Forget the odd name of the new Saab 9-3 Linear sports sedan. The slick, fast, roomy "near-luxury'' model shows Saab knows how to make higher-volume mainstream cars for America.
For decades, this venerable Swedish automaker went its own way with offbeat but safe, rugged autos that never enjoyed high sales.
But General Motors, which bought half of Saab in 1990 and the rest in early 2000, is putting heat on Saab to increase sales. Saab sold 37,557 cars last year, down from 39,479 in 2001, but is shooting for sales of 40,000 cars here this year.
New Saab Cars USA chief Debra Kelly-Ennis wants Saab to add a sport-utility vehicle to increase sales, along with different versions of the 9-3 due next spring.
The 2003 9-3 sports sedan, which recently went on sale in base Linear form, represents a $450 million investment. Upscale versions called "Arc'' and "Vector'' arrive next spring, and Saab hopes this more Americanized sedan will immediately help increase sales.
For one thing, the new mid-size 9-3 has a conventional sedan body style with a regular trunk; it replaces two- and four-door 9-3 Saab hatchback models.
Hatchbacks have been a Saab hallmark for decades. While practical and favored by Saab loyalists, they lack the appeal to most Americans of a notchback European sedan with a regular trunk. Virtually every near-luxury (or "entry luxury'') car has a regular trunk.
The highly aerodynamic 9-3 Linear doesn't look dramatic. But it's handsome, with a coupe-like silhouette featuring a steeply raked windshield and rear window and short front/rear overhangs. The old upright windshield, slab sides and tall side windows are gone.
Saab says the 9-3 Linear's wedge-shape profile and integrated headlights and grille help give the car a "distinctive Saab identity.'' Actually, it has a pronounced Germanic look.
The 9-3 Linear retains Saab's traditional console-mounted ignition switch, which has an unusual location but is easier to reach than a switch buried on a steering wheel column.
As will be the case with all new 9-3 models, the $25,900 9-3 Linear is based on GM's new Epsilon platform, which Saab chassis engineers helped influence. It also will be used in future GM American models, including the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am.
The 9-3 Linear is the first Saab positioned in the smaller premium (spell "near-luxury) sport sedan segment. The powertrain includes a new aluminum engine and a new five-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift feature. There's also an improved five-speed manual gearbox and new six-speed manual transmission.
The rigid body is very strong to help enhance handling, refinement and safety. Safety features include front side air bags and Saab's first curtain side airbags, which protect front and rear outboard occupants.
The 9-3 Linear is clearly a better car than its predecessor, without most of the vibrations and sounds of the old model, which actually was above-average in many respects.
Saabs always have had front-wheel drive, which is what you'll find on the 9-3 Linear. The wheelbase has been increased 2.3 inches and the car is more than two inches wider to allow more cabin breathing room.
The 9-3 Linear is jammed with standard comfort and convenience equipment. It has a smooth, turbocharged two-liter four-cylinder engine, which provides 175 horsepower and lively acceleration with the crisp-shifting $1,200 automatic transmission. Saab is a master at turbocharging small engines, so the Linear engine performs like a larger motor--although there's slight turbo lag when accelerating.
The Linear will be followed next spring by an even more luxury-oriented $29,995 Arc version and a sporty $32,495 Vector model. Both will have a 210-horsepower version of the 2-liter engine with a higher turbocharger boost, along with a new six-speed manual gearbox.
Meanwhile the fashionable $39,995 Saab SE convertible will be sold with the old Saab platform until replaced in about a year by a modernized version. A 9-3 station wagon version and "crossover'' vehicle also will be here by the 2006 model year.
Saab clearly has ambitious plans, but much is riding on the new 9-3 sedan models.
So what's the 9-3 Linear like? It can hold its own with rivals such as the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Volvo S60 and Acura TL, although Saab's new advertising campaign must attract potential buyers into showrooms to give the car a try.
The 9-3 Linear has especially sharp, buttoned-down handling for a front-drive car, thanks to such things as wider front/rear tracks and stability and traction control systems. Steering is precise and the brake pedal has a reassuring feel and controls all-disc anti-lock brakes. The supple new all-independent suspension shrugs off bumps, but is on the soft side to provide a smoother ride. It thus occasionally lets the car get a little bouncy.
Nicely shaped outside door handles can be easily gripped for quick entry to the quiet interior. Saab makes fighter airplanes, so the dashboard is predictably well designed, with such things as easily read gauges and nicely placed soft-touch controls.
Front seats are especially supportive, with precise rotary seatback adjusters, and rear windows lower all the way. Attention to detail is shown by the four windshield washer jets said to work at twice the power of most other systems and nicely sized outside mirrors. All doors have storage pockets.
The large trunk has a low, wide opening, but its lid has manual hinges instead of struts. The split rear seatbacks fold fairly flat to greatly increase the cargo area. They have releases in the trunk and headrests that conveniently slide into the tops of the seats so you don't have to look for a place to put them.
Saab long has deserved higher sales, but needed a car such as the new 9-3 Linear to open the door to a larger market.
2003 SAAB 9-3 LINEAR SEDAN
Smooth. Roomy. Fast. Good handling. Safety features.
A little soft for a European sports sedan. Not yet considered a mainstream car.