Surprise. The little Saab has a big turbocharger that boosts the output of the 2.0-liter engine to 210 hp. This, coupled with a standard six-speed manual makes for a lot of fun. Moreover, the turbo lag is nearly imperceptible, with what there is of it usually showing up in second gear. The car is plenty quick for the near-luxury sedan that it is. Testers have pegged its 0-to-60 mph time at a respectable 7.3 sec.
Our test car was the 9-3's Vector model. Saab also makes two other versions called the Linear and Arc. The Linear has the same 2.0-liter engine but with less turbo boost (175 hp). The Arc has a more powerful engine setup but carries as options the sport-tuned suspension and performance tires on 17-in. wheels that come standard on the Vector.
Saab did a good job with the suspension. Steering is precise and strong brakes are another plus. Cornering is crisp thanks to stiff tires and the performance setup, but the trade-off is that you feel the potholes. Considering the superlative handling, we think most Saab drivers will say the transaction is worthwhile.
The interior has nice ergonomics and lots of leather. The fit and finish is a strong point, what you'd expect in a car pegged as a near-luxury model. There's ample head clearance as well and 54 ft3 of space up front, 42 in the rear. What's interesting is that these figures are the same or exceed those in German near-luxury cars going for much higher prices. Indeed, our test vehicle carried a $35,960 price tag that included a $1,100 sunroof, $495 for heated seats and headlamp washers, and $2,000 for a touring package covering rain-sensing wipers, xenon headlamps, a CD changer, and a parking-assist system that senses obstacles behind the car when it is in reverse.
To me, the 9-3 has the appearance of something more pricey. This is no small thing: One of the gripes about the older Saabs was that, at least for some people, their hatchbacks made them look cheap. Well, Saab designers certainly solved that problem. Integrated headlights and the distinctive grille are unmistakably Saab, but a steeply raked windshield and black trim along the windows, doors, and bumpers help make the car sleek and contemporary. It wouldn't seem out of place parked alongside a high-end Benz or Audi.
And there are a lot of interior touches that add class. The matte-black dash is trimmed in wood. The glove box is the biggest we've ever seen, large enough to accept a six-pack. An LCD mounts where the top of the dash meets the base of the windshield and displays trip-computer info as well as the outside temperature, radio station, and other messages.
Even the key fob is interesting. There's no key as such. The fob itself inserts in the center console to start the car. And the 9-3 is remote entry only. If your remote dies there is an emergency key that fits in a hidden keyhole on the driver's door.
All in all, the 9-3 gets high marks for performance, handling, and value. In my book it is the best car for the money I've tested in the past year.
-- Lee Teschler