Innovative to the point of quirkiness, Saab was one of the key pioneers not only of front-wheel drive, but also of body designs that were at once aerodynamic outside and spacious inside, while providing outstanding passenger protection.
During the 1970s, when most cars were losing performance to stricter emissions rules, Saabs grew faster (and cleaner) every year. During this period Saab re-introduced automotive turbocharging and pioneered distributorless ignition. The 99EMS, 99 Turbo, and 900 Turbo models became performance legends.
Since then, the rest of the world has caught up a bit, and the latest Saabs are more mainstream than their ancestors. Still, the current 9-3 preserves that special character that makes a Saab. The ignition key is still mounted on the center console; a modern version of the Black Panel instrument cluster remains; and innovative solutions abound.
The model name is pronounced nine-three, and it is a reference to Saab's heritage. Saab was founded in the 1930s as an aircraft manufacturer, and its first automobile, the 92 of 1949, was so named because it was the company's 92nd engineering project. Subsequent Saab cars were numbered more or less in sequence, so that the digit 9 becoming a company hallmark. The Saab 99 of 1969 was followed by the 900 in 1979 and then the 9000 in 1985. At that point someone must have noticed an unpromising trend, and hence the retreat to 9-3 for the bread-and-butter range and 9-5 for the company flagship.
Acceleration performance is a key to the Saab experience. The Viggen is powerful and entertaining. Its turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine shoots the Viggen away from stop lights. Despite all that torque, however, the Viggen doesn't chug around very well at low speed. It can, but doesn't want to.
Viggen's engine develops 230 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. The torque is spread from 2500-4500 rpm. The engine sings under your foot, when you have the chance to stand on it. But it's a song you feel more than you hear, because the Viggen is very quiet and smooth at 75 mph. That's remarkable, considering it's a four-cylinder engine. The increased power comes from a larger turbocharger, a less restrictive intake, a performance exhaust, and more displacement. Saab boasts that this engine produces 52 percent more torque per liter than a Porsche 911. Even more impressive is that it's EPA-rated to get 31 mpg on the highway. You'll have to keep your foot out of it to do that, however, as it's rated only 20 mpg in the city.
The milder-mannered 9-3 SE offers good throttle response at all engine speeds. It develops 205 horsepower, while delivering better-than-average fuel economy (22/30 mpg city/highway) and lower-than-normal emissions.
Earlier Saabs with turbocharged engines suffered from turbo lag (a distinct bog in power before the turbo spooled up) and torque steer (a phenomenon that causes the steering to tug to one side). The 9-3 SE solves this with a low-inertia turbocharger that reduces both of these traits. With its increased horsepower, the Viggen uses its electronic engine management system to reduce turbo lag by manipulating the throttle position.
Also, all 9-3 models have traction control, which greatly enhances driver control by reducing front wheel spin under acceleration. If ever a car needed traction control, this is it. Two years ago, we drove one without traction control on wet San Francisco streets, and had to work to keep the wheels from spinning on uphill starts.
Handling on smooth curvy roads is excellent. The Viggen, especially, is wonderfully responsive on turn-in. However, the Viggen's suspension is pretty rigid, borderline harsh. Upward movements are particularly jolting, and the landing is not terribly soft either. It's safe to say the suspension on the Viggen doesn't smooth out the bumps. The power steering sometimes has trouble keeping up in quick, tight maneuvers.
On the other hand, we were impressed by the 9-3 SE's stability during a drive through Calgary, Alberta. A record snowstorm had dumped nearly three feet of snow on the roads and dense fog made it nearly impossible to see more than a few hundred feet. But the handling of the 9-3 inspired confidence and we were able to drive it with precision given the conditions.
The shifter for the five-speed transmission is free, almost loose feeling, but not sloppy. It's easy to shift gears. An optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic allows the driver to select among three shift modes: sport, normal and winter.
The 9-3 doesn't feel quite as sporty as a comparably priced BMW 3 Series, but the steering is precise, the handling is predictable, and the overall road feel is one of being firmly in control.