Base versions of Saabs compact series have been dropped for 2002. This leaves only the SE editions of the four-door hatchback and two-door convertible, as well as the high-performance Viggen in three body styles that include a two-door hatchback. SE models feature a turbocharged, 205-horsepower, high-output 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and new five-spoke, 16-inch alloy wheels. A Premium Package for the SE hatchback includes a sport chassis, full leather seats and a Prestige audio system.
Topping the performance pack is the 9-3 Viggen Swedish for thunderbolt and named after a fighter jet. The Viggen is equipped with a turbocharged, 230-hp, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. These models come only with a five-speed-manual transmission, but SE models can be equipped with an optional four-speed-automatic gearbox. A Saab hallmark since the beginning, all 9-3 models have front-wheel drive. Traction control is standard.
Saab is wholly owned by General Motors, and GMs OnStar satellite-based communication system is standard on all 9-3 models. Premium OnStar services permit voice-activated phone calls and access to e-mail, stock quotes, news headlines and other Web-based information.
The styling of the Swedish-built Saab definitely differs from the compact competition. Saab 9-3 SE models have a 102.6-inch wheelbase and a 182.3-inch overall length. The hatchback is 56.2 inches tall, while the convertible stands 56.8 inches high. The overall length of the Viggen is a tad shorter, at 180.9 inches. SE and Viggen convertibles have a power folding top.
Compact exterior dimensions belie the sizable interiors in the 9-3. Saabs functional, upright design provides 108.7 cubic feet of interior space in hatchback versions. Classified as midsize cars by the Environmental Protection Agency, Saab 9-3s have sufficient room to fit five adults without undue squeezing. The cargo space is 21.7 cubic feet behind the hatchbacks rear seat. That volume expands to 46 cubic feet when the rear seat is folded down, rivaling the space of some small wagons. The convertibles trunk holds 12.5 cubic feet of cargo.
One unique but traditional feature is the floor-mounted ignition lock on models with the manual transmission. The transmission must be shifted into Reverse before the key can be removed.
Under the Hood
All five-door models have turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines. SE models have a 205-hp version of that engine, while the muscle car of the group is the high-performance 9-3 Viggen, which comes with a 230-hp, 2.3-liter power plant. Either a five-speed manual or a four-speed-automatic transmission is available for the SE, but Viggens come only with the manual shift.
Saab is well known for sensible safety features. Antilock brakes, side-impact airbags and Saabs Active Head Restraint system are standard. In a collision, the head restraints move up and forward to reduce the chance of whiplash injury.
Saab doesnt try to cover up its quirkiness. Instead, the automaker actually takes pride in standing apart from the crowd. With the manual shift, in particular, you can expect brisk acceleration from an SE and sensational responses from the Viggen. Crisp handling also is a big attraction. Suspensions are firm, but they dont extract great penalties in ride comfort.
Saabs feel solid and confident on the road, and theyre known for durability. These cars arent for everyone, but Saab 9-3 models provide a driving experience and styling touches that can easily grow on a person.