Saab 9-3 – MY 2003-2007 – A Dealer review

I’ve thanked our author via email for this piece, but I want to thank him again publicly for a well-written insider’s view into the outgoing 9-3 range. The current 9-3 has been available for four years now and whilst the new 9-3 is still just a major mid-cycle enhancement rather than an all-new car, there will be some significant changes during the 2008 model year.

As such, our author (who shall remain nameless here) gives us his thoughts on the outgoing generation. Thoughts that come from the salesman’s and driver’s point of view.

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This is intended to be a two-part piece, old vs. new. As I won’t be getting to drive the new car until July, it gives me a good opportunity to reflect on the 9-3s I’ve been driving for the past 4 years.

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In 2002 the all-new 9-3 was heralded as the key vehicle to shake the bones of BMW and Co. A 4-door sedan was to be regarded as the radical break from the hatchback, which wasn’t thought of as the best example of a premium class compact executive vehicle. The hatch made a good alternative for those who wanted something other than the norm and the extra versatility favoured the Saab over its competitors.

Four years on and from what I can see the change has not had the impact that was intended. The 9-3 hasn’t really increased in volume but they haven’t fallen either. So maybe this experiment has proven one thing: Saab should only expect to sell 80 to 90,000 units per year regardless of style or form. The Saab appeals to those who do not want a German car, who do not want to sit a set of traffic lights next to four other cars wearing the same badge. The hatchback clearly appealed to the alternative thinker but it had a problem.

Handling:

Despite the fact that an old NG900/9-3 still does well on the circuit today, the Epsilon architecture Saab’s 9-3 sits on today is 125% stiffer than the outgoing model. For those who think that it’s just a Vectra in drag, you should remember that the 9-3 only uses 60% of Epsilon. Saab engineers made many changes to the original jig making it very expensive to produce, because Trollhättan is the only plant capable of building it. Good or bad, it would make for interesting listening at a GM board meeting.

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I personally feel that it has made the 9-3 unique, underlining Saab’s niche marketing and when driven, the new 9-3 handles like any Audi A4 or BMW 3-series. The 9-3 is that good, actually, it handles better in some cases as the passive steering at the rear really helps turn that nose in when you push the car hard through the bends. You don’t feel that twist in the chassis when you turn into a corner like you used to in the old 9-3 and why should you? Maybe I’m just trying to prove a point to other Audi drivers I see, but many a time I’ve out manoeuvred an Audi on twisty roads or one Autobahn in particular the A7, which makes for some seriously exciting driving.

Then there’s the TCS, CBC, EBD and ESP that combines everything together to make such a good car. The 9-3 as it stands today is still up there with the other top brands, even if Epsilon is 6-years old in design. But you’d be fooled in thinking that MY07 has the same setup as the original back in 2002. It isn’t, many think there were a lot of changes made to the car when we had the new interior put in. In 2005 as a 2006MY there was a distinct difference between old and new. Nothing mentioned on the product info release but the 16v Diesel engine was smother and quieter, the steering wheel was bulkier in Vector and Aero models which gave for a better feel, and the handling had become so much more refined.

Interior:

At launch, I’d say the 9-3 had the necessary quality to match any premium class brand. Even the Mercedes C-class with their range topping Avant-garde, although I always thought the carbon fibre dashboards only made their interiors look a bit cheap. The New C-Class has made many steps to confront this but I still think a Merc looks best with a high quality wood trim. Both BMW and Audi are also sitting on all new platforms since the 9-3 was first launched and the interiors do a good job of promoting the fact that GM has allowed Saab’s quality to fall behind in my opinion.

The new Interior in the 2007MY brought a few mixed emotions about the direction the designers had taken in the layout. The removal of the SID on top of the dashboard highlighted a step backwards in ‘driver-focused’ ergonomics. I too was displeased with the idea. Looking back, I don’t know what all the fuss was about. It took me about a week to get used to the info display being integrated into the instrument panel and with running 07MY Sedans along-side 06MY Convertibles at present, it‘s quite annoying having to look in different locations for information. Plus you have to take your hand off the steering wheel to navigate through the menus on 06MY cars.

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The 07MY is far more functional and with all models boasting dual-zone climate control, the 9-3 now has another standard feature other premium brands charge you an excessive amount of money for. Some people also talk of flimsy switchgear, which I can relate to but never really noticed until it was brought to my attention. Like most Saab drivers I don’t possess the delicacy of an orang-utan. So Saab shouldn’t worry about dim-witted petrol heads breaking headlight stalks off as they’re flashing the car in front to move over?

The new interior isn’t without faults though. Now the dash has less buttons there seems to be more plastic, which isn’t noticeable at first but slowly starts to become apparent after a few months. The worst piece of all though and I can’t believe no journalist has ever mentioned this is, while you are driving, you have what looks like a great big crack in the top part of the windscreen. It’s actually the reflection of the aluminium strip along the top of the dash and although it doesn’t hinder visibility it’s there all the same. A little reminder that what in theory looked like a good idea, practically drives you nuts. OK, it’s not that bad hence the bottom line is the interior is close to it’s competitors still, and part of the 9-3’s retail price reflects that.

Reliability:

The 9-3 has had a few problems. Hand-brake levers have got stuck, on RHD cars that is. Steering locks remaining ‘on’ after key insertion, steering locks remaining ‘off’ after key removal. Broken Optic-fibre cables causing havoc with electrical systems, Remote unlock not opening cars. Navigation systems continually rebooting, Diesel particle filters clogging up and even the rubber covering on the radio buttons coming off. But it must be stressed that these problems have occurred over a period of 5 Years and these faults have only effected about 5% of customers.

All these problems have all been resolved not only initially when the problem had first arisen but Saab has also made significant changes through-out the model years debugging errors that just wouldn’t have shown up on pre-launch tests. Oddly, I have only ever had one problem in the 30 or 40 vehicles I’ve driven. The particle filter clogged up with soot and required software regeneration to resolve the problem. The car was an early 2006MY 1.9TID Convertible. The engine management system was updated, as all Saabs are when an inspection is made. To my knowledge, the problem has never returned. So there you are, probably the most honest information ever given on the 9-3’s reliability.

There is always room for improvement and my own thoughts are that once word spreads about an on going problem, it takes a long time to overcome it. Months down the line and you are explaining things to potential buyers that you should never be put in a position to have to talk about in the first place. I won’t go into depth but I will say that manufacturers should make it a number one priority to eradicate a production problem as quickly as possible. To the motor industry, Saab seems to be full of faults. The public regard Saabs as safe and reliable. Overall I think that the reliability is above average and certainly better than Mercedes if you believe all the electrical faults they have been plagued with.

03-07 Overview

After 120,000mls of 9-3 driving, I have gone from not really giving much attention to Saab to having a great passion for them. Not many salespeople can say that about the product they sell and I can honestly say I would buy one as my own family car. I’ve driven every engine available except the new 1.8t Bio-power and there isn’t a single engine I wasn’t happy to drive. Even the 1.8i engine performs well. No it doesn’t have the punch of the 2.0TS but you’re not expecting it to.

In (UK) Linear Sport spec it’s certainly in a position to compete with its Vectra sister and other brands too. The model has 16” alloys, climate control, rear parking sensors, cruise control and half leather look interior, plus all the safety features you’d expect from Saab. This car should sell better but I feel many people in the market for a ‘main stream’ vehicle think that Saabs are too expensive and so it never really gets the right consideration. If I had to pick the weakest engine, then the 1.8t (150hp) combined with automatic feels a bit sluggish at times.

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My favourite vehicle of all has to be the 1.9TID Vector Convertible with a manual transmission. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering and the build quality is excellent, better than the quality that comes out of Sweden. It’s also the best looking 4-seater convertible of all the choices of cabs we have today. It’s not a ‘strictly 2-seater’ as some report. Four adults can sit quite comfortably in this car, albeit it could get a bit cramped in the back after a few hours. The power delivery appears a lot lower down the rev range than in the hard top versions too. Maybe it’s the extra weight that has made the engineers tweak the management system a bit to compensate as pulling from standstill is strong and then you get that kick as the turbo really starts blowing at about 2,000 revs. The mid-range acceleration is only 0.2 seconds slower than the 210hp Turbo and it will do 130mph with the roof down. The best bit of all thought, is it will still return 40mpg ‘driving it Like you stole it’. Only when you are stationary can you hear the engine but usually I’ve got Snow Patrol playing so loud I can’t hear it.

Looking forward.

There are certain expectations I hope Saab are going to fulfil in the type-III generation. Even better aesthetics for a start, except just like the 9x hasn’t really worked on the 9-5, I’m not convinced at present that the AeroX design language has translated too well in the new 9-3.

There are parts I do like, the clamshell hood and the 900 styled headlights. Removing the bumper strips has also added to the look in a ‘less is more’ kind of way. However, the chrome seems a bit over the top in the latest sneak peak pictures.

Of course, I’m looking forward to seeing the 30th anniversary Turbo Edition with AWD but I feel this is not going to be available to see or drive in July. It’s not going to be a vehicle I’m going to sell either, so what I’m eager to test is the 180hp Diesel. The 150hp version is a fantastic engine you would think another 30hp, or more important an extra 80nm torque is going to be something truly amazing.

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5 Comments

  1. In (UK) Linear Sport spec it’s certainly in a position to compete with its Vectra sister and other brands too.

    An interesting piece, but this comment highlights the problem that GM has in producing different marques, sorry “brands”, in overlapping market segments ….they end up competing with themselves and not with the Germans.

  2. «The worst piece of all though and I can’t believe no journalist has ever mentioned this is, while you are driving, you have what looks like a great big crack in the top part of the windscreen. It’s actually the reflection of the aluminium strip along the top of the dash and although it doesn’t hinder visibility it’s there all the same. A little reminder that what in theory looked like a good idea, practically drives you nuts.»

    I have been saying this all along. This has nothing to do with Swedish good sens. If they didn’t remove this inexusable blunder from the 08 9-3, they are damn stupid . Period.

  3. John – in all fairness to GM, every other manufacturer basically does the same thing – sharing of common platforms to maximise economies of scale – VAG in particular. Compare the platform of the VW Golf mk5 to the Audi A3, the Passat and Audi 4, Skoda Octavia, Seat and the list is endless. The balance is to make sure that you do not create a product that ends up cannibalizing market share of another but rather to be incremental and augmental. In other words, if I want to gravitate from product A to B, there should be something in-between that should satisfy my need, without sending me thru the backdoor to competitor one.

  4. This is the best “review” of the 9-3 Sportsedan I have read. And I agree totally about the reliability. The 9-3 is a good and reliable car! It’s much better than it’s reputation. My September 2002 9-3 has performed almost flawlessly! 🙂

  5. Danni – you have misinterpreted what I have said. I know about platform sharing.

    Look at your VAG example – it is a good one where one ‘brand’ does not overlap with another. Seat is seen as the Sporty variant, Skoda is the cheap variant, VW is the solid, classless variant, Audi is the posh variant.

    Whereas GM makes the Vauxhall/Opel Vectra, the Saab 9-3 and the Cadillac BLS. They all occupy the same market segment, neither can steal any sales from the Germans and they can only take sales from each other.

    Vauxhall/Opel used to be the fleet car, but Saab (in the UK at least) is now pitched as a fleet car and you now see Saab dealers piling them high and selling them cheap just like Vauxhall dealers.

    The Cadillac only sold a dozen or so cars in the UK last year – so it’s not stealing any sales from anyone.

    GM have product placement issues with the Vectra and the Saab 9-3.

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