Review and photos by
Chris Chase, Autos.ca
In its early years, Saab enjoyed a strong cult following based on its vehicles’ unique styling and interesting design features. General Motors’ purchase of the Swedish brand in 1989 should have been a good thing, but as GM moved to position Saab as a competitor for European luxury brands like Audi and BMW, much of that Scandinavian uniqueness was lost.
In 2010, GM sold Saab to Danish supercar builder Spyker, a company that has high hopes for reinvigorating Saab with new designs that, we can hope, will live up, quirk-wise, to the cars that made the brand what it once was. (At the time of this writing, Spyker’s finances lend some doubt to how long it can keep Saab propped up.)
That’s not to say that there was nothing good about Saabs built under GM’s stewardship. Take the last generation of the entry-level 9-3. Introduced in 2003, it did away with one of Saab’s most enduring – and some would say endearing – features, the hatchback body style.
In 2005, the 9-3 became Saab’s mid-range model, with the Subaru Impreza-based 9-2X taking up the entry-level slot.The 2003 9-3 was offered only as a sedan (the 2003 convertible was carried over from 2002), with a redesigned convertible arriving in 2004.
The 2006 9-3 line-up added a station wagon, called the SportCombi, and the whole line got a redesigned interior in 2007. Also, the 9-3 once again became Saab’s entry level model in 2007, with the elimination of the 9-2X.
Saab redesigned the 9-3′s exterior in 2008 and added an “XWD” all-wheel drive system, as well as a top-line Turbo X model with unique styling cues. The Turbo X was discontinued for 2009.
The 9-3 was originally offered in three trim levels – Linear, Arc and Vector; the Vector trim was changed to Aero in 2004. In 2006, the Linear and Arc trims were merged into a single “base” model, while Aero remained as the uplevel trim.
Early 9-3s were powered exclusively by turbocharged four-cylinder engines; a 175-horsepower version was used in the Linear model, while Arc and Vector/Aero models got 210 hp.
The 175-hp engine was dropped in 2006, and a turbocharged 2.8-litre V6 with 250 hp was added as the uplevel engine.
2008 models with the V6 got a five horsepower boost in 2008, and the Turbo X model got a 280-hp version of the V6. This engine was made standard in Aero-trim cars in 2009.
Transmission choices were five-speed (Linear) and six-speed (Arc and Vector/Aero) manuals, and a five-speed automatic was optional across the board.
The V6 engine added in 2006 could be paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, and in 2007, the six-speed manual was made the base gearbox across the line.
In early cars, fuel consumption ratings were 11.5/7.8 L/100 km (city/highway) for a 2004 9-3 Aero with the six-speed manual. With the automatic transmission, the same car was rated 11.5/7.3 L/100 km; those numbers are fairly representative of ratings for later four-cylinder models. In the later years, the thirstiest 9-3s were the V6 models, with ratings of 13.2/7.7 L/100 km for a 2007 model with the manual transmission, or 14.0/7.7 with the automatic. Adding all-wheel drive to a 2008 model didn’t affect the car’s ratings significantly, but real-world fuel consumption might be markedly higher.
In crash testing, the 9-3 earned “good” marks in frontal offset and side impact tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn’t test a 9-3 until 2007, when the sedan earned four stars across the board (driver and passenger frontal-impact protection, and front and rear passenger side impact protection), and the wagon bettered that with a five star rating for front-seat side impact protection. The 2007 wagon’s rating applies to all subsequent models. The convertible was never tested.
Consumer Reports gives the 9-3 an average used vehicle rating, noting a number of trouble spots, mostly with electrical/electronic systems, and minor transmission issues in early (2003 and 2004) models; I did find one vague reference online to transmission troubles in 2003 9-3s, but nothing more specific, unfortunately. Read on for some specifics I did find.
The 9-3′s front suspension coil springs are well-known to 9-3 owners posting at SaabCentral.com as prone to breaking, which is a potentially dangerous thing to have happen, especially while the car is being driven. Interestingly, there are no technical service bulletins about this at SaferCar.gov, and no related recalls issued by Transport Canada.
It’s common for the climate control blower motor to corrode and seize up, which, not surprisingly, leads to no action from the climate control system. Here’s a handy write-up at SaabCentral.com on how to remove the blower and lubricate it.The 9-3′s wiper motor and windshield washer pump are failure prone. Here’s one handy thread detailing how to replace the wiper motor/wiper transmission assembly, and another can be found here. Note that, apparently, the windshield washer’s function is tied into the wiper motor, so that if the motor goes, so does the washer, though replacing the wiper motor fixes it all.
A stutter from the engine at full throttle/high revs/full turbo boost suggests a need for new spark plugs, suggest posters at Saabnet.com.
Despite Saab’s origins being in a country known for wintry weather, the 9-3′s suspension doesn’t like cold temperatures; many owners posting at SaabCentral.com complain of creaking and groaning from the suspension in sub-zero temps. Most likely, say a number of 9-3 owners, the noise is caused by suspension bushings that go “rock hard” in the cold. One owner said his dealer fixed the problem by replacing “spring spacers” in the front suspension, while another said that his service department solved it by applying a revised lubricant from Saab to the anti-roll bar bushings. See this thread for more information.
A steering wheel lock malfunction is common; when this happens, a warning comes up in the car’s information display and you won’t be able to start the car. A common solution is to “reset” the car by disconnecting and reconnecting the battery. A battery replacement might be necessary, which suggests the problem can be caused by low voltage in the electrical system from a poorly charged one. Worst case, the ignition switch will need to be replaced.A clunk from one of the doors when opening or closing is either caused by a worn “check strap” (the piece that limits how far the door opens), or a loose bolt on one of the hinges.
Check this handy FAQ thread at SaabCentral.com.
Used 9-3 retail values, according to Canadian Black Book, range from $6,875 for a 2003 Linear model sedan with manual transmission, to $26,000 for a 2009 Aero SportCombi with automatic, power sunroof and navigation. Convertible values start at $12,250 for a 2004 Arc model with manual transmission, to $36,275 for a 2009 Aero model with automatic and navigation. The general opinion is that 2003 models are the ones to avoid; with that in mind, a basic 2005 Linear model is valued at just under $9,350 with manual transmission. As of this writing, a 2009 9-3 Aero SportCombi, with an MSRP of more than $47,000, is worth just $26,000, according to Black Book. A 2006 SportCombi is base trim is worth about $12,975, compared to its $38,000 MSRP.
No matter the model or options load, any 9-3 will come in far less expensive than a comparable German model (3 Series, A4, C-Class), and even a similarly-equipped Acura or Lexus (TSX/TL, ES, cars that are generally less-expensive than their German competitors) is much pricier used than a 9-3; likewise for the Volvo S60. Chalk the 9-3′s poor resale values up to Saab’s relatively slow sales and the brand’s disappearance as part of parent company General Motors’ restructuring.
The 9-3 is a comfortable and reasonably satisfying sport sedan that also happens to be a screaming-good used-car deal at the moment. While the 9-3′s dependability is iffy, especially where the car’s electronics are concerned, a newer model with some of the factory warranty left would be an ideal choice. The 9-3′s busy on-line community works in your favour here, too, as many of the car’s common issues are well-documented in Saab-related forums. I’ll attach the same buyer-beware edict I always do to high-end cars with so-so reliability, but if you find a well-maintained 9-3 that checks out with a trusted mechanic and comes with complete service records, buy it – you’ll be hard-pressed to find another car that drives this nicely for this little money.
Black Book Pricing (avg. retail) April, 2011:
|Year||Model||Price today||Price new|
|2009||9-3 base sedan (incl automatic and sunroof)||$20,800||$37,450|
|2008||9-3 base sedan (incl automatic and sunroof)||$17,625||$37,450|
|2007||9-3 base sedan (incl automatic and sunroof)||$14,900||$36,635|
|2006||9-3 base sedan (incl automatic)||$12,500||$36,400|
|2005||9-3 Linear sedan (incl automatic and sunroof)||$10,400||$36,995|
|2004||9-3 Linear sedan (incl automatic and sunroof)||$8,725||$36,400|
|2003||9-3 Linear sedan (incl automatic and sunroof)||$7,725||$36,300|
Start with the 9-3 forums at SaabCentral.com, as well as that at Saabnet.com. SaabClub.ca is a reasonably popular Canadian Saab site, though it’s nowhere as busy as the first two listed here. Other sites include Saabing.com, and the UK-based SaabScene.com.
Crash test results
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.