Overview & Reviews
With so many entry-level luxury car choices from Germany, Japan and America, it's easy to overlook the Swedish Saab 9-3. Once upon a time, it was a great match for buyers looking for a spacious, safe and comfortable automobile with a proven safety record and a distinctly modern attitude. Actually, for used buyers, that's still the case, but new car shoppers looking for an entry-level luxury sedan will find the 9-3 now noticeably behind the times.
Though the unique and practical 9-3 hatchbacks were discontinued after the 2002 model year, the 9-3 family continues to be offered in multiple body styles: a four-door sedan, two-door convertible and four-door wagon, the latter called SportCombi. All utilize a small-displacement turbocharged engine that extracts decent power while salvaging respectable fuel economy.
Among the Saab 9-3's chief shortcomings are its lone, underwhelming engine choice, comparatively cut-rate interior quality, somewhat cramped cabin and an aging design that's lacking many increasingly common features. So, it's easy to overlook the 9-3 for a new-vehicle purchase, and that's probably not a bad thing.
Current Saab 9-3
Today's Saab 9-3 is sold in three body styles: sedan, SportCombi wagon and convertible. Each is broken into 2.0T and Aero trim levels, while the SportCombi is available in an additional all-wheel-drive trim known as 9-3X. Sedan and SportCombi models feel spacious, with low floors, upright windows and seating for five, though three in the rear seat can be tight. Legroom in particular is a sore spot. Convertible models have a rear seat for two adults of small-to-average size. Cargo room in all models is generous.
All 9-3s are powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder that produces 210 horsepower. Front-wheel-drive 2.0T models come standard with a six-speed manual and are optional with a five-speed automatic. This is standard on the front-drive Aero. A six-speed automatic is standard on all-wheel-drive models, but any 9-3 with a standard automatic can be equipped with a no-cost optional manual.
The 9-3X gets an elevated ride height, an electronic limited-slip differential and different exterior and interior trim to make it a more all-terrain-suitable wagon. The front-wheel-drive Aero features a sport-tuned suspension, while the Aero XWD (sedan only) gets a limited-slip differential and a self-leveling suspension.
Inside, dramatic two-tone color schemes with lots of matte-black finishes create an intense, distinctly Scandinavian ambience -- though its look and materials are not as upscale as competitor luxury cars or even some run-of-the-mill family sedans. Longstanding Saab-isms remain, including a floor-mounted ignition switch and a "Night Panel" button that darkens all non-essential dashboard lights to reduce eye fatigue. However, the climate and audio controls are now generic, ergonomically friendly GM units.
Editorial reviews have praised the Saab 9-3 as one of the better-handling front-wheel-drive cars on the market, while taking note of its comfortable front seats and cavernous cargo areas, even in the convertible. The Aero in particular, although expensive, has a lightweight, agile feel missing from many of its competitors. Its low-powered engine, though, gives it a distinct disadvantage in a class where 300 hp is a common output. While the 9-3 isn't a bad car, you can definitely do better nowadays.
Used Saab 9-3 Models
Shoppers interested in a used Saab 9-3 should note that the vehicle has changed some since its introduction for 2003. Originally, the vehicle was available in three trim levels. The base Linear and more luxurious Arc shared a turbocharged 175-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and nearly identical styling. The Vector wore sportier clothes, rode lower and offered a 210-hp version of the same engine, which was also optional on the Arc. The 9-3 Convertible appeared for 2004, followed by the SportCombi wagon for 2006. Vector models were renamed Aero for 2005.
For 2006, the base Linear trim level and its weak motor were dropped, while the Arc was renamed 2.0T and gained the 210-hp engine as standard. The Aero received the 2.8-liter turbocharged V6 that year good for 280 hp. Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions were available. All 9-3s got an interior freshening for '07, including less bizarre, GM-sourced climate and audio controls. The all-wheel-drive Aero sedan and wagon arrived for 2008, along with the limited (for-2008-only) "Turbo X" edition. It featured 18-inch wheels, black paint, a lowered and firmer suspension, self-leveling rear shock absorber, larger brakes, black leather seats and faux carbon-fiber interior trim.
For 2009 only, the 9-3 lineup was expanded to include a dizzying number of trim levels for the various body styles and engines. They were gone the following year when the 9-3X was introduced and the Aero's turbo V6 was unfortunately dropped from the lineup. The current transmission availability dawned at this time as well.
The original Saab 9-3 debuted in 1999. Less a new model than a new name, the 9-3 took over for its Saab 900 predecessor and featured a mildly upgraded interior and revised chassis turning. Other than that, this 9-3 was pretty much the same as the 1994-'98 years of the 900. It was available in three body styles: a two-door hatchback, a four-door hatchback and a convertible.
The first-generation 9-3 is considered one of the last true Saabs. Designed before General Motors took over Saab in 2000, the 9-3 possessed all the eccentricities and quirks that Saab-o-philes consider sacred: temperamental keyholes in the floor, rounded, jet-fighter-like wraparound windshields and bustle-back styling on the hatchbacks.
Early 9-3s were offered with lively turbocharged four-cylinder engines. In 1999, base models produced 185 hp, while next up the ladder were the SE models with 205 hp and 9-3 Viggen models with 230. By 2002, base models were dropped, leaving the SE as the entry-level 9-3.
The most extroverted of the original 9-3s was the convertible. One of the first convertibles to offer a completely one-touch power top, as well as the ability to open and close all four windows with one button, the Saab 9-3 convertible also boasted one of the largest trunks in its class and a generous amount of side glass for good outward vision.
First-generation 9-3s generally provide a decent amount of feature content and safety. Their body structures are built to last, but due to spotty assembly quality, their interiors may not be. Editors at the time couldn't overlook the original 9-3's numerous shortcomings, but nonetheless were smitten by the 9-3's charm and dare-to-be-different packaging. As long as a broken-in 9-3 isn't a broken 9-3, it could be a compelling used car option -- just be prepared for the generally high maintenance and repair costs that come with owning a European import.
User Reviews:Showing 1 through 10 of 1,411.00
First Saab - 2004 Saab 9-3
By Stack4 - December 29 - 2:00 am
Well I just recently jumped out and bought a fully loaded 9-3 aero. I love the thing it is so much fun to drive. Its true what people say once you test drive one youll usualy buy one. I did. Others are also right about the complements and pleasant stares you get. Not many of these great cars are out and about. One problem I have had is that my tire pressure gauge sensor went out. But i assume it shouldnt be a problem and they will fix it once I can bring myself to drop it off at the dealer.
The road less traveled - 1999 Saab 9-3
By waltwins - December 27 - 10:00 am
Second Saab Ive owned. Very practical, fun to drive, reliable and safe. Will probably buy another one when the time comes.
Great entry-level luxury - 2005 Saab 9-3
By DB - December 18 - 9:56 pm
This car has great response and power for day to day driving. On the highway it goes all the way from 35 to 90 quickly, smoothly, and fairly quietly. On the street it handles great and the ESP and ABS keep it safe. Driving this car in Salt Lake City during the winter felt secure, even in a midnight blizzard. I would rather be in this than in a pickup or SUV that might roll over. Interior is bare bones but nails all the little details. Once you get used to the major differences in control location, everything feels exactly right. Lots of room and very comfortable. The Senstronic shifter is very useful when going down a mountain.
Fun and Safe - 2001 Saab 9-3
By none - December 16 - 5:06 am
I test drove this car and the Volvo S60 and the 9-3 won for overall driving experience. I have 88k miles on it and it has never let me down. I was hoping to drive this car for many many more miles but I was just in a major accident so it may be totalled. The good news is that I and my infant son were not harmed at all despite being hit at over 30mph.The frame took the impact as it should and in a lesser car we could have been seriously injured. I wont be looking at another Saab mainly because of design changes and different needs but I loved this car and am very thankful that we had it. The brakes are excellent and itis fun to drive in addition to being one of the safest cars on the road.
First Time Saab Owner - 2007 Saab 9-3
By Joe - December 6 - 6:53 pm
Ive owned many types of vehicles over time and the Saab 9-3 Aero is hands down, the most enjoyable to drive. As of this writing, Ive owned it for four months with not a single problem. Its nice to know theres a good warranty just in case. Its also nice to drive a car thats not as common as my wifes Altima. Sometimes, I will see as many as 5 or 6 of the Altimas in one parking lot! Unlike many of your basic cars, the Saab Aero has character. Highly recommend the Saab Aero.
TIGHT - 2003 Saab 9-3
By First foriegn car - December 4 - 10:00 am
First sports car. Wanted a manual convertible just for fun. Checked everything from a VW to Jag and Lexus. For the $, this was definately it. Put 15 hours and 1,000 miles on it the first weekend and still could have driven more. But, got a BAD sunburn. Turbo kicked in on the highway when needed. Im 65" and ability to fit me confortably was a BIG plus. Plus have room in back for 2 adults. Very LARGE trunk for small car. 2 sets of golf clubs and luggage for a weekend. Why spend 2-3xs as much when you can get the fun with this?
Good Car - 2007 Saab 9-3
By SAAB - December 1 - 9:43 pm
The Saab performs well and has a look that never dies. The only problem with it is that it had small problems like the radio blacking out and small things. They seem to be extremely forgiving with the cars good looks and performance.
they dont make them like they used to! - 2002 Saab 9-3
By kris - November 29 - 12:23 am
This vehicle has been a nightmare! I have been the only owner, never in an accident and there have been issues from the time it was under warranty. 2 auto windows that broke, 2 ball joints (the same one each at 50K miles), 3 electrical relay switches, head gasket that leaks, radio control display that is not readable and many other problems, on top of routine maintenance! Lemon is what I got, and Saab has lost a customer of 25 years!
Love this car. - 2002 Saab 9-3
By rober in LA - November 26 - 10:40 am
Ive had some problems with my top (replaced the motor after one week of owning the car) but this car by far is a blast to drive. When I drive out to Las Vegas from LA I can only tell you that I blow bast people like they are standing still.
Wifes Saab - 2005 Saab 9-3
By Biff - November 23 - 9:53 pm
Good fun car to drive. Looks good and handles great. Gas mileage is out of this world! Safety headrest can be uncomfortable, but overall we love this car!