UK CAR Road Test

SAAB 9-3 2000 
2.0 Turbo LPT

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Do you love them? Or do you just not care?

Saabs seem to generate either fierce loyalty or total disinterest.

Unlike Volvos, nobody seems to actually hate them which is quite novel in the automotive world.

 

From my experience, the only problem image-wise for Saab is that those who do love them tend to be, shall we say, "middle-aged".

It must be a Swedish car thing that they all seem to appeal to the more mature customer. Even the relative youngsters who own them all seem to be middle-aged wannabes, grey before their time.

It does not help that neither Swedish producer any longer has entry level cars for young drivers. Many drivers are already fixed with some kind of misguided rose-tinted loyalty to the marques of their youth by the time they are affluent enough to enter the Swedish market sector. Add to that the allure of the German winged propeller and it is easy to see why Saabs are so often overlooked which is a real shame because, when you dig underneath the perceived glitz and glamour of the competition and take a long, hard look at a Saab in the real world, they really are very nice cars.

 

Styling is strong if not a strong point. Like a Volvo there really is no mistaking a Saab. The slabsided, long nosed appearance resonates strong across all its models from the 99 onwards. The number 9 has long been associated with Saabs and no matter what variation of suffixes are appended onto the 9 prefix they all hint back to the strong 99 model of ancient repute. Some models are very colour sensitive, this 9-3 especially - a good colour looks cool but a bad colour looks awful so choose carefully.

Strong looks are okay with me and it's where the main emphasis is.  The 9-3 may not make as dramatic a statement as a dragon headed longboat full of hairy men in horned helmets but it does suggest solidity, safety and a touch of subtle class. It's not quite as overt in its Saabness as other models so it may just appeal to other buyers who may be put off by some of Saab's styling efforts.

Inside it is light and airy. Saab used to make a big deal out of dash ergonomics when ergonomics was a new word and other marques had not yet discovered it. They make less of a fuss nowadays but the layout is still simple, attractive and, most importantly, convenient. Okay, so it' not flashed up with carbon, aluminium, or chrome but you get the right messages.

Everything feels slightly oversized as if to emphasis the strength card and exaggerate the size of the car. Bearing in mind this is now a GM firm and shares more than a few components with other GM luminaries like Vauxhall, it remains light years ahead of the Vectra with its fussy, shiny plastics and mouse hole strewn dash.

 

 


I don't know how much this thing retailed at but I guess it was pretty much the base model. Not having electric windows and mirrors would be a faux pas beyond belief and looking at what is standard equipment, you get the impression that they are only fitted because the car would be un-saleable without them.
  I was quite take aback to find no air-con or sunroof, a basic stereo and a general dearth of buttons and gadgets to play with. Still, it allows maximum time to concentrate on the real points of the car and I can console myself with the knowledge that there is less to go wrong in the future.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a 1957 Beetle with a speedo, fuel gauge and sod all else, but the market sector you would perceive a Saab to sit in, it's pretty close.

 

The 99 may have given us Saab's reputation for strength but, even more, it gave us the turbo-charged engine. In those days the tiny, financially strapped independent Saab briefly dominated. Rallying with a new breed of super saloon, front wheel drive and turbocharger, it saw off the legendary RS Escort and the V8 powered TR7, only to be trampled under the wheels of the megabuck super cars like the Audi Quattro. Lack of 4-wheel drive killed Saab's long standing love of rallying but walked away with a head start in tand continues with their use often in the face of fashion to this day. The turbo slant 4 is Saab's trademark, originally based on a (whisper it) Triumph Dolomite unit, Saab have used the turbo to a multitude of effects ever since.

This one is the LPT, which sounds an awful lot better than the long-winded Low Pressure Turbo, with all the connotations that low pressure seems to suggest.

Maximum output is conservative to low at around 150bhp, but power delivery is smooth and wide. Saab will argue that you get 150bhp performance when the blower is churning and excellent economy when steady cruising as the turbo backs off on light throttle. Personally, I donít think it makes much difference, use 150bhp and you use 150bhp of fuel, use 50bhp and burn 50bhp of fuel, it matters little whether a turbo, supercharger or multitude of cylinders are used to generate the output. When I got in, the fuel computer was boasting a 17mpg average; hopefully that is a mix of reversing in and out of the workshop and forecourt. Either that or the previous owner had serious issues with his licence.

In feel, the counter balanced 4 seems almost like a 6 with its mix of seamless low-end drive and mid range pickup. In this size of car 150bhp feels like a nicely rounded number, giving enough wallop to keep you entertained but not enough to seriously undermine the front wheel drive chassis.

The engine is a pleasure no matter where in the rev range it sits. Sound and vibration is well suppressed at all points and even though there is little need to rev the guts out of the engine, it does not feel unduly stressed if you do.

The gearbox could hardly be described as slick but there is little to complain about, it takes a little heft to shift it but it feels perfectly attuned to the car and its other controls. Everything else has a built-in hefty feel and the change matches that. Note: we are not talking stiff and imprecise as in Austin Rover and old Leyland, just a nice weighted feel, the diametric opposite of a Japanese gearbox with their super weightless efforts.  I, for one, prefer to feel a little something, just to assure me I'm actually doing something, rather that the feeling that I am swapping electrical contacts in an arcade game.

Allegedly, the Saabs run the same basic floor pan as a Vectra. If they do, you really can't tell as they feel totally different. The ride is firm and solid with little body roll. Steering is firm to the touch and feels weighted towards stability, rather than lightening changes of directions. Lobbing the car about with abrupt violent jerks of the steering is not what this chassis is about. Smoothly stick it in a long sweeping fast corner and it glides round with total un-swerving ease. Too much effort on the wheel will only bring in unwanted front wheel drive response but relax and keep it smooth and the chassis responds with a rock solid, unflustered stable ride. Even mid corner bumps do little to faze it. Remember, it's not supposed to be a sports car. Pushing too hard into a bend will force the front end wide slowly and safely, backing off brings it back in, unexciting yes, safe yes, easy yes.


It's not the most exciting drive in the world, but it will get you from A to B across your average set of roads in speedy, unflustered haste as long as you relax, donít try to force the steering and let the long torque curve haul you around.. There is little need for frantic cog swapping, late braking and hurling it into corners.

 

 

The Swedes invented the concepts of crumple zones and big safety bumpers, never mind the fact that they pioneered the use of seat belts, pre-tension, anti submarine seats and all that other stuff we take for granted. If someone can invent some device which will add 1% to safety (real or perceived), then the Swedes will fit it. Having said that, all that ice and snow probably adds up to an awful lot of minor and not so minor accidents so they tend to build their cars erring on the side of strength.

 

On the security side, one little gizmo I have always liked is the ignition key that locks the gearbox in reverse, though it does give a funky key location. However, that only adds to this car's slightly eccentric character.

 

 

Despite the lack of gizmos and gadgets, its subdued styling and its conservative road manners, this is still actually a lovely car to drive and own. Compared to the cars of old, the eccentricity has been toned down to just a few trademark foibles.

The seats are fantastic pieces of cheap body moulded sculpting, hard and upright at first contact, you come to appreciate their fantastic supportive qualities. The dash, which on first appearance looks like a mountainous wall of plastic, grows on you very quickly with only the fussy rev-counter marking to cause you long term irritation.

It's all fairly spacious inside with plenty of leg and head room all round. The cut back dash gives a feeling of space to the front and rear seat passengers are also fairly well catered for.

Being a fairly tough, well sized saloon and not bowing to any particular fashion criteria of its day, this could well be a car which would last you a good long time without complaint.

 

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