COAL: 2003 Saab 9-3 2.0t – Scratching An Itch

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Growing up in L.A. during the dawn of the Yuppie Era, Saabs were always visible, but a bit of an outlier compared to, for example, a BMW 3-series.  Nevertheless there were a couple in my high school parking lot, and a friend had a first-year 900 Turbo that was capable of much greater performance than almost anything else I had access to at the time.

Over the years since I have looked at 900s of every generation but never decided to go for it and buy one for some reason or another.  Of course in the mid-2000s I purchased a 9-2x Aero but the goal in that case was more to get a Subaru WRX at a better price with a better interior than it was to own a Saab.

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Obviously I was well aware that GM had purchased Saab and the franchise was in terminal decline.  Over time there were fewer and fewer Saabs visible in the Bay Area and I thought realistically about owning one less and less.  However, upon moving to northern Colorado, I was surprised to see quite a large population of Saabs.  Giving it a little bit of thought, it was most likely due to three factors.  First, we live in a college town and I always associate Saabs with college towns for some reason; two, there was actually a local Saab dealer and three, Saabs tend to do well in wintery climates.

So when my wife mentioned that it would be nice to have a third car, it didn’t take long for me to start looking for a potential candidate.  The idea was that the kids would not be transported in it and as a result, it would stay much cleaner inside making it far easier to keep or make the car presentable when with clients.  The budget was not large, however the car could not have a bazillion miles on it either.  In other words: a challenge. 

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Or maybe not.  There are always cars that for one reason or another do not have high resale value, often deservedly so, sometimes not.   It did not take long for me to find what I thought to be a suitable candidate in the form of this 2003 Saab 9-3 2.0t.  A two-owner car, it had travelled less than 70,000 miles in its eight years and came with a fairly complete service history (along with a few hiccups).

The color was Polar White, a fairly creamy shade, kind of like Audi’s pearl white but without the pearl effect.  The interior color was Parchment, which is sort of an off-white, but not beige-ish at all.  I’d been watching a lot of “Wheeler Dealers” and fancied myself a bit of a combination Mike Brewer / Edd China.  In other words, I was ready for a bit of a challenge.  How hard could it be? 

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Well, as I stated, the car had a few hiccups.  The check engine was lit, the seller told me there was engine oil contaminating the power steering fluid, the car squeaked when going over bumps, the interior needed some attention, and the display cluster atop the dashboard was not displaying all of its pixels.  The door handles were very faded and the color on the badges had completely worn off.  In addition, it sported two snow tires and two (new) all-seasons instead of a matching set of one or the other at all four corners.

However, it did drive very nicely, pulled strong (I love a turbo!) and handled well.  The price was right as well, so we shook on it and finalized the deal the next day.

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Saab (under GM stewardship) had developed a brand-new Saab 9-3 model for the 2003 model year.  The great sacrilege to many was the elimination of the hatchback body style, long a Saab trademark.  While I am a big fan of hatchbacks and older Saab 900s in particular, I still find this body style extremely attractive, even though it is now eleven years old and once again back in (limited) production by Saab’s new owner.  Even worse for many were the supposed Opel Vectra roots of the car, long considered one of the duller automotive offerings in Europe.

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Interestingly, I have seen it said in several places over the years that GM did mandate the use of as many Vectra components as possible with the intent of making it more or less a rebadge. However, it appears that Saab engineers ignored this and produced a car that shared no more than 15% parts content with the Vectra, including creating many distinct components for the Ecotec engines.  If this is true (and I believe it is) it speaks volumes about GM managerial (in)competence with regard to its wholly owned subsidiary. 

In the end, no matter what the reality, the cars were generally well-received upon their introduction to the market and not just considered a warmed-over Vectra (kind of like Ford Contour vs Jaguar X-Type, but probably even more so).  If anyone has more actual knowledge about component sharing between the Opel and the Saab I’d like to hear it.  The 9-3 featured modern exterior styling and an updated interpretation of the traditional Saab “cockpit” cabin; nothing that is visible would make anyone think of a Vectra.

The 9-3 came in three different trim levels.  At the time they were called Linear, Arc and Vector (later renamed Aero).  The Linear trim (the base offering) can be identified by its 2.0t (lowercase “t”) badging, offering a 175hp engine with a low-pressure turbocharger.  The Arc level is labeled 2.0T (uppercase “T”) and offers basically the same engine but with more boost, generating 210hp.  The Vector/Aero version used the same high-pressure turbo engine as the Arc but came with a stiffer and lower suspension, sportier seats and a subtle bodykit.

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Note how the spacing between numbers decreases as the speed goes up.

All levels were well equipped.  In my case, I had a base model (Linear), which included standard leather (a very nice velour was a no-cost option) and also had a 5-speed automatic transmission.  Instrumentation was clear, legible, and attractive (as is usually the case with Saabs), the ignition key was between the seats (of course), and the seats were supremely comfortable, a hallmark of Swedish cars.

The ignition between the seats was not the only odd thing in this car.  The radio had no display on its face; that was actually handled by a display pod mounted on top of the dashboard at the base of the windshield.  This display also includes the readouts for the trip computer, vital warning messages and other information.  It works very well as the base of the windshield is much more in your field of vision than either the instrument panel or the center console.  In my car, half of the display was not working.  I looked on a Saab forum and found several people parting out Saabs, one of whom was willing to sell his display pod for $40.  It took all of five minutes to restore this function. 

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The lid of the center console was worn and the leather surface had cracked severely. Since my interior was off-white, the cracked leather looked horrible but Ebay provided a replacement for very little money.  Again, a quick fix.  A corollary of the horrendous depreciation experienced by many Saab models–especially in recent years–is that they are quickly totaled when involved in an accident. 

As a result is is quite easy to find people parting them out and selling the parts for not much money.  I was surprised at how easy to was to find most parts and how cheap they were.  While there are plenty of parts cars available, the market for the pieces is fairly small, which keeps prices reasonable.

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The front and rear Saab badges that had lost all of their color were easily replaced at minimal cost and made a huge improvement in the appearance of the car.  This seems to be a problem on many newer Saabs, I often see newer 9-3s and 9-5s with blank chrome discs where there should be an attractive Saab logo.

The faded door handles were fixed with a generous application of peanut butter.  Yes, the oil in the peanut butter completely reverses the oxiditaion of black plastic components on a car.  I first learned of this with my old GTI, the black fender flares would fade and turn gray, peanut butter being the solution.  Simply slather on and then wipe off.  I prefer creamy but chunky should work just as well.

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The squeaking when going over bumps turned out to be a common issue.  The bushings on the sway bar are the cause, but only in colder temperatures.  I did not want to mess with the suspension so I ordered new bushings and had my mechanic install them at minimal cost while replacing the Secondary Air Injection pump, which was cause of the check engine light coming on after the pump had seized. 

The Secondary Air Injection pump is a device that a lot of newer cars have, and its purpose is to send more air into the exhaust in order to reduce emissions during cold starts.  In the Saab it is mounted very low on the front of the car and the bearing tends to seize up due to condensation, requiring replacement as the unit is completely sealed.  The aggravating thing is that the unit costs about $300 and is only used on the 2003 model, having been eliminated for 2004. 

It turned out that the 9-3 is clean enough to not require it at all, but since it was there in 2003 and is an emissions control device, it must be functioning or the check engine light will cause a failure during emissions testing.  I spent about an hour under the car trying to figure out how to replace it, but without a lift it turned out to be next to impossible to get enough leverage or the correct angle to attack, so I left it for my mechanic.

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The biggest headache turned out to be the power steering pump.  Saab uses a novel design wherein the pump is actually directly driven by the camshaft, and as such it is mounted on top of the engine.  However, between the two parts is a seal that fails, resulting in pressurized engine oil flowing into the pump, which in turn causes the reservoir to overflow and obviously is not a good thing for the power steering pump itself.

I took the pump off and saw the seal, which looked like it had been pinched somehow and did not appear to be in the correct position.  I repositioned it slightly and remounted everything and cleaned it up.  Over the next week it became obvious that this had not fixed anything and it was still leaking.

In the meantime Saab had actually declared bankruptcy, everybody on the online forums was scared as to how their cars would be serviced henceforth and what about would happen with the parts supply. Our local dealer had closed shop several weeks prior and no longer had much of a parts department.  I ended up driving to another dealer in Denver for the five dollar seal which ended up solving the issue.  After remounting the pump, purging the contaminated fluid and refilling the reservoir it now worked without leaking.

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My car had been delivered with a mismatched set of tires, as mentioned above.  I found a different set of 16” Saab rims with a newer set of snow tires for a great price and mounted those.  I sold the other wheels and tires separately, making a profit on the whole deal, which was nice.

As it turned out, my wife did not enjoy driving the car as much as we had expected.  It is fairly low and not the easiest car to get in and out of.  In addition the back seat is fairly small, not great when transporting more than one client. I ended up driving it a fair amount and enjoyed doing so.  It was wonderful on the freeway, very responsive to throttle inputs, handled well in the twisties and got excellent gas mileage (low to mid-30’s were not difficult to achieve on the freeway).

Around town it was fine as well, but while I really like the exterior styling of these, the interior is, to be frank, a bit cheap.  The area around the handbrake employs some very low-budget plastics, as does the center console.  The finishes of adjacent plastics that should match do not, which is something that I always found annoying.

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However, I (and everyone else who rode on the car) LOVED the cup holder, or at least the idea behind it.  If you have not seen one in action, it is quite interesting to see.  After pushing a small button in the dash, this spindly little thing emerges and performs a sort of acrobatic routine, resulting in a cup holder that, while functioning well, leaves you scared of overloading the contraption with anything larger than a soda can lest it break and necessitate sourcing a replacement, not to mention cause a large spill.

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We ended up advertising the car for sale within six months of buying it.  It just turned out not to be the “right“ car.  But it was not done with us yet.  A few days after starting to advertise it, I noticed a puddle of oil on the garage floor.  I crawled under the car and wiped it off, only for it to reappear soon after. For several days I tried to pinpoint the cause, and in the meantime had found a serious buyer. 

However I could not sell it as is in good conscience (and immediately thought back to the seller of my Chevy Tahoe with a similar situation), so I asked my mechanic to take a closer look. It turned out to be the rear main seal, which is quite a job to replace on this car and cost around $800 to correct.  After explaining to the buyer why she would not be able to buy the car immediately, she, in apparent appreciation of my honesty, insisted on splitting the cost of the repair with me, which was very nice and not necessary at all.  In the end it worked out and we both walked away happy.  I had scratched my itch and she had gotten a car that had all of its issues resolved.