Released in 1998 the Saab 9-3 was a significant facelift to its predecessor the Saab 900. At the time Saab claimed to have made over 1000 changes, with the most striking being visual. New front and rear bumpers, grill, taillights and more comfortable anti-whiplash seats were most noticeable. However changes to the chassis improved the overall driving dynamic.
Production on 9-3 hatch and coupe ended in 2002 whilst the convertible continued onto 2003. In Australia we had several specification levels ranging from base to Viggen. However in late 2001 the range was simplified to Anniversary, Design Edition and Aero. Also for 2001 the Aero received the body kit from the Viggen as well as the seats. Older examples have amber indicators, three spoke wheels, and Saab-Scania badging.
I own a 2001 9-3 Aero and this is my second Saab, with the first having been a 2001 Saab 9-3 Anniversary. Many might ask why I bought a Saab. Well to me it comes down to a few points:
1. Its a bargin! Being young I don't have a lot of money, but I want the comfort and features of a car worth a lot more. I paid around $4000. Back in 2001 the owner paid around the $65,000 mark. Similarly a 3-series or C-class from the same era has depreciated, just not as much. The German Rivals can be picked up for around the $7,000-12,000. Yes both have a higher status and a slight improvement on certain aspects (for example interior) you'll pay for it. I see the 9-3 as the underdog it not perfect but it puts up a fight.
2. Its different; this is why I bought it and quite possibly why the previous owners bought it. For me it has that affect where you can't help but look back at it. I understand its Saab design is Love it or hate it but I certainly can appreciate its quirky looks. Whilst I've always been an admirer of the E46 3-series I find thats it way too common, its a beautiful car none the less but lacks that rarity that a 9-3 has especially in region NSW for example.
3. It's practical... as soon as you open the unassuming hatch you'll realise what I mean. Its massive! Not only that but usable, there is plenty of height and the parcel shelf is removable and the seats fold down almost flat depending on your driving position.
4. Its fun... a lot of fun. The Aero I drive has a 2.0L ecopower with the high pressure turbo, the turbo is key to the fun. Most people see the 9-3 and see it as unassuming but boy are they wrong. Kick it into Sport mode (Which actually does what it says) and you'll find yourself leaving people behind at traffic lights, whilst enjoying a pleasurable purr from the exhaust and turbo. The same can be said for the low-pressure turbo also, it's just toned down a bit. You also feel confident because the chassis and suspension provide a planted feel to the road. However this can't be said for standard models, my prior anniversary felt incredibly comfortable but vague.
Planes, planes and more planes... from the fasten seatbelt light that adorns the dashboard to the turbine inspired wheels Saab wants us to know that at one stage they made planes. I think it has dated well but as I said before you'll either love it or hate it.
What about comfort?
I cannot praise this car more for comfort and neither can my passengers. Everyone compliments me on my leather interior and good it looks. I agree with them for nearly 200,000km's the interior has no cracks or hard spots, it does have the odd wrinkle but with proper care the leather interior will last another 200,000km's easily. The seats are incredibly supportive and comfortable on short or long trips and the heated seats only add to this on a cold winters morning.
Peppy and smooth. the 4 cylinder 2.0L, 151kW engine is reasonably quiet and has a very smooth delivery of power. It is more then adequate for a car of this size. The 4 speed Automatic transmission is also very smooth. The sport mode really improves the already good throttle response, using it regularly will make the car feel restrained when not in sport. The Transmission also has a winter to reduce wheel spin in icy conditions.
Overall the transmission is reliable but can suffer from a sensor issue which can cause the car to enter a 'limp home' mode. It's not serious but can be an issue. Other potential issues with any cars of this age are the rubber pipes in the engine bay, the Australian heat certainly doesn't help with this. In my car for example a coolant pipe burst leaving me stranded until a tow truck could pick me up. There is a kit available comprising of silicon pipes which would probably solve this issue for the life of the vehicle.
Ownership, durability, servicing and all that stuff?
To start off with owning a Saab can be really awesome if your community minded. The Saab community is large and incredibly interesting. There are people out there who are more then willing to supply there knowledge to solve your problem. In recent years they've really pulled together with the Saab company situation. If your like me you'll join the emotional roller coaster of news reports on the companies trials and tribulations.
That leads me onto my next point... Servicing, many will say about any european vehicle things will be expensive. This is true but it doesn't have to be. My opinion is that if you look after your Saab it won't cause you issues, stick to the servicing regime and you'll be right. The biggest issue is finding a good mechanic, where I live in Albury there was once a dealer however that went with the 08 GFC. I've found myself an independent mechanic who knows what he's doing, thats key.
My fingers went for a long walk through ignorance with one mechanic suggesting I don't bother repairing a small oil leak because "You'll never be able to stop it, it's a Saab" hence the ignorance. If your lucky enough to live near a capital city there are a reasonable choice of mechanics who specialise in Saab's as well as three major Saab specialist wreckers in Sydney and Melbourne who are more then happy to supply you with parts.
Dealer's still exist but serving can be compatible to BMW and Audi with a major (A+B+C+D) service costing around the $500-700 mark. Independents can do this for a bit cheaper.
Lets be honest the car is from 2001 era. Standard 9-3's got a 4 speaker stereo system with a CD in the front. Those speaker grills in the front, there empty. Its only once you go up to Aero spec do you get a 6 speaker system, which is fantastic.
The Aero also has a tape in the front and 6 stacker in the back. You'll also the RDS and TP info meaning radio station names come up. The 9-3 also has a trip computer call the SID (Saab Information Display) which displays date and time, fuel statistics, engine alerts and radio information. They have common problem of losing pixels due to worn out contacts, you'll find they play up more in summer due to the heat. My current 9-3 hasn't had this issue... yet. Its not to expensive to fix and its more annoying then an actual issue.
Also whilst not technically tech most 9-3's do have what I'd call a trippy cupholder, this one pops out from between the radio and SID and well like the console mounted ignition its a talking point. Aero models also have Driver electric memory seats and passenger electric seats.
When this car was released it had a 5 star ANCAP rating when realised back in 1998. It has front and passenger airbags as well as seat mounted side impact airbags. For families they maybe interested to know that there are ISOFIX points for car seats, while not widely adopted yet in Australia it is certainly something to consider.
I myself can testify to the safety of this car having had a roll over accident in my previous 9-3. I was driving on a dirt road probably at an irresponsible speed and lost traction on the corner where my car ended up catching the side of a river bank and flipping. I walked away from that unharmed, the car however didn't. When I purchased the Aero to replace my Anniversary I took into account that it and the Viggen had been the only ones to receive TCS or traction control.
So whats not to like?
Firstly, the brakes. They could be far better they have a lot of pedal feel esentially meaning when you put your foot down there is a whole lot of nothing then right at the end something... what does this equate to? a need to plan your braking. The exception to this is the Viggen model which has larger vented breaks from the 9-5 Aero. However the 9-3 Aero relies on the standard breaks from lower spec 9-3's.
Secondly the fuel economy, unless your doing long freeway driving its can be quite painful at the pump. In my experience the Aero uses about a 1L/100km's then the low-preassure equivalent. For me around town driving I can achieve at most 9.5L/100km's. If I were to a lot of Freeway driving I could get it as low as 6L/100km's. Whilst I don't live in the city I could imagine it being something like 11L/100km's with a lot of stop start traffic. To add insult to injury Saab recommends 98 octane and a minimum of 95 octane. Plus the 68L costs just over $100 to fill with petrol at 1.60-something a litre.
What else? The rattles can become an issue like most older vehicles, for example one coming from my dash drives me nuts, however I managed to the subdue that with a little DIY.
This car is a lot of fun and value for the money, very practical and a potential future classic. Therefore I could recommend this to someone young like me, a young family, an enthusiast. It isn't without it's issues but what cars of this age are.. you could buy a Corolla or Commodore but would that necessarily be as good all round?