What I'm Driving At

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector

A week with Saab's all-new 2003 9-3 Vector has reduced me to a mathematical shambles. It's built, you see, on Saab's new epsilon platform—you know, as in e = the "obliquity of the ecliptic" and all that. Moreover, this top of the line 9-3 compact sedan culminates a progression that begins with a base-model "Linear" 9-3, succeeding to a mid-level "Arc" 9-3, thence to the "Vector" at hand—you know, as in vector = "a quantity representing both magnitude and direction." Phew! I feel like I've been run over by a natural log.

This is a brainy car; but don't let me misrepresent the 9-3 Vector as overly taxing to the intellect. If you can count from one to five, you can handle the optional five-speed automatic transmission just fine, even in clutchless-shifting Sentronic mode. (If you push on through to six, and know how to tap-dance with a clutch pedal, you can even exploit the six-speed manual that comes standard on the car, thereby saving you $1,300.)

Saabs today are exclusively dependent upon the alchemist's art of turbocharging; and the new 9-3 is available with either a 2.0-liter low-pressure turbo engine making 175 hp and 195 ft.-lbs. or a high-pressure variant, as in the present case, making 210 hp and 221 ft.-lbs. By way of comparison, 2.0-liter non-turbo motors usually hover in the 130-hp to 140-hp range.

In other words, the Vector's powertrain is spirited in Saab's trademark way; but for once, the tell-tale annoyance of torque-steer has been tamed, so that the steering wheel no longer tries to pry itself out of a driver's hands on hard acceleration. Turbo lag remains, and it still takes getting used to for drivers with only V6 and V8 experience; but a very clever Trionic-8 engine management system seems invisibly to adapt the auto transmission's gear choice to engine speed—even in manual Sentronic mode—for optimum exploitation of the powerband.

Racy body skirts emphasize the Vector's low-slung center of gravity, and Saab touts a new ReAxs system for the rear suspension that actually dials in, passively, certain characteristics of rear-wheel steering that are exclusively the domain of rear-drive cars. You won't go looping into controlled power slides, but you can nicely balance this car in challenging corners with combinations of acceleration and braking—all the while saying buh-bye to obnoxious, nose-heavy understeer typical of front-drivers.

The fighter-plane sensation of sitting in a 9-3 cockpit remains, thankfully, intact. If anything, it is improved for both driver and passengers. The six-way seat adjusters combine with a tilting and telescoping steering wheel to provide exact fine-tuning of the driving position. Saab's new "Profiler" info system, moreover, allows customization and memorization of a wide range of "user preferences" that include not only seating and mirror positions but also radio, climate, dash display, even rain-sensing windhield wiper rates. Mostly, the system is intuitive; I personally would have preferred more control over the menu screen, however, to eliminate menu bars once I'd tweaked the functions they referred to.

I might also have preferred a little less visual obstruction from the second-generation Saab active head restraint (SAHR) system. These front head rests are among the industry's most effective, so I'm glad to have 'em; it's just that us shorties still gotta turn around to back up, and SAHR, frankly, gets in the way.

The same might also be said for the Vector's nearly $38,000 as-tested price (although Linear and Arc models start at under $27,000 and $31,000, respectively). BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Lexus, and Nissan/Infiniti pretty well dominate this class of near-luxury sport sedans. Saab's new 9-3 certainly has what it takes to compete in terms of its driving aesthetics and spec sheet, but it may need to do a transcendental number on those skeptics who think they'd be smarter not driving such a brainiac car.

2003 Saab 9-3 Vector; 5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 2.0-liter DOHC high pressure turbo inline-4; 5-sp. auto w/ Sentronic; 210 HP/221 ft.-lbs.; mileage: 21 mpg/City, 30 mpg/Hwy w/ premium; cargo: 14.8 cu. ft; base price: $32,495; as-tested w/ touring pkg., sunroof, "Profiler" info display, side-curtain airbags, OnStar: $37,735

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