Saab 9-3 18t

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Keywords: Saab 9-3 18t
Description: The latest 9-3 is a car which manages to give the impression that it's a logical step forward from the previous version . while disguising the fact that there's a lot of Vectra under the

The latest 9-3 is a car which manages to give the impression that it's a logical step forward from the previous version. while disguising the fact that there's a lot of Vectra under the skin.

Of course, the longer-wheelbase Vectra platform is an improvement on the older type. Saab couldn't obscure the fact that the previous 9-3 had a short wheelbase with a lot of overhang front and rear, which had an obvious effect on cabin space. With the older bodywork, it was only the comparatively high roofline which made it possible for rear seat passengers to feel comfortable, as long as they sat quite upright.

That's no longer the case. The new 9-3 is roomier all round. It also has generous luggage space, with (typical in a Nordic car) a ski-hatch in the centre of the rear seat.

There are plenty of traditional Saab features, although the 9-3 is edging more towards a mainstream GM Europe product. The fascia grilles are familiar in look and adjustment, and the electronic key fits into a slot behind the gear selector, just like the old metal type.

Saab's interior design team has provided grab handles which are unusually neatly arranged, with fist-size recesses in the roof lining. The Arc specification, one up from Linear but not as outright sporty as Vector, has reading lamps front and rear. There's a fair supply of stowage spaces in the cabin, and an abundance of adjustment controls and switches conveniently placed on the fascia, the steering wheel and the steering wheel stalks.

Saab isn't saying so much these days about its aircraft heritage, but the Night Panel control is still there, killing lights to all the instruments apart from the speedometer, although the illuminated switchgear still shows up. When all the fascia lights are on at night, it's still obvious that the Saab people are experts in providing very clear analogue and digital displays.

For example, the numbering and lettering on the trip computer, on top of the fascia and right at the base of the windscreen, is perfectly judged. And in daylight it's intriguing to note that the instrument surrounds must have been designed by somebody familiar with the very appealing Peugeot 307 style.

One oddity in the cabin is the handbrake. It's been designed to look like one of the twin struts reaching back from the central console, which is fair enough, but pulling it up is quite a clumsy movement, and I was always cagey about the possibility of nipping a finger.

Otherwise, there are the usual Swedish safety features, although once again perhaps not as firmly stressed as they have been in the past. The list does include, though, a safety cage, side impact protection, airbags all over the place and those ingenious front-seat active head restraints.

Overall, the 9-3 is well-constructed and well-finished, although some of the interior colour schemes tend to make the interior look, if not feel, rather chilly. It's good to have the heated front seats, with their three temperature settings. And I'm happy that the time is long gone when Saab thought rake adjustment for the steering column was just for fusspots.

In Saab parlance, a lower-case "t" after the number indicates that the car has light-pressure turbocharging, and that was the case with the two-litre engine (not 1.8, despite the name) in the test car. A 150bhp output isn't excessive in a car this size, of course, but I was happier with it than with some of the far higher chunks of power Saab puts through the front wheels of its top-rated cars. In this one, the boost in acceleration once the turbo starts spinning properly is satisfactory enough.

The automatic transmission in the test car (subtract £1115 from the price if you prefer the manual version) undoubtedly affected the acceleration, economy and CO2 emissions. But it came with a smooth-acting five-speed sequential change on the left side of the selector gate - tip forward for up and back for down.

Saab has maybe given a hostage to fortune by calling the new 9-3 a "sport saloon". I wouldn't say it is, in all its manifestations. Where it's first class though, is in ride quality over undulating roads. There's an A-class road in the CARkeys neck of the woods where some cars are very ill at ease as they crest the brows at 45-50mph. While there aren't many tarmac roads of that description in Sweden, Saab has tuned the 9-3 suspension so that the 1.8t copes easily.

Second opinion. The ride quality is indeed very impressive, and generally the 9-3 is very smooth to drive. But if you go beyond a certain point (and I'm not talking about really quick motoring here) the car suddenly feels very wobbly, as if the suspension has run out of ideas. It was alarming the first time it happened, and equally alarming the twentieth time. Mid-range performance is very good, though if you use it for long the fuel economy suffers badly, to an extent that the official consumption figures do not show. Space in the rear may be better than it was, but there's still not as much legroom as you might expect in a car of this size. David Finlay .



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