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A new face for the 9-3

Saab's venerable line gets a sportier look and a more spacious interior for 2008

LYSEKIL, Sweden -- We emerged from a cavernous, once-secret underground bunker built to store fighter aircraft. Which was appropriate, since we were driving the redesigned 2008 Saab 9-3, built by a company with aircraft manufacturing in its corporate DNA.

The Saab, long a favorite in New England, has been in need of rejuvenation, and if the 9-3 is an example of where the company is finally heading under General Motors Corp. ownership, it's a great direction.

This car is not a hot rod (as Saab attempted with the much-maligned Viggen), but it does fill the bill for those who want a little sport in their driving. The revamped 9-3 takes us back to some of Saab's roots with crisp handling, manageable power, and a striking new look that includes snake-eye headlamps, piercing fog lights, a looming grille, and a clamshell hood that will be evocative for Saab fans of a certain age. Go back any farther and you'll need to break out the tie-dye and patchouli oil.

The 9-3 has "probably the most expressive face on a Saab to date," said Ola Granlund, Saab senior designer. Some might debate that, hankering for the fish-mouth grille of old, but no one can argue that Saab's 9-3 lineup -- including sedan, sport wagon, and convertible -- constitutes the most aggressive-looking modern-era Saab line.

The 9-3s will come with a variety of engines and transmissions, including 2.0- and 2.8-liter engines with horsepower ranging from 210 to 255 and 280, along with Saab's classic turbocharging. Outside the United States -- at least for now -- bio-fuel versions of the 9-3 will also be available. The transmissions will come in five- or six-speeds, manual and manumatic.

General Motors, as it is doing with other lines -- notably Saturn -- has upgraded the interior quality in this redesign, adding fine and firm leathers, an ergonomic setup at center cockpit for audio, climate, and other controls, and made what is not a really large car feel surprisingly spacious.

The 9-3 is an important line for GM -- in fact, almost 70 percent of the Saabs sold in the United States are 9-3s.

"People who buy Saabs are people who would never buy other GM cars," said Knut Simonsson, Saab's global sales and marketing director. And there is a Saab cult -- just as there are Subaru, Saturn, and Volvo cults.

So what about this new 9-3 with its appeal to sport, a certain culture, and the perceived liberal leanings of its fans?

Well, it will not carve a corner like a scalpel and for someone who can really push a car, there is understeer so common to front-wheel-drive cars. But when you consider the typical Saab enthusiast, this car offers them plenty of sport, understeer be damned.

Also, the manual shifter is a tactile affirmation that a Saab is being driven. In fact, the six-speed automatic with manual option handled the 9-3's power far better than did the manual.

Swedish drivers do not disobey traffic rules the way Massachusetts motorists do, so flogging the 9-3 required some caution, especially given prominent speed-monitoring cameras along highways in Sweden.

But when we did let it rip, at least momentarily, the pickup in fifth and sixth gears was remarkable, particularly at around 2,700 r.p.m. -- a modest bit of spin for so much power.

The handling was crisp, even with a bit of numbness from the steering wheel. But that is where Saab has placed itself with this car -- it's sporting without being frightening.

And wait until you see the "cross-wheel-drive" model that -- thanks to good engineering -- we managed to keep sideways on a slick test course without wrecking.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

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