If you are the sort who enjoys being around crowds, step into the dealership of your choice indicating you're in the market for an entry-luxury vehicle. It's one of the fastest growing segments in the automotive sector. Long-established luxury automakers including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and Lincoln have always offered many choices for those with exquisite tastes and cash to burn, but about a decade ago, found a larger potential market in entry-luxury, and started offering posh for under $35,000.
While Luxury automakers began to think downward for new clients, new luxury division from the Asian big three (Toyota, Nissan and Honda) came into their own in the early 1990s marketing lavishness of their own. Lexus, Infiniti and Acura offer luxury in many shapes and sizes, but it's the lower-priced entry-luxury models that account for much of the sales activities.
Two smaller, niche manufacturers from Sweden, Saab and Volvo, have been around for decades, but began to hit their stride when the two largest American automakers purchased controlling interests in the company, providing much needed capital to upgrade styling and content. General Motors owns Saab while Ford has a controlling interest in Volvo.
Saab currently markets just two vehicles in the U.S., the compact 9-3 and mid-size 9-5. A third entry, the 9-2 debuts next year. The front-wheel drive 9-3 is available in convertible or sedan bodystyles while the 9-5 offers sedan and wagon entries. The 9-5 sedan was evaluated a couple of months ago and performed admirably but for less cash, the Saab 9-3 sedan test driven last week offers just as much fun.
The 9-3 was redesigned in the 2003 model year and has a surprising amount of interior room for a compact-classified vehicle. One does sit lower to the ground in the 9-3 when compared to some domestic competitors, but this translate into very generous headroom even with the optional moonroof which in some vehicles compromises interior volume.
The 9-3 interior takes many visual cues from a airplane cockpit layout. Saab was primarily an air craft builder prior to taking up car construction. The ignition cylinder is found in between the front bucket seats and its sweeping dashboard design is busier than most other car layouts. The 9-5 shares many of these same visual cues. On top of the dashboard is a digital, half-shell message center with time display and other pertinent information. The sound system is state-of-the-art and sounds great, but changing radio stations and frequency displays is more complicated than need be. Also,the ventilation system has a series of buttons rather than a more driver-friendly dial design.
The back seat include three-point safety belts for three seating positions, but two riders fit most comfortably in this compact-sized vehicle.
Since Saab sells only engines that are turbo-charged, both the 9-3 and 9-5 get the maximum power from under the hood. The 9-3 is the four-cylinder offering with a 2.0-liter, 16-valve, double-overhead-cam generating a very healthy 210 horsepower. Mileage checks in at 21 miles per gallon city and 30 m.p.g. highway. Both utilize premium unleaded fuel.
All sedans are available in three trim levels: Linear, Arc and top-of-the-line Vector. Saab starts the 9-3 under the $30,000 threshold. Our 9-3 Arc test model started at $29,995 and ended up at $36,135 after options including automatic transmission, sunroof, front heated seats and Touring package. The lowest-priced Linear starts at around $26,000. All come with manual transmission standard and a nice array of safety features. Saab's assembly plant is in Trollhattan, Sweden.
Competitors include the rear-wheel drive BMW 3 Series (starting at $27,800) and the Audi A4 starting at $25,100 available in both front or all-wheel drive.
The 9-3 handles corners well and the steering is very precise. Many performance-types offer a rear-wheel drive design, but the revised chassis and suspension help the front-wheel drive 9-3 perform admirably.