CC/Driving Impressions: 2003, 2009, & 2011 Saab 9-3 – Born From Jets?

(first posted 8/22/2017)      Although no one in my immediate family has ever owned one, I’ve always had an affinity for the lovingly quirky Swedish brand. Maybe it’s my suburban Bostonian upbringing, where there’s a lot of old money, intellects, general preference for having an item with character over pure flashiness, and until recently, a lot of Saabs.

Growing up, I knew a lot of people with Saabs, including neighbors, family friends, parents of friends, teachers, and my own uncle Bob from New Hampshire who leased two 9-5s back-to-back in the early ’00s. I’ve ridden in just about every bodystyle of the 900, 9000, 9-3, and 9-5 from the 1990s and early 2000s, but it wasn’t until I started working in the car industry, specifically at South Shore MINI, that I had the chance to drive a Saab.

You see, for various reasons, MINI tends to speak to the same type of buyer who would’ve bought a Saab 10-20 years ago. MINIs certainly do have a lot of character, can be very comfortably optioned without screaming eliteness, and are decidedly quirky in their own loving way. We’ve taken a good handful of Saab trades in during my nearly two years now on the job, and my very first Saab I drove was a very clean 2011 9-3 Turbo4 XWD we took in on trade and sold retail last year.

So far this year, I’ve had two clients trade in final generation 9-3s: a 2003 9-3 Linear 2.0t and a 2009 9-3 2.0T. In both cases, these Saabs lived their lives under the ownership of the same families, and apart from normal wear and tear, were meticulously maintained from a mechanical standpoint. Both of these facts I’ve come to find very common among most of the Saabs I’ve experienced throughout my life. Simply put, Saab owners generally loved their cars.

Despite their differences in engines, drivetrain, and general condition, for the most part, each one of these final generation 9-3s I’ve driven have provided a very similar driving experience. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I do have some rather strong, somewhat biased opinions regarding cars, but with that being said, I always do my best not to let my preconceived notions influence my overall judgment of a car from a driving standpoint.

With that in mind, the final generation Saab 9-3 has always been a car that I’ve wanted to like. It would never be my ideal Saab, however, exhibiting rather frumpy styling and sharing too much in common with other GM-branded vehicles. While never a vehicle I lusted over, it was a car that remained on my radar for its lengthy 10 years of production, maintaining my curiosity even if my interest in the model waned.

Sliding into the heavily chemically-treated leather buckets is a feast for the senses. Regardless of its shared underpinnings and questionable levels of material quality, the 9-3 presents its driver with a distinctive cockpit unmistakable for anything but a Saab.

From its familiar aircraft-inspired dashboard shape, to the egg-crate vents, center console ignition, flip-out cupholders, Nightpanel control, and unique plethora of buttons on the center stack, the 9-3 effectively carries on the Saab spirit and motto of “Born From Jets”.

Considering this Saab’s premium price and positioning when new, interior quality leaves something to be desired. The earlier models are fine, but by the late 2000s/early 2010s, it would’ve been nice if GM had upgraded the aging 9-3’s interior a bit with a redesign, or at the very least upgraded it with some more solid feeling materials and higher-end finishes befitting of a luxury car.

When it comes to the driving experience, however, the 9-3 simply has too many negatives to be a car I can like and enjoy. While the turbo whine is charmingly delightful, the turbo lag present in all engines I’ve driven was more than I would’ve preferred.

All three of these 9-3s I’ve driven were “Sentronic” automatics with manual shift mode, with the ’09 and ’11 feeling moderately quick. Using the manual shift mode certainly provided a bit more enjoyment. The clunky feeling shifter, however, was not something enjoyed and honestly felt like it belonged in an economy car.

Considering I’m someone who favors firm suspensions, I found the 9-3’s ride downright harsh and punishing. Steering is generally tight, but somewhat inconsistent, with the 9-3’s wheelbase feeling like it’s only about 75% the length it should be in most maneuvers. The 9-3’s biggest weakness, however, lies in its chassis.

Shared with the basic Opel Vectra and Chevrolet Malibu, the 9-3’s Epsilon simply wasn’t suited for duty as a premium European sports sedan. Body flex and roll are all too prevalent in basic maneuvers, with lots of moans, groans, and rattles during acceleration, turns, and bumps. Quite frankly, the 9-3 lacks the solid feel I was hoping for, exhibiting a more hollow, shaky feel overall.

As I’ve said before, the Saab 9-3 has always been a car I’ve wanted to like, as the very nature of it and the Saab brand has appealed to me for most of my life. However with each successive 9-3 I’ve driven, it’s become harder and harder to truly like it. The truth is, it’s a car that’s neither very comfortable nor fun-to-drive, isn’t particularly attractive from any angle, features a somewhat low-rent interior for its class, and lacks any truly notable or rewarding qualities related to the driving experience. Yet, for some reason, I still have a soft spot for this car.

I guess I’d say the 2002-2014 Saab 9-3 is like one of your favorite music artists whom you’ve been a loyal fan of for a long time, but they somehow are now only a shadow of their former self. They aren’t be able to hit the same notes, their more recent music isn’t as catchy, and they don’t have the same level of energy when performing as they used to. Yet at the end of the day, you’re still a lifelong fan, still listen to their music including their more recent work, and are still passionately rooting for them.

Although the second generation Saab 9-3 is not a car I’d care to ever own, for all its inadequacies and unappealing qualities, the 9-3 is still a car I can say I have an appreciation for.