With Spyker announcing a new 9-3 in 2012, it's about time that we have a look at Saab's venerable sedan and see how far it has evolved.
Photos: Low Fai Ming
Saabs have always been nice cars to drive, but the iconic Swedish manufacturer has a very iconic car that hasn't changed much since its introduction in 2002. While details about the new 9-3 are limited, Saab says it'll be radically different from the car we had. Still, let's have a look at the present!
Jumping into the 9-3, if you're expecting a jet-fighter style cockpit, you'll be glad. Just like the 9-5 which we reviewed recently, the 9-3 has that aerospace-inspired design, but with fewer buttons, receiving user-friendlier dials for the climate controls.
Its interior is what we can definitely call old school save for the high-tech Pioneer head unit that comes with an iPod/USB interface and touchscreen control. As a plus, it has SD card support. The rest of the interior is mostly in shades of black with silver accents scattered throughout the cabin, it is a more clean-cut Saab design that doesn't scream at you with overboard flair.
The instrument panel is equally uncluttered as the console, with a tachometer, speedometer, fuel indicator and temperature dials. An information display resides at the bottom of the speedo, giving drivers selectable information displays such as fuel consumption, distance to empty and a handy user-customizable speed warning. Again, we find the "Night Panel" function, which only leaves the speedometer on when activated.
We find the only cup holder mounted in the dash and in the rear seats intriguing because of the way it seamlessly “unfolds” when you need somewhere to place your drink. There's another located in the centre console, right next to the handbrake lever which is cleverly disguised as part of the console's design when you put it down.
Build quality feels good and all the switches feel chunky to operate. However, we do have our doubts about the finish and choice of materials. While some trim pieces are finished with soft plastic that feels nice to touch, several elements are made from harder materials, which dampens this sedan's luxury feel.
The front seats are comfortable with good support and there's a good amount of space in the front. The rear is slightly cramped compared to the front, but at least they have adjustable head rests that can be fully lowered to keep the rear vision clear. The upside is that the 9-3 has a very accommodating boot, which will swallow the typical boot's content with ease.
With the 150hp two litre turbo engine, don't expecting mind blowing acceleration, but it still gets off the line at a pretty brisk pace. Saab's famous mid-range punch is still evident all the way till you reach our national cruising speeds.
The 9-3 is fitted with a five-speed automatic gearbox with a manual override. Leave it in full auto and it will shift smoothly and doesn't get confused when you need to mash the pedal. You can choose to shift the gears yourself through the gear stick or with your thumbs on the small “+/- paddles” on the steering wheel. It is an unconventional layout, but shifting with thumbs is indeed refreshingly different.
On the move, the firm ride is immediately noticeable, as well as the slightly over-sized steering wheel, but it makes up for it. Piloting the 9-3 is a light and border-line accurate affair. The ride is smooth over most surfaces, only loosing composure over bumpy surfaces. The handling is good but the steering is a tad slow especially if you're thinking of attacking some corners.
However, the steering has a good amount of feedback from the road, which just wants to make you push harder through the corners. Keep the traction control on, and this car can carve through corners easily. Turn it off, and you will be on your way to a world of predictable (and hence, “safer”) understeer. Another plus of the firm suspension is that the car feels real stable, even if the speed needle goes into the triple digit zone.
It has been nearly a decade and we have got to hand it to the Saab team who has constantly been working their magic on the 9-3 for it to remain competitive against its rivals. Though some of the quirky “Saab-ness” was lost under GM rule, it's clear that there's something special about the 9-3.
In the world where superlatives are easily thrown around, the 9-3 strangely sets out, because it feels like the guy/girl who lives next door. It is not show-off material like its rivals for instance, instead opting for an understated style that has matured nicely with a little bit of mid-life botox injection. Blending just about the right amount of elements to deserve the “sport” in its name and most importantly, it is living proof that being special doesn't mean having to be the best in class.