Saab 9-3 2.0t Vector review
by David Finlay (17 January 2003)
Platform-sharing between manufacturers does not necessarily mean that you end up with two or more cars that have different badges but feel the same. Among the many other possible examples of this, we have here the Saab 9-3. It owes a lot to the Vauxhall Vectra (both makes being owned by the leviathan that is General Motors), but from behind the wheel you would never guess that they shared any components at all.
The Vectra feels like a big car, with the stodginess that that implies. The 9-3 seems much lighter, much sportier, much more manoeuvrable. An odd state of affairs, bearing in mind the histories of the two manufacturers. It also applies only up to a certain point.
Drive a Vectra harder than normal and it will do its best to keep up. The 9-3, on the other hand, quickly reaches a point where the suspension seems unable to deal with what's going on. The handling becomes very uncertain, and your route over the next twenty yards appears to be dictated more by the way the car is pointing than by what you do with the steering wheel.
Among the 9-3s we have tested so far, this is of greatest concern in the car under discussion here. It's the 2.0t, which has the same two-litre light-pressure turbo engine as fitted to the 1.8t (yes, we're a bit confused by those designations too). The difference is that the 2.0t is more highly tuned, with 173bhp rather than 147bhp. That's quite a lot of power to deal with when you're not absolutely confident about directional control, and although the 2.0t isn't as bad as the 1.8t in this respect, I still feel it's something Saab should be looking into.
As long as you don't push it too hard, the 2.0t is a very smooth runner, with fine ride quality. It's usefully rapid in a straight line, too, though if you use its potential on anything like a regular basis the official fuel economy figures quickly become a thing of the past. The combined test result is 33.2mpg, but I doubt many people would be able to achieve that unless they were trying hard to do so.
The test car was in Vector trim, the highest spec of the four available for the range. 17" alloy wheels are standard, as are leather/cloth upholstery and nicely supportive sports front seats. There is also a certain amount of metal-effect chrome trim dotted around inside.
There's lots of room for front-seat occupants and for luggage, but rear-seat room has never been one of Saab's strong points, and although current 9-3s are better than last-generation ones in this respect the new car still isn't a great way of transporting four adults.
As is the Swedish way, passenger protection is very impressive, though driving a Saab no longer feels like you are at the wheel of a tank. The structural safety is less apparent than it used to be, though I like knowing that it's still there.
One minor niggle - and it applies to every manual transmission 9-3 we've tried so far - is that it's all too easy to stall the car when you're shuffling about at low speeds. This quickly becomes tiresome in car parks, or if, as in my own case, there's a compulsory three-point turn to be made every time you venture from the front door to the outside world. It can be sorted out with lots of revs and a large dose of clutch slip, but personally I'd rather Saab altered the necessary settings so you don't have to do this.
I quite like the 9-3, but I'm not sure I'd want to live with one. There is so much quality opposition in the class that I suspect it will appeal mainly to existing Saab owners rather than achieving much in the way of conquest sales.
Second opinion: One thing that certainly hasn't changed is the impressive build quality, thanks to the use of high-standard materials and an insistence on proper fit and finish. What with the duplicate audio controls on the steering wheel, and so on, there seem to be a lot more lights left on than there used to be when you decide to go for "black panel" instrument non-illumination. This certainly feels like a car designed to be at its best when driven at what the 1950s Birkett Dicing Analysis would reckon as seven-tenths (one stage up from "slowest speed practised by One of Us") but it's still a class act. I'd say a huge amount of luggage space rather than just "lots". Interesting that Saab owners wanted the now electronic ignition key to stay down by the gearlever, although you no longer have to go into reverse before taking the key out. Ross Finlay.