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This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Fri, May 23, 2003

By: The LACar Editorial Staff


By BILL WRIGHT Not a bad day, this. Northbound on the Golden Gate Bridge, destination Stinson Beach via the winding roads through Marin County. A beautiful autumn afternoon, big fluffy clouds scudding across the azure blue sky. The winding roads and the nice weather contributed to the feeling of wanting to really push the car towards its limits. Had it not been for the presence of more than a couple of “sworn officers of the law” along the way, I might have done just that. Ah, well, it’s probably all for the better.

I was behind the wheel of the ‘all new’ Saab 9-3. Don’t ya’ just hate that phrase, ‘all new’, even when it’s true? I’m here to tell you that in the case of the 2003 Saab 9-3, it is definitely true, this is not your father’s Saab, not by a long shot. Admittedly, it still looks like a Saab, and the ignition is still mounted in the console, but that is about it. I mean they even got it right (more or less) with the cup holder. That right there should be enough to motivate people to give Saab another look see. About now there will be those that are getting ready to make a comment along the lines of, “but this is just a twist on another GM common platform.” This is, of course, true, in a very limited way. Yes, the Saab 9-3 is built on the Epsilon platform, and yes, that platform is the basis for at least a dozen other cars in six other companies (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Saturn, Opel, Vauxhall, Alfa Romeo, etc.) But that is as far as it goes. Saab’s use of turbocharging on all of its vehicles, combined with everything else that goes into the 9-3 to make it a true sport sedan, separates it from the other GM products.

“Hey, is this the street that we came in on?” I look over at the Saab guy, as we were exiting the bucolic little burg of Petaluma, north of San Francisco in the Wine Country. “Uh, I’m not sure,” came the reply. That was pretty much to be expected, as he was still a little confused at having just seen sailboats that appeared to be sailing through open fields just outside of Petaluma. This would strike one as odd, ‘cause Petaluma is more than ten miles from the SF Bay. Since he was from the Gothenburg area of Sweden’s west coast, and an avid sailor, I knew that that sight would get a rise out of him. It’s not readily apparent until you get right up on it, but there is a navigable waterway that comes up from the San Francisco Bay to Petaluma via a channel cut through several sloughs starting at Black Point. Petaluma even has a marina, but I digress.

It’s not that unusual to take a wrong turn on one of these jaunts, after all, you’re in unknown territory, even if it is pretty… But, unfortunately, I can’t really claim that excuse, it being the case that my parents moved up to Sonoma County 25 years ago, and this wasn’t exactly my first time wandering these roads. So it was that the Saab guy looked even more confused as he listened to me call up my mother to ask which street it was that you took south out of Petaluma to get back to that cheese factory place. They say that a little humility now and then is good for you. If it is, I must be in great shape. Well, mom got us pointed in the right direction, (who says that guys can’t ask for directions) so it was back to the cheese factory place to regroup with the rest of the crew before making our way back to San Francisco. The following morning brought a stunning blue sky with perfect autumn temperatures. A great day to charge around an Autocross Course comparing the 9-3 to a similarly equipped BMW 3-Series and an Audi A4. It was a surprise to me that the Audi lagged so far behind both the Saab and the BMW, no matter whom was driving it. It got to the point that the A4 was parked most of the time as attention shifted to the BMW and the Saab. The Saab more than held its own, and every time someone managed to set the best time with the Bimmer, it wasn’t long before someone else would raise the bar again using the Saab. When the dust settled, and we were headed back to the hotel, the Saab was on the top of the heap. This was a very pleasant surprise, and quite a change from the handling characteristics of past Saabs.

There may be folks out there that will lament the passing of the famed (or infamous) Saab torque steer, but I am definitely not one of them. A more legitimate criticism would be that maybe the folks in Trollhättan could have been a little bolder in the styling department. I like the lines of the new 9-3, but this is after all, a Saab; does it have to be so understated and subdued? All in all, I like the Saab 9-3 a great deal and I think that it is a car that will help Saab to maintain the core group of hardcore Saab repeat buyers as well as attract new buyers. With the Cabriolet getting a face lift and coming this fall, that means that Saab only has one little thing left to do: Fill the void in the lineup where a crossover vehicle of some type needs to be. That job just became a lot harder in light of Volvo’s XC90 being such a smash hit. The two Swedish car companies, no matter who owns them, are perpetually compared to one another in the Swedish press. Right now, the spotlight is on Volvo, but Saab hopes to change that.

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