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Saab 9-3 Sports Sedan


Settle into the cockpit of Saab's new 9-3 sports saloon and you're left in no doubt that you're in a classy environment.

More than in any previous version of the smaller Saab sedan, you're impressed by the design detailing, the quality of the materials, the rich smell of leather, the feeling of solidity and class. This is a true luxury car in miniature.

This car is aimed squarely at the segment's benchmark, BMW's 3-Series, and from the cabin's fit, finish and ambience the new Saab 9-3 seems to be right on target.

There are no jarring notes, just evidence of high-quality design, of a cabin designed with thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

There's one outstanding example of the triumph of design over practicality, but it's one that we believe that an everyday user of the car would adjust to quickly enough and it would cease to be an irritant.

And there are things that are decidedly Saab. Take the ignition key, for instance.

Like many other European manufacturers, Saab has gone to an electronic key, though it retains a key-like unit rather than the credit card-style ignition device used on the new Renault Laguna.

Saab says the when it came to designing its electronic key, it followed the long-held Scandinavian principle that form should follow function.

A credit card key would also require pressing a starter button. Not good ergonomics, says Saab.

Its answer was a device that an owner can identify with - it resembles the plastic-covered head of a conventional ignition key - and is also ergonomic to use.

The blade-less key plugs into a socket, the necessary electronic contacts are made, and with a twist the engine starts.

And where is the socket? Where Saab ignition keyholes have traditionally been - on the centre console (the key body contains a key blade the owner can use to get into the car if it has a flat battery).

Thus Saab stays resolutely up-to-date while nodding to tradition.

In a way that electronic key represents the essence of the new 9-3: thoroughly up-to-date yet with enough of the Saab tradition to make a Saab aficionado feel at home.

This is the first 9-3 sedan - previously the model was either a three or five-door hatchback - and there's no longer a hatchback in the range. The old model convertible continues for the present.

Some colleagues feel the shift to four-door sedan has lost some of the 9-3 character, but I don't agree. There's Saab 9-3 character to spare here.

There's the light-pressure turbocharged (LPT) 2.0-litre motor for a start. The 1998cc unit pumps out 129kW at 5500rpm and a meaty 265Nm of torque at 2500rpm.

Saab quotes a 0-100km/h time of 9.7 seconds for the automatic version (which the test car was). Nothing remarkable about that time, but it tells only part of the story.

There's excellent mid-range punch, especially if you shift down manually from fifth gear for open-road passing moves.

And if you use the gearbox manually in winding going, the car sprints from corner to corner with alacrity. Progress is swift and for the most part silent.

The five-speed is the usual sweet-shifting sort of automatic gearbox found in Saabs. Leave it to its own devices and the upshifts are almost imperceptible and kickdown is brisk and jerk-free.

Then there are the brakes, also typically Saab with their progressive nature and strong stopping power.

There are plenty of tactile reminders of Saab character.

Pushed hard on winding roads, the test car revived less appealing memories of older model 9-3s, especially the naturally-aspirated cars Saab used to market here.

It was the Arc model. Its suspension settings are softer than the Vector version's (the cars have identical powertrains). The more powerful Aero with high pressure turbo gets stiffer suspension again.

In the city, on the motorway and on State Highway 1, the 9-3 Arc was superb. The new model's wider track (1524mm front; 1506mm rear, 64mm and 63mm wider than the old 9-3's), 70mm longer wheelbase and 10mm lower ride height gave a solid, sure-footed stance.

It wafted along the motorway in silence and with a rock-solid fell even in strong crosswinds.

Combined with excellent ride (bumps, what are bumps, the Saab seemed to be asking), the comfortable and supportive seats, the quality cabin furnishings and the new chassis which Saab says was designed to achieve best-in-class handling, had me absolutely smitten.

I tend to like Saabs, anyway; the old model 9-3 Aero and the convertible are cars I'd gladly own. So the new 9-3, with its clear advances over the old model, had me totally won over.

And then I decided I'd better just confirm those impressions on our demanding handling route.

The bubble burst. Pushed hard, the Arc had too much bodyroll, understeered too much, just generally felt imprecise.

I know that few drivers seldom really push their cars hard, but I like to be able to do so from time to time; and the Arc's slightly woolly handling feel left me disappointed.

Should I ever consider buying a 9-3 Sport Sedan - and the car has more than enough appealing features to make such consideration worthwhile - I'd opt form at least the Vector model with the firmer, more-sports-oriented suspension. I'm not sure I really need the extra get-up-and-go of the Aero; the light pressure turbo motor is more than adequate.

A colleague who has driven considerable distances in both Arc and Vector versions of the 9-3 Sport Sedan prefers the softer Arc. He feels it's the better all-round compromise, far more comfortable on city streets with its more compliant suspension than the more stiffly-sprung Vector; and perfectly competent on the open road.

He's a keen driver, too, so maybe I was expecting too much of the test car. Using it as a sports car when it was really intended as a compact luxury car. But still... Out pops the bottom in a pout of disappointment.

Handling sharpness aside, what else does the 9-3 Arc have to offer?

Climate-control air-conditioning with filters to extract nasties; high-quality sound; superb seats with good shoulder support, absolutely first-rate head restraints, and NCAP test-topping levels of passive safety.

Add in huge amounts of refinement and you have a very fine luxury car with a feel and ambience that can more than foot it with the Germanic opposition.

Ah, you may be wondering, what was that triumph of design over practicality? The handbrake lever. It's designed to look like a fore-and-aft archway, mirroring the arch on the passenger's side of the centre console. You grasp it and lift it and the handbrake is on. It's when you release the handbrake that the smart design can turn to literal smarting as the web of skin between your thumb and forefinger gets trapped between the end of the lever and the forward part of the console. You soon adjust - pain is a good teacher - but one colleague, who admittedly has large hands, pinched himself virtually every time he released the brake.

If design beat practicality there, the handy little pleated pockets along the leading edge of the seat cushions were a nice reminder that on virtually every other score the Saab designers work with practicality and ease-of-use foremost in their minds.

Story and pictures by Mike Stock

Auto Trader New Zealand