Update -- things that should be added to this table when next considering a pair of vehicles:

This page compares the 2001.5 VW Passat with the 2001 Saab 9-3 4dr base (which is no longer available for this price as the 2002's are only available in upmarket SE trim now). This is mostly useful as a template for other vehicle comparisons or a list of features and specs to conisder when researching vehicles.

Below is a detailed comparison table, feature by feature and spec by spec. Unless otherwise noted, specs, features, and any other misc info in the table comes from the 2001 VW new Passat report and the 2001 Saab 9-3 report from AutoSite. Crash test results are from crashtest.com. There is also information from Consumer Reports, as noted. Lastly, price info comes from carsdirect.com, the only place on the web or in the real world to get up-front, no-haggle pricing information on new vehicles. On most points, the two vehicles are very similar. The differences which seem most significant, IMHO, are highlighted in bold. In addition to comparing these two vehicles, this is a template for how I think anyone should compare two vehicles they are seriously trying to decide between (ie, for what minimum pieces of information should be collected in addition to reading a few reviews and going on a test drive).

year 2001.5 2001
make VW Saab
model Passat (new Passat) 9-3
trim GLS sedan / GLS wagon 4dr hatchback
options assumed in rest of table none none
carsdirect.com price on 8/8/01 ($) 21,050 / 21,850 (1) 22,302
transmission 5-speed manual 5-speed manual
drivetrain front wheel drive front wheel drive
warranty (bumper, drive, roadside, rust) 2/24k, 10/100k, 2/unlim, 12/unlim (2) 4/50k, 4/50k, 4/50k, 6/unlim
US sales volume (all trims) for 2000 84521 19445
Engine and Performance:
engine type I4 (sequential elect. fuel injected) I4 (sequential elect. fuel injected)
engine displacement (L) 1.8 2.0
engine horsepower (hp) 170 @ 5900 (rumored to be 180) 185 @ 5500
engine torque (ft.-lbs.) 166 @ 1950 194 @ 2100
fuel economy: city, highway (mpg) 24 city, 31 highway 21 city, 29 highway
fuel type required (Consumer Reports) premium regular
fuel tank capacity (gallons) 16.4 17
emissions standard met ULEV LEV
0-60 acceleration (s) 7.5 (sedan) probably sub-7.5 based on engine/weight
Consumer Reports braking, dry (ft) 138 (sedan, auto) / 140 (wagon, auto) 139
Consumer Reports avoidance maneuver (mph) 52.5 (sedan) / 52.0 (wagon) 54.0
skidpad (fraction of g) 0.79 (sedan, C&D through AutoSite) 0.77-0.80 (best guess from various C&D)
Physical Measurements:
weight (lbs.) 3199 (sedan) / 3296 (wagon) 3020
length (in.) 185.2 / 184.3 182.3
wheelbase (in.) 106.4 102.6
width (in.) 68.7 67.4
track (in.) 59.6 57.2 (front), 56.8 (rear)
height (in.) 57.6 56.2
ground clearance (in.) 5.8 Carpoint, 4.0/4.5 CR sedan/wagon 5 Carpoint, 4.5 CR
steering diameter (in.) 37.4 34.4
cargo volume (cu. ft.) 15 / 39 22
passenger volume (cu. ft.) 95 / 98 90
total cargo + passenger volume (cu. ft.) 110 / 137 112
front head room (in.) 39.7 39.3
front shoulder room (in.) 55.8 52.4
front leg room (in.) 41.5 42.3
rear head room (in.) 37.8 / 39.7 37.9
rear shoulder room (in.) 54.6 52.6
rear leg room (in.) 35.3 34.1
CR front/rear seat comfort 4/5 front, 4/5 rear 4/5 front, 3/5 rear
Safety Features:
3-point seatbelts all 5 all 5
seatbelt pretensioners front and 2 outboard rear front
seatbelt height adjusters front front
anti-lock brakes (ABS) 4-wheel, 4 channels, 4 sensors 4-wheel, 4 channel, 4 sensors
disc brakes all 4 all 4
front airbags yes yes
side torso airbags yes yes
traction control yes yes
stability control no no
electronic braking assist no no
xenon (HID) headlights no no
daytime running lights yes yes
collapsable steering column yes yes
internal trunk release yes yes
number of headrests 5 4
child seat anchors 2 rear outboard all 3 rear seats
side head airbags yes (curtain) yes (seat-mounted)
automatic door locks yes (at 8mph) no
seatbelt load limiters front and 2 outboard rear not on AutoSite, but CR says yes, front
headrest design rating (IIHS) none (previous Passat: 0/4 or 1/4) 4 out of 4
telematics system (eg On-Star) no yes (plus 1 year paid subscription)
audible settable speed warning no yes
structural side safety anti-intrusion door beams and
energy absorbing door padding
collision deflecting pendulum B pillars (which Saab has patented)
misc structural safety features no special mention special body and front structure
Crash Tests:
crashtest.com overall rating 4 out of 5 4 out of 5
IIHS offset overall not tested (previous Passat: 4/4) 3/4
EU front 4/5 (previous Passat: 4/5) 3/5
EU side 5/5 (previous Passat: 4/5) 5/5
US (NHTSA) front, driver not tested (previous Passat: 5/5) not tested
US (NHTSA) front, passenger not tested (previous Passat: 5/5) not tested
US (NHTSA) side, front not tested (previous Passat: 4/5) not tested
US (NHTSA) side, rear not tested (previous Passat: 4/5) not tested
IIHS bumpers rating not tested (previous Passat: 4/4) 3/4
IIHS injury insurance claim rates (3) 83 (lower=better, class avg=100) 70 (lower=better, class avg=100)
IIHS collision insur. claim rates (3) 91 (lower=better, class avg=100) 107 (lower=better, class avg=100)
Consumer Reports predicted reliability 3 out of 5 3 out of 5
Misc. Amenities
power windows yes yes
fog lights yes (front) yes (2 front, 1 rear)
tachometer yes yes
cruise control yes yes
air conditioning yes yes
air filter yes yes
front seat adjustments manual manual
lumbar support yes (front dual) yes (driver)
seat material velour velour
remote keyless entry yes yes
alarm yes yes
folding rear seat yes yes
telescopic steering wheel yes yes
intermittant wipers yes (front and rear) yes (front)
tilt steering wheel yes no
steering wheel controls no yes (speed, some audio controls)
exterior temperature gauge yes yes
turbo boost gauge no yes
wheels steel, 15in. x 6in. alloy, 15in. x 6.5in. (5-spoke)
tires SBRP195/65R15 H-rated all-weather SBRP195/60R15 88, V-rated all-season
full size spare yes no (compact spare)

(1) The 2001.5 Passat (new Passat) GLS wagon is currently unavailable from carsdirect.com (and the sedan says limited availability).
(2) The nearly identical 2002 Passat will have a more standard warranty of 4/50k, 5/60k, 4/50k, 12/unlim.
(3) These insurance claim statistics found on the IIHS website are stated as being for model years '97-'99, but the current Passat and 9-3 don't date back to '97. It's unclear whether they mixed in Saab 900 (the predecessor to the 9-3) results with 9-3 results, and it would seem based on crashtest.org that the previous generation Passat did much worse in crash tests, so if those results were mixed in as seems likely it would have brought the Passat claim averages up (worse end of the scale). Thus, these numbers are of limited direct help. Still, they should be reasonable worst case indications for the current models, so this data serves to give further general confidence in both vehicles being above average for not getting injuries significant enough to require insurance claims.

Summary: As you can see from the table, the cars are very similarly equipped, have similar physical dimensions, similar engines, and now similar prices. Both models have been around for a while (though the Passat just went through a revision that wasn't a complete redesign) and thus have established track records and should contain no significant surprises. 2002 versions of both will be almost exactly the same as the current versions, though 2002 pricing and how the new models will affect the pricing of the current models are still question marks. Here are the highlights of the differences between the Passat and 9-3, especially safety aspects: (1) The basic body style is the most obvious major difference. The Passat gives traditional sedan or wagon choices, while the 9-3 gives you somewhat of a compromise that looks basically like a 4dr sedan (or you can get a 2dr version which is the same exact size), but has a hatchback and thus allows the storage of bigger items in the back with the seats down than a normal sedan would, with easier insertion and removal as well. (2) The current VW warranty is a big difference, but it will become a nearly equivalent normal warranty for the 2002 model year. (3) The Passat has slightly better crash test scores, but most of these are all for the version prior to the recent revision, which according to reports changed all the components except the roof and some other minor component. It is unclear how likely it is that this revision affected crashworthiness. The 9-3's crash tests are still pretty good. (4) The 9-3 has an industry-leading active head restraint system that has a much better chance of limiting neck injuries in rear-end collisions, while the (previous) Passat got poor marks from the IIHS for its headrest design and geometry. (5) The 9-3 comes standard with On-star, which includes GPS and national cellular service and allows automatic notification of airbag deployment. This is an incredible value in a $22k vehicle. (6) The 9-3 has "Front and Rear Seats With Protection Against Submarining Prevents Passengers From Sliding Beneath Seatbelts Upon Impact In Severe Frontal Collision", and there is a chance that it does not have load limiters on its front seatbelts since AutoSite doesn't list them, but this seems unlikely and Consumer Reports says it does have load limiters. The 9-3 also has the quirk that the ignition switch mounted between the front seats rather than in front of the driver which is supposed to help prevent certain leg injuries in the event of front-end collisions. (7) The side curtain head airbags on the Passat protect the rear passengers as well as the front passengers, unlike the 9-3's seat-mounted side head airbags. This is both good and bad. It is good for adults in the rear seats, but for children it is unclear what risk is posed from side and side head airbags, and it is very clear that in a new Passat or any other vehicle with this type of curtain airbag that extends all the way back, childen should not ride with their heads pressed up against or near the side windows. It would seem difficult to nearly impossible (and definitely very distracting for a driver) to constantly make sure rear-seat children passengers were never asleep with their heads against the side windows nor eagerly looking out these windows with their faces pressed to the glass or sticking all the way out of open windows. (8) The last major difference is that the 9-3, like any Saab, is definitely quirkier, in ergonomics, looks, and reputation, and there are fewer of them on the road. This can be good or bad depending on what you want.

The Passat, in both sedan and wagon form, is at the top of countless auto industry and consumer magazine lists for value/pest-pick/etc, but one can't help but wonder the extent to which the 9-3 is overlooked because of its high MSRP and invoice price, and also some minor issues with the more expensive trim levels that seem to be more often tested by the industry magazines. The auto industry organizations often get the sportier SE trim level of the 9-3 to review (or even the significantly sportier Viggen) and 9-3's seem to suffer from bad steering issues with the bigger engines that the base engine avoids, so how well would a base 9-3 do according to the experts when considered with its current $22k price tag? Except for the Passat, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a safer, more fun-to-drive vehicle for $22k (in a manual or automatic transmission) and I don't think you'll find ANY other comparably equipped vehicle at this price with a manual transmission besides these two (the next two up the price scale would be the A4, see below, and the Volvo S60).

More information about automobile safety.

Other health and safety related consumer info that I've collected.

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Karl Pfleger
August, 2001