2002 Saab 9-3 Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Paul Wiley Cockerham Paul Wiley Cockerham Editor
January 28, 2002

Think Anita Ekberg on steroids. Powerful, sexy, and not for the squeamish.

Let me be frank: this was my first experience coping with this much horsepower and torque (230 hp @ 5500 rpm; 252 lb-ft between 2500 and 4500 rpm) in a front-wheel-drive vehicle, and I quickly discovered that, on anything but smooth expressways, the Viggen (Swedish for thunderbolt) demands your constant attention. You might wish there was some way the drivetrain could manage all that power in a less dramatic fashion; on the other hand, it’s refreshing to be truly involved with a driving experience.


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To begin with, this is a world-class highway cruiser with a beautifully flexible and responsive engine, and a darn sweet-looking one at that.

The transverse 2290-cc four (grabbed from the larger Saab 9-5) boasts chain-driven double overhead cams and a pair of counter-rotating balance shafts, so it’s a smooth little customer. A huge water-cooled turbocharger (bigger than the unit fitted to the Saab Aero) and intercooler provide up to 20 (that’s right, 20) psi of boost. Extra oil jets spray the piston bottoms, which hook up to extra-fat connecting rods. Massaged intake and exhaust valves help manage the inferno generated by the turbo.

Electronic tricks help the gearbox cope with the turbo’s onslaught. Only 184 lb-ft of torque is available in first gear, and 243 lb-ft in second; Saab calls this a “torque strategy.” It’s all there by third gear, though, and the Viggen accelerates linearly (turbo lag? What turbo lag?) to triple-digit speeds as easily as most cars ramp up to 55.

The fun really starts when you hit secondary roads. Springs rates have been increased considerably (25 percent) in the rear over the base 9-3, and slightly (5 percent) in the front, creating a nicely firm ride when things are calm. But call for acceleration, and the engine simply overwhelms the chassis unless you keep your wits about you. Wheel spin is readily accomplished in first and second gear. Gun the drive-by-wire throttle off a second-gear corner and you’ve got a big handful of torque steer-induced steering-wheel boogie. Hit a bump on a curve and feel your hormones (or whatever) ascend. Even a passing maneuver can buy you more excitement than you might want.

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