1999 Saab 9-3 Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Bob Storck Bob Storck Editor
July 27, 1998

Saab has always been sort of the Henry Thoreau of the automotive world. When most cars were rear-wheel drive, Saabs were front-wheel drive. When Saab first arrived in the United States, it was the only automaker producing cars with two-cycle engines. If those unique features weren't enough, the cars looked … well, funny.

When you’re a small company, you naturally want to be noticed. While Saab’s looks and front-wheel-drive cars are more mainstreamed these days, the company still is not beyond doing things on the adventuresome side in order to get attention. A couple of recent promotional efforts serve to illustrate my point.

Two years ago I participated in Saab’s attempt to set an endurance high-speed record for its cars at NASCAR’s Talladega Speedway. During that event, the Saab 900s tested averaged speeds of more than 150 mph for long periods, with test drivers maintaining these speeds for 25,000 miles, virtually nonstop. To further underscore the ruggedness of the new Saab 9-3s this past winter, eight drivers drove two cars from the northern tip of Alaska straight through to Key West, averaging 60 mph - despite blizzards, miles of axle-deep Canadian mud, and Miami spring-break traffic.

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The new 1999 Saab 9-3 (pronounced "nine three") has a freshened grille with a wing-shaped center profile. While strengthening the family tie with the uplevel Saab 9-5, the new grille also emphasizes Saab's origins as an aircraft manufacturer. Long before the "aero" look was in, Saab engineers looked across the plant at the company’s aircraft division and began introducing streamlined car bodies. This not only helped improve the fuel mileage; it also resulted in a styling statement that was nearly as distinctive as the Volkswagen Beetle’s.

Saabs find home in New England

Saab owners - though a considerably smaller group than VW Bug owners - tended to be just as devout and loyal to the brand. The first solid pocket of Saab advocates cropped up in the New England states during the ‘50s. This was partially due to the noticeable benefits of front-wheel drive when navigating cars on snow and ice, plus the ease with which the early two-cycle engines started in the extreme cold. So the durability and value of the Saabs resulted in repeat sales in that region.

1999 Saab 9-3

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During the same decade, Saab also began entering its cars in European rallies as a means of testing its products. And to everyone's surprise, Saab cars became consistent winners. The chassis proved to be solid, the suspensions forgiving and the engines powerful for their size. When Saab finally went to four-cycle engines in the ‘70s, it was among the first to adapt turbocharging to passenger cars. The racers quickly found these strange-looking sedans could outperform nearly everything else in their class.

Saab also enjoyed a solid reputation for safety. During the early 1980s, amid the rising popularity of European cars in general, sales of the bread-and-butter Saab 900 grew steadily. This was followed by the introduction of the premium 9000 model in 1985.

In the ‘90s, Saab Cars USA came under the ownership umbrella of General Motors Corp. in a joint venture with Saab’s parent company. As a result, the new venture was able to more quickly redesign the 900. The platform has been well-proven, since it’s basically the same one that’s used on Opel’s Calibra and Vector models, two of the more popular cars in Europe.

Saab launches its 1999 model year with the new Saab 9-3 Convertible, three-door Coupe and five-door Hatchback. All are the result of extensive refinement and re-engineering of the popular Saab 900. The Saab 9-3 provides a subtle freshening of the 900's sporty and distinctive styling, along with more than 1,000 technical improvements and interior design changes.

1999 Saab 9-3 bs 7-27 2

1999 Saab 9-3 bs 7-27 2

1999 Saab 9-3 bs 7-27 3

1999 Saab 9-3 bs 7-27 3

Turbocharged 'Ecopower'

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All 1999 Saab 9-3 models feature Saab's powerful 2.0-liter Turbo, which has been transformed into one of the automaker's "Ecopower" engines. Ecopower technology achieves both high performance and high fuel economy – hallmarks of all Saab’s turbocharged engines.

The 185-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder's low-inertia full-boost turbocharger ensures an aggressive torque curve and strong acceleration, with boost pressure monitored by Saab's Automatic Performance Control (APC). Saab turbochargers, with water-cooled bearings and maintenance-free operation, are an integrated part of the engine and are designed to last the life of the vehicle.

The standard five-speed manual transmission includes a hydraulically operated clutch for easier driving and smoother gear shifting. The hydraulic clutch system helps provide precise shifting action and is entirely self-adjusting. An electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with three driver-controlled shift modes – sport, normal and winter – is optional.

The previous 900s had almost a NASCAR-type roll cage built into the body. The new model has carried this a step further. The integrated cage encompasses a large rear opening, and the resulting five-door Hatchback is extra rigid. The already high level of crashworthiness of the 900 has been improved further in the 9-3 as the result of standard dual front airbags and adjustable-mount front shoulder belts, plus the new Saab Active Head Restraint units, which minimize whiplash.

Saab safety

Special attention has also been paid to rear-passenger safety. The 9-3s come with built-in child safety seats and more comfortable seat belts. Also, both rear seats fold down to vastly increase cargo area. And there’s also a tunnel opening over the rear armrest that allows for transporting extra long cargo, such as skis, two-by-fours - or even a frozen boa constrictor or two!

The instrument panel has a knob that allows selective dimming. This reduces the light to the car’s ancillary gauges, so only the speedometer glows at night. If one of those darkened gauges requires attention, it automatically illuminates to warn the driver. Saab purists will appreciate the fact that the location of the ignition key - on the center console rather than on the dash - has been maintained. However, it has been resituated slightly to make it more accessible and less susceptible to spilled drinks.

All of Saab’s usual cold-weather protection features return, including demisting for all windows and special coating on the glass to reduce heat transfer. For 1999, Saab drivers will have access to a comprehensive array of safety, security and convenience

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