s one door closes, another one opens? That is certainly true in the case of Saab?s long-running association with three and five-door bodystyles, which finally comes to an end with the arrival of its all-new 9-3 Sport Sedan. Indeed, the demise of the old shape Saab 9-3 signifies the end of the road for the premium-class hatchback.
It all began in the early 70s when Saab«s head of design Bjorn Envall was planning a load-carrying alternative to the traditional wagon. ?Why have a car that looks like a van when you don?t need to?? he asked. He wanted to combine a sporty, coupˇ-like profile with practical features such as a roof-mounted tailgate, a fully-folding rear seat and a low sill for easy access. The format became reality with the Saab 99, the first of an illustrious line that became the Saab 900 and, finally, the Saab 9-3.
In fact, Saab could have claimed yet another automotive ?first? if it had gone ahead with the same concept 10 years earlier, when it was under consideration before the Renault 16 appeared as the industry?s first five-door hatchback. Nevertheless, Saab has always been linked with the distinctive sporty and multi-dynamic qualities embodied by the ?combi-coupˇ? foremat. Over the years, it has carved a unique niche in the premium sector, offering a distinctive alternative in a marketplace dominated by sedans and their wagon variants.
The second-generation Saab 900, which was to become the Saab 9-3, arrived in the autumn of 1993 and it has played a pivotal role in broadening Saab?s appeal as an international premium brand. Before its launch, Saab had earned a reputation through the first-generation 900 for building sporty, versatile turbocharged cars that were sometimes described as ?quirky?. The long front and rear overhangs, that curving ?Captain Nemo? windshield, five-door versions with an additional side window and the ?back to front? engine installation were all something of an acquired taste. Generous external dimensions were, by modern standards, not matched by a particularly spacious passenger cabin. The arrival of the new 900/9-3 quickly changed all that.
The fresh exterior and interior styling and improved packaging, with a transversely-mounted engine liberating more interior room, brought Saab before a much wider audience. Sales, particularly of five-door variants, immediately picked up. Its performance and quality credentials were also reinforced in 1996 by a remarkable event at the Talladega speedway in the United States. Six completely standard production cars set 40 international speed and endurance records, a Saab 900 2.0-liter turbo covering 25,000 miles at an average speed of 226 kph.
Innovations included the provision of triple, three-point seat-belts in the rear, Saab being first to offer this with a folding rear seat, and ?Black Panel?, which allows all instrument illumination, except for the speedometer, to be switched off at night for a more restful driving environment. The product was substantially improved in 1998 with the introduction of the 9-3 model designation. A subtle evolution of the exterior styling disguised more than 2,000 detailed engineering changes, focused on further refining the car?s ride, handling and steering. And for the first time a diesel engine option was introduced.
The Saab 900/9-3 series is by far Saab?s most popular model range, a total of 1.489.600 units being produced in 3/5-door and Convertible bodystyles, since its inception in 1978. The production of the current Saab 9-3 combi-coupˇ will continue for another 1,5 years in Uusikaupunki, Finland, where it will be manufactured in a limited edition for the Nordic markets.
When the last Saab 9-3 hatchback rolls off the Trollhattan production line on May 8, it not only brings the curtain down on ?combi-coupˇ? Saabs. It also leaves the majority of premium car buyers with a simple choice between sedan, wagon or coupˇ bodystyles. These days, most prefer a sedan ? and they will shortly be able to add an all-new Saab model to their shopping list. As one door closes, another opens?