage door opener, memory for the driver's seat, rain-sensing wipers, rear park assist, a poplar wood and leather steering wheel, and a six-disc CD changer. Heated seats ($500), and xenon HID headlamps with washers ($650) are optional.
The convertible can be enhanced with a blue top ($600) to replace the standard black top. A special color-matched tonneau ($350) is available to go with models ordered in the steel gray metallic paint.
Safety is a keynote feature on Saabs and the 9-3 is loaded with active and passive safety features. Among them: electronic stability control (ESP), cornering brake control, anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), Brake Assist, and traction control, all designed to help the driver maintain control. In addition to the dual-stage front airbags, dual-stage side-impact and roofrail airbags protecting both torso and head come standard. Also standard: Saab's Active Head Restraint system that automatically cradles the head to minimize whiplash in a rear-impact collision.
From the front three-quarter view, there is no mistaking the 9-3 for anything but a Saab. Unlike Saabs of old, the windshield is steeply raked. But the sloping, wedge-like profile, the shape of the windows, the sleek, integrated headlights, and the distinctive grille are all unmistakably Saab.
The rear fascia no longer presents the edgy, Saab-signature look. Instead, a smoother, more rounded, monochromatic body panel integrating the bumper houses taillights somewhat reminiscent of earlier Saabs, only now wrapping around to the trailing edge of the rear quarter panel. It's a perfectly pleasing look.
The side profile shows a clearly defined wedge shape with the lower edge of the side windows picking up the slope of the hood and following it through to the high trunk line at the rear.
On convertibles, the soft top merges cleanly with the car's lines, retaining all the proper proportions and relationships with windshield, wheel openings and wedge profile. With the top down and tucked away beneath the solid tonneau cover, the rake of the windshield draws the eye naturally over the passenger area to the tonneau behind the rear-seat head restraints, which tapers into the trunk lid. The soft top features a glass rear window with a defogger.
Big, oval-shaped, open-grip door handles are finger friendly and integrate well into the design. Conspicuously absent from those door handles are key holes. You may not have noticed, but they've been disappearing from the passenger doors of most cars, but Saab has completely done away with using a key for normal entry of the car. Instead one has to rely on the remote key fob. But don't worry, if it ceases to function there is a back up key buried in the key fob and a hidden keyhole in the driver's door.
Anyone familiar with Saabs knows the most contentious issue is the location of the ignition key. Saab fans need not worry, as it's still located down on the center console behind the gearshift between the front seats. Those who have not experienced this unique placement of the ignition key don't know what they are missing. It is really sensible as it avoids the irritating jingle from the dangling mass of keys so many of us has on our key chains. It's also safer as it prevents the possibility of getting keys jammed in one's knees in a severe accident. Thankfully, Saab no longer requires the manual transmission be in reverse before the key can be removed. We don't miss that feature.
In the convertible, Saab has taken a refreshing approach to the headliner, replacing the traditional black fabric with a light tan. The intent is to boost the perceived interior space, especially front-seat headroom, which in fact gives up almost a full inch to the soft top's mechanicals. The deception succeeds, as there's not the claustrophobic feel so common in convertibles when their tops are raised.
Beyond that, the Saab 9-3 interior is pretty much what one would expect in a near-luxury car, although certain Saab styling cues remain. The instruments are arrayed in an easy-to-view layout with a big speedometer in a sweeping instrument panel that blends into the center console. It's still a relatively high dashboard compared to that in most other cars, but it's long been a signature styling cue of Saab cars so it's nice to see it retained. The buttons and switches are smaller than in many cars. Nonetheless they are all well placed for the driver to reach while driving. An extra set of warning gauges is mounted on top of the dashboard in the center in a small pod, locating them more directly in the driver's line of sight. Radio settings are also displayed here.
The glovebox is one of the largest we have seen in a long time.
At first blush it's easy to miss the parking brake. It's located on the center console, but it's design mirrors the grab handle on the passenger side of the console so that it looks as though it is a sculptured design feature. Once you know it's there it operates just like any other hand parking brake; take care, though, when releasing it, as inattention can result in a thumb pinched between the tip of the handle and its resting place in the console. The matching grip on the passenger side contains a slot useful for temporarily storing a CD or parking lot ticket, which is a clever piece of design.
The front seats that come standard are firm but comfortable, with side bolsters that restrain during spirited motoring without restricting while climbing in and out. The available Sport seats are more aggressive and best suited to bodies tending toward the slim end of the scale.
Overall quality of the interior appears to be very good. The sedan features wood trim, while the convertible goes with more matte-black finish. Door handles and the center console gearshift surround are trimmed in brushed chrome. The Aero steering wheel is fully wrapped in leather with brushed chrome trim on the spokes.
Rear-seat passengers in the two-door convertible do not fare as well as those in the four-door sedan, of course: The convertible gives up nearly 10 inches of hip room and nearly 3 inches of legroom. A center console can be folded down between the rear seats that contains cup holders and a map storage area.
Trunk space in the sedan is an impressive 14.8 cubic feet and it's very usable space. The sedan uses goose-neck hinges for the trunk, but they are hidden in a cover so they do not crush luggage when the trunk lid is closed. A small pass-through opening is provided for carrying skis and other long items. The 60/40 split rear seats can be folded for versatility when carrying one rear-seat passenger and cargo. Trunk space drops to 12.4 cubic feet in the conver.
The Saab 9-3 handles impressively well, with a nicely balanced neutral feel. The sedan feels tight, like a true sports sedan. The convertible exhibits virtually zero cowl shake, thanks to the extensive bracing designed into the platform that the convertible shares with the sedan.
The steering is a little light, but not enough to detract from the fun-to-drive factor. Passive rear-wheel steering architecture in the rear suspension design keeps the rear tires dutifully following the front tires in quick lane changes and through rapid transitions when driving quickly on twisting roads. Directional stability is good over almost all road surfaces, even when equipped with the wider tires.
The ride is smooth. And it's quiet, with little road noise or wind noise invading the cabin.
Even the convertible is quiet, when the top is up. When the top is down, conversing with the person beside you can be done without shouting, even at extra-legal highway speeds. The rake of the windshield and a removable wind-block behind the front seats combine to reduce buffeting. Rear quarter vision is impeded by the broad expanse of fabric top that occupies the space normally filled by the sedan's much-slimmer C-pillar.
All in all, the Saab 9-3 is a car with no real quirks or foibles.
One area in which the 9-3 excels is its suppression of torque steer, a disconcerting trait afflicting many front-wheel-drive cars where the steering wheel tugs at the driver's hands under hard acceleration or resists corrections in the midst of a corner. (To many drivers this is not a concern, and some say it adds excitement.) Saab engineers worked hard to eliminate it in this latest-generation 9-3, and it appears they were largely successful. A modicum of tugging and some resistance is apparent while accelerating over uneven pavement or out of a tight corner, but it isn't an issue.
With the high-output turbocharger's 210 horsepower, the 9-3 has all the punch it needs, and can use, in today's driving environment. Torque, too, is more than adequate for those urgent passes on two-lane roads and for getting up to merge speed on highway onramps.
The sedan offers the best performance and handling, with the Aero at the front of the grid. The several hundred additional pounds in platform stiffening and occupant protection the convertible carries over the sedan is evident when the two are driven back-to-back, but it's an acceptable price to pay for the joys of top-down driving.
If you like doing your own shifting, go with the manual transmissions. The longish clutch throw takes some getting used to and the six-speed in the Aero feels a little rubbery, but you'll save yourself more than a thousand dollars and have much more fun.
Saab has mastered turbocharger technology so well that most people may not even realize the engine is turbocharged because there is very little turbo lag and there's no boost gauge to give the game away.
The Saab 9-3 is a compelling sports sedan. It's tight, crisp and fun to drive. The Arc and Aero are most fun, with their high-output engines. The 9-3 still stands apart from the crowd. It manages to remain a Saab yet has no quirks or foibles.
The Saab 9-3 convertible is the car to buy for anyone wanting a four-passenger, near-luxury drop top. Closed or open, it's delightful to drive, with creature comforts galore and intuitive fixtures. With the top down, it wraps its occupants in the panorama and aromas of the world around (and whizzing by), setting a new standard in all respects for the class.
Saab 9-3 Linear Sport Sedan ($26,850); Arc Sport Sedan ($30,250); Aero Sport Sedan ($32,850); Linear Convertible ($37,100); Arc Convertible ($40,100); Aero Convertible ($42,600).
Trollhattan, Sweden; Graz, Austria.
Options As Tested
Convertible Touring Package ($1,495) includes poplar/leather steering wheel and trim, driver's side three-position seat memory, express up/down and remote opening for windows and top, rain-sensing wipers, rear park assist, in-dash six-disc CD changer, remote window and top operation, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, programmable garage door opener; heated front seats ($500); xenon high-intensity discharge headlights with headlight washers ($650); color-matched tonneau cover ($350); metallic paint ($525).
Saab 9-3 Aero convertible ($42,600).
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