After the success of the Saab 900 and subsequent growth of the company through the late 90′, our favorite car company came out with a completely new car in 2003, as a continuation of the 9-3 name. Commonly referred to as the Sport Sedan, 9-3ss, or 9440 chassis (as opposed to the outgoing 9400 body style), these cars are coming down pretty sharply in price. Because of that, like the Saab 9-5, it is possible to buy a fantastic car for pennies on the dollar (we picked up a running 9-3ss for our next race car for $500). However, like most cars bottoming out in value, it’s important to keep an eye out for the top 10 most common Saab 9-3 problems.
General Motors had a heavy hand when managing Saab’s design and building oversight on this project, which means you will see an increased amount of GM parts-bin sourced components. This is especially noticeable in areas such as switch packs, stereo equipment, and materials used both on the interior, exterior, and engine bay. The chassis is a reworked GM Epsilon platform, roughly shared with a few other GM cars. In 2007 the interior was updated, and in 2008 the 9-3s underwent an external facelift, with many newly designed parts added with both.
The 2.0 4 cylinder is a GM Ecotec unit that is also used in tons of other applications. That’s not to say this is not a Saab engine, as engineers in Sweden had their hands all over it during the design phase. Additions include the use of Saab’s Ion sensing Trionic system, updated internal materials, block casting processes, valvetrain updates, and a revised cylinder head. This version of Trionic (8 in this case) differs from T5 and T7 because the ion sensing module is a separate unit instead of being built into the direct ignition cassette. This allows for money-saving individual ignition coils instead of a complicated coil pack. Two turbos were offered, a small Garret GT2052s and a larger TD04 for Arc and Aero models.
Since this run of cars is so comprehensive, and so many changes were made over models, we will focus on the most popular 2003-2007 9-3 with the 2.0 engine. Many of these will still translate; however, there are some differences in later facelifted cars, as well as vehicles equipped with the V6 engine. So now that you have the rundown of the car itself, here’s a list of common failure points to keep an eye out for when shopping for one of these cars in no particular order.
SAAB 9-3 Fuel Gauge Reading Empty (Fuel Level Sensor)
It is fairly common to be driving, and witness your fuel gauge suddenly drop to zero. Although this does not affect the drivability of the car, it can be a somewhat annoying problem. The issue is related to a sensor on the fuel pump, which is prone to failure, resulting in a lost signal and an empty fuel reading. The part in question is attached to the fuel pump, but it is available for buying separately. It fits all 9-3ss models.
However, if your car is past 100k miles on the stock fuel pump since you have to drop the tank to do the job, we recommend changing the entire fuel pump unit out with a new TI Automotive one, formally known as Walbro. The fuel pump assembly has the fuel level sensor built-in.
9-3 Hesitation, Surging, and Rough Idle (Electronic Throttle Body)
Like nearly all modern cars, the 9-3ss uses an electronic throttle body that is prone to failure. The throttle body has a rotating ‘butterfly’ plate inside that controls the volume of airflow into the engine, and is controlled electronically via the throttle-by-wire system and the computer inputs. This means that the computer is in control to more effectively control the engine based on what it thinks you want it to do.
However, when these electronics fail inside the throttle body, latency and tolerances increase in operation causing hesitation, surging, and rough idle. If you are encountering a rough idle, try cleaning the throttle body before replacing it. A GM dealer TechII scan tool may be required to calibrate the ETB when replacing. Don’t forget a new gasket!
9-3 Clicking Noise In-Dash (Recirculation Motor)
Behind the glovebox is a series of motors that control the HVAC system, one of them is the re-circulation flap motor that opens and closes the vent to use outside air. Inside these little motor, assemblies are a series of small plastic gears that tend to lose more teeth than an aging boxer. This has two outcomes. The first is a very annoying clicking sound around the glovebox area. The second is the flap operation degraded, and you may lose your recirculation feature on your AC.
If this is going on, you have two options. The first is to take apart the assembly, and if you’re lucky, the missing teeth will only be on one part of the gear. You can remove the gear and re-clock it since only a small section of the gear actually comes in contact with the other gears. The second option is to simply pop in a new one and be done with it. We carry the motor in Valeo, which is the OEM supplier of these recirc motors to Saab.
SAAB 9-3 Binding Steering and Popping Noise From Suspension (Broken Coil Springs)
Broken suspension springs are a common problem in new-gen 9-3’s, and are something to keep an eye out for. For whatever reason, the springs snap near the perch, causing a knocking/popping noise. You will notice a definite change in the way the car drives at that point, and you should see the corner with the broken spring will be sagging lower than the others.
Luckily, it’s easy to check out the problem since a broken spring will be quite obvious upon visual inspection and easy enough to fix with the right set of tools. We have a wide variety of SAAB 9-3 suspension springs available, so it’s important that if you have a broken spring, to look at the paint markings on the spring. If they aren’t there, read this post to tell what spring codes you have, or call our customer service with a VIN. If you don’t want to deal with taking the strut assembly apart to replace the spring, we offer complete strut assemblies that we put together ourselves using the best quality OES parts available.
Coolant Leaks (Water Pump)
This is a dreaded failure that most 2.0 4cylinder Ecotec (Saab B207) engines will encounter. The water pump is a strange design, driven off a chain in the timing cover rather than on the outside of the engine with a belt. This seems like it would be more of a robust design, but more often than not, you will find yourself having to replace the water pump without gobs of miles on the odometer.
You can postpone the failure and leakage of the pump by changing the coolant at regular intervals, but generally assume this to be an inevitability. To change it, you need a special tool to lock the gear in place. That way, you can undo the bolts on the gear and take the pump out on the other side of the bracket. If, for some reason, the gear has excessive wear on it, you can buy the Genuine Saab version, which comes with the gear. We have a quick tutorial on how to go about changing this pump here.
9-3 Engine Rattle (Balance Shaft Tensioner)
Like the water pump, which is tied into the same balance shaft chain drive system, the tensioner that keeps it all running smoothly is almost sure to break, causing an annoying rattle in the engine. When we were building our Saab 9-3ss race car, both of the engines we were working with had these components snapped and sitting at the bottom of our timing case. Somehow, both engines ran, and we’ve heard of people complaining about engine rattle for months before either fixing it or having the entire system come apart (badaboom).
We try to always have a balance shaft kit in stock at all times because of the likelihood of someone discovering this while having something apart (maybe you dropped a bolt into the case doing a water pump), and requiring this part immediately. We ship the same day, so if your balance shaft chains, tensioner, or guides are messed up, have no fear!
Steering Lock Malfunction – Make A Safe Stop (Ignition Switch Module)
When you see this pop up on your display, it’s not a great feeling. When I first saw it, I immediately pictured the steering wheel locking while driving, sending me into some kind of Thelma and Louise style vehicular excursion. However, this is not the case, and the fix is relatively simple. The most common cause of this message is the ignition switch module, or ISM, located in the center console. This is the part that you put the key into, and when it goes bad, the body control module doesn’t get the signal it’s looking for, and hence the message will pop up.
Currently hovering around $100, there is a good supply of these switches available, and they are a relatively easy DIY fix (no programming required). If left too long, you may encounter a no-start situation, so when you start getting this message, it’s a good idea to act quickly and replace the ISM. If you are seeing this message and are encountering other weird electrical issues, a fresh car battery may be the solution, as even a slight drop in voltage can cause weird things to happen with the electrical systems of these computerized cars.
Grinding/Moaning Suspension When Turning The Steering Wheel
Aside from being a common wear part on all cars mounted with McPherson struts, the top mounts and bearings in the 9-3ss are particularly susceptible to failure. When they go bad, you will notice an unpleasant grinding noise accompanied by a clunk or squeak when going around corners. Luckily the parts are inexpensive and relatively easy to take out yourself. If your car has over 100k miles on it, you may want to consider just replacing the entire strut assembly, as your struts, springs, bushings, etc. will all be worn as well.
eEuroparts carries the bearings and strut mounts, as well as the entire strut assemblies already put together, so all you have to do is unbolt the old one from the knuckle, remove the three nuts on the top, and swap the assemblies. Just make sure you are getting the right suspension options before ordering, as there are a few options dealing with sport suspension vs. standard packages. While in there, it’s a good idea to change the sway bar end links as well, since they are inexpensive and must be removed when doing the job anyway.
SAAB 9-3 Seatbelt Won’t Retract
A saggy seatbelt isn’t just annoying, it’s unsafe. Saab issued a recall awhile ago (and took their time about fixing it), but lately we have been selling a lot of seatbelt tensioners that pick up the slack in the assembly.
If you have a saggy belt, first check to make sure the belt isn’t binding up near the slot where it comes out of the B-Pillar trim. If it moves free and clean, something inside the tensioner might be broken, requiring immediate replacement. We have these in stock to get you back on the road as soon as possible.
Clutch Pedal Won’t Return Up
This is a common problem that will almost surely manifest itself at some point on all manual transmission cars. If your clutch pedal isn’t returning back up, relax. You can still drive the car, and it will just feel super weird until you get under there and replace the helper spring and associated clips.
Generally, people replace the whole thing (It’s not too expensive), but usually, the clip on it is what breaks, and this can be replaced by itself. We offer both the helper spring and the clip.
SAAB 9-3 Door Locks Won’t Function (Door Locks)
This one is particularly annoying. You go to unlock your car, hear it unlock, walk up to pull the handle, and PSYCH, that door is still locked. You look around and notice only 3 of the 4 locks actuated, leaving you to walk around and use the other door to get into the car. If it’s the driver’s side door lock, I suspect you will waste no time in replacing it. Luckily we sell enough of these in Genuine Saab to keep in stock. Many 9-3ss owners will replace a door lock assembly at some point, so prepare yourself and be happy that these parts are available (and at a reasonable price too!). Watch out for the VIN split in 2005, as the design changed midway through the year, and you must know when your car was produced to get the right lock.
Key Not Recognized, Haywire Turn Signals, Wipers, Cruise Control, or Lost all Keys
The Central Integrated Module, or CIM, is a very complicated computerized device in the steering column that has a lot of control over your car’s systems. A few of those systems include verifying your key chips, controlling your wiper transmission, cruise control, steering angle sensor, as well as housing the clock springs for the turn signals.
- The keys stop working altogether (or you lost them), that’s a bad thing, and you will probably need a new CIM.
- If the other systems listed above are acting super weird, first swap your battery for a new one to make sure everything is getting the right voltage.
- You did all of this and still have no change, you may be looking to replace the CIM. The Central Integrated Module requires a dealer program to divorce from and marry to the computer, so don’t start pulling these things apart yourself without a TechII and some training.
Also, do NOT pull out the red clip, no matter how tempting it is. If you pull that out without the unit installed in the car and the wheels in the proper direction, you will brick the module, and it is not cheap. We, of course, will NOT refund sprung CIMs.
9-3 Peeling buttons (Climate Control Button Set)
The Saab 9-3 is supposed to be an upscale car, but when all the buttons on the climate control panel are peeling and cracking away, it sure doesn’t feel like it. Luckily these button sets are available in Genuine Saab and aren’t too complicated to change. We have two sets, one for cars with heated seats and one for vehicles without heated seats. Don’t stare at these anymore, spend the little extra on this cosmetic fix, and get back to appreciating the interior of your car. Just remember that it may look like the box is filled in packing material, but there are actually three loose buttons wrapped up in there, so don’t call us saying that you didn’t get the other buttons, they were in there, and we know you threw them away. Time to start dumpster diving!
I hope that helps, I know I said top 10 problems, but I came up with 12 since some really did need a shout-out. Thanks to Ashley in CS for helping out with some of these topics, she is our resident 9-3 expert and has witnessed most of this firsthand. If you have other common failures that you have seen with your 9-3, go ahead and comment below. Thanks for reading!