We are still rifling through the footnotes of 1998 and now the examination has produced the Saab 9-3.
The back-story to this 1998-for-1999 car can be traced to 1994, the year the NG900 appeared as the headstone to Saab’s career as maker of indestructible doctors’, engineers’ and professors’ cars. In 1998 the 900 became the 9-3 and fitted under the 9-5 in Saab’s small range.
You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t state how many revisions you do when re-launching a car. In a glass-half-empty way, the outgoing NG900 was so awful it needed 1,100 changes to make it into a 9-3. In a glass half-full-way, the clever people at Saab found 1,100 ways to make an arguably decent plodder into even more decent plodder.
Those 1,100 changes involved revisions to the suspension, deletion of the snow flap and beefed up bodywork for better crash-surviviness.
With the new name, there came a new focus. The 9-3 designation hinted at Saab’s wish to challenge BMW’s 3-series. Unlike BMW, the 9-3’s fourteen-car range didn’t offer anything less than 2.0 litres: a plain 2.0, a turbo 2.0 and a 2.3 with a diesel 2.2 (for the five-door cars).
This made the 9-3 more convincing in some ways and prices were adjusted accordingly. As the 900, some of the cheaper models were priced well into Golf territory – surprising given Sweden’s high-cost labour market. Saab did not want to compete with VW at this level.
In the same way the much-loved Jaguar X-Type was tarred by its association with the Mondeo (a critique I have always found maddening, trotted out as received wisdom), the 9-3 was burdened by its relation to the Opel Vectra’s GM2900 platform.
Not everybody has the same knee-jerk need to mention this**: the RAC is quite charitable about the 9-3 and prefer to address the Saab 9-3’s essential good value in comparison to similarly priced BMWs. Most commentators tend to prefer the 9-3’s style to the old 900’s, which is not something I am going to agree with.
It’s quite alright aesthetically but also far from absorbing. You can see the Saabness only as watered-down accents in the car’s exterior forms. Inside it’s a bit better with the ergonomically-sound wall of dashboard, night panel, low-mounted ignition and superb seating.
Despite or because of its GM2900 roots, the 9-3 is, on the road a smooth and refined vehicle or “competent, comfortable and reliable” in the RAC’s words. And it is best consumed in 2.0T form rather than in hairy torque-steering Viggen form. The 9-3 should have been better than that though. Alfa Romeo had dealt with the bug-bear of torque-steer by the late 80s as had other manufacturers and Audi’s high-performance FWD cars did not get the same beatings over this problem.
Perhaps the Saab 9-3s biggest problem was its identity crisis. In its 2.0T form it was usefully quick. In higher performance versions it just ended up being challenging where BMW, Alfa and Audi were not. Even if BMW and Audi didn’t sell so many of their M and S cars, the halo made their mainstream cars seem like the driver’s choice regardless of their actual merits.
Fundamental decency must not be an idea that travels up a range because if it was, the Viggen would have been a fundamentally decent car that could go really quickly rather than a car with odd manners under pressure. The offerings at the lower end of the BMW and Audi range were fundamentally quite ordinary, lent the grace of their high-priced-and-seldom-bought specialist showroom brethren.
Alfa’s cars sit somewhere in between these two poles.
* And I am mentioning it too, in a meta-way.