COAL: 1999 Saab 9-3, Doomed Despite Distinction

1999 Saab 9-3 (3)

In the fall of 1998, there was an ad in the Wall Street Journal for a brand new Saab 9-3 lease, for $289/month, with zero down.  The ad was for a 5-door with leather and a sunroof!  I remember being so excited that I called up a friend and told him about it, and we both went to the local Saab dealer (VOB Saab in Rockville, MD) and snatched up brand new Saab leases.  His was dark blue, mine this Green Silver Pearl Metallic.  Never having gotten over my first Saab I was ecstatic about the chance to own such a nice car for not much more than my 1997 Nissan Maxima.


After my 1993 Toyota Corolla lease, I had moved up in the world and leased a 1997 Nissan Maxima base model with a 5-speed.  It was fast and comfortable car, and fun to drive.  Let me say again, this car was fast!  At 190 horsepower, the 3.5 liter V6 was very powerful for the era.  Though it was front-wheel drive, it was the closest I ever got to owning a muscle car (well later I had a 1966 Mustang GT with a 289 4V, but this car was more powerful).

But, it had cloth, no sunroof, hubcaps, and numb steering, and after 3 years, the lease was up and I was ready to moving into something new.

2001 Saab 9-3 interior

And boy did it hit the spot for this Saab lover!  Upright seating position, check; stick-shift directly next to my right knee, check; console mounted ignition (but more carefully designed this time), check; high-mounted dashboard, check.  And this time, a TURBO!

What a fun car to drive, with 185 horsepower, it was as powerful and fun as the old 900 Turbo SPG, and because GM was in the beginning of trying to turn Saab into Audi (i.e. a quirky and high volume luxury brand), I could drive this car for 36 months for only $10,404 plus tax.  It was quite a lot of car for the money!

So how was my first GM owned Saab?  It was superior to my 1988 Saab 900 in almost every measurable way, but a few strengths of the previous 900 were lost in the translation to the new Saab.  For example it would corner very flat on on-ramps as compared to the significant body roll of the predecessor car, but the 9-3 lacked a certain suppleness in the front suspension of the 900.  And on high speed, sweeping corners, there was a lightness in the rear end upon lifting off the throttle that threatened sudden over-steer that was not apparent in the 900.


But by 1999 standards, the car was fast and quite fun to run through the gearbox.  In fact, one time my neighbor asked me if she could borrow my Saab to pick her friend up at the airport.  I said sure, but I actually need a car that day.  She said no problem, you can drive mine!  Her’s was a 1989 911 Turbo Look Carrera in Red over Black.  I was so excited, as I’d idolized 911’s for years, and this would be the first one I would ever drive!  And I did love driving it, but I realized fairly quickly that my garden variety Saab seemed nearly as fast 0-60.

Saab car seat

The comfort of rear-facing car seats in a Saab 9-3 (not my ex-wife)

Well time marches on, and my ex-wife and I had our first child, a beautiful son, and when I installed our first rear facing car seat to bring him home from the hospital, I discovered it required us to move our seats forward a bit and it was a tight fit.  By the time was had our second child, a daughter, it was time to move on to something bigger.


I did my research for station wagons that I thought I might be able to afford and I test drove both a BMW 525i Wagon and an Audi A6 3.0 Quattro Wagon, and both were disappointing.  Then I test drove a 2001 Saab 9-5 wagon and it was fun, even with the smooth shifting and sure footed 4-speed automatic.  I ran the numbers at the dealer, and told my ex-wife the Saab 9-5 is the car for us.  She said great.  I said my only requirements are no red, no automatic transmission.  I’ll give you one guess what we got…

9-5 auto

2002 9-5 5-Speed Auto

Well we had to order the car, and so we had to order a 2002, and 2002 was the first year of the 5-speed automatic, and it was terrible!  Every time you stepped down hard on the gas, the car would cut the throttle while it paused to decide how many gears to downshift.  I’m not sure it was a GM deadly sin, but contributed to the end of my love affair with Saab.  There were some other features to the car that felt quite cheap and I remember feeling that GM threatening Saab’s future with their focus on volume, new product introductions, and rumors of badge engineering.


But the one feature I wanted them desperately to add was a third-row seat in the wagon, as my ex-wife and I were planning to have a third child.  Volvo and Mercedes continued to sell three row station wagons, but Saab never did in the Saab 9-5 era, only in the 95 era.


So that was the end of my Saab years, and I moved on to Ford, but that’s another story!