2002 Saab 9-3 Review

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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.

2002 Saab 9-3

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You can anticipate this, and if you don’t mind replacing the 215/45ZR-17 Pirelli P-6000s on a regular basis, this can be a source of fun. It can also be a source of irritation when you realize that this is not the most rapid way to get through corners.

German spoiler

Still, I wonder if I haven’t been spoiled driving antiseptically efficient German machinery.

The body panels have grown side valances and a spoiler lip that actually help keep the Viggen planted at its 155-mph governed top speed. The trick automatic top neatly stows under its own hard cover but can’t be lowered safely with anyone seated in the back seats. (As the Viggen convertible is a 2+2 this should be a rare occurrence.)

The interior is pretty much standard Saab—plush and thoughtfully laid out. Viggen-specific bits include a metallic-appearing dash covering and sport seats with deeper bolsters. But you can tell that this is one of the older convertible designs out there by the degree of wind noise and cowl shake.

The Viggen is the only Saab that can make you forget about the quirky location of the ignition key. The degree of driver attentiveness and finesse it demands is a bit of a throwback; master the Viggen and know you’ve got a pair (or whatever).

2002 Saab 9-3 Viggen Convertible
Base price: $44,995; as tested: $46,095
Engine: 2.3-liter turbocharged four, 230 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 180.9 x 67.4 x 55.5
Wheelbase: 102.6 in
Curb weight: 3250 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 19/28 mpg
Safety equipment: OnStar communication system, driver and passenger front and side air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, traction control, anti-submarining front seats, headlamp washer/wiper, front and rear fog lights
Major standard equipment: Fully insulated automatic top with heated rear glass; automatic climate control; eight-way adjustable, heated seats; leather seat surfaces, steering wheel and shift knob; power windows; telescopic steering wheel; cruise control; power and heated rearview mirrors; multiple-function car computer; six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo with subwoofer
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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