The 9-3 marked a completely new philosophy at Saab. It's predecessor, the 900 range was never quite sure what part of the market to target, with a very wide spread of models. The 9-3 was launched just after the bigger 9-5 range, the '3' and '5' designations making it clear which of BMW's ranges Saab were tilting at with the new cars. A fourteen car 9-3 range was launched in March 1998, with three trim levels, base, S and SE, and four engines. These consisted of 2.0i (130bhp), 2.0T (185bhp) and 2.3i (150bhp) petrol installations and the 2.2 TiD (115bhp) diesel unit. Factor in the three body styles of three-door coupe, five-door saloon and two-door convertible with two transmission options and the available permutations start to skyrocket.
To try to explain further, all engines are available with all trim levels bar the following. The 2.0 T and 2.3i engines were only available in S and SE guise in fixed roof models, and SE trim only in the convertible. The 2.2 TiD diesel engine was only offered on fixed roof five-door cars. The range was added to in June 1998 with the launch of a light-pressure turbocharged version of the 2.0T engine. Helpfully called the 2.0t, it developed 154bhp and replaced the 2.3i versions.
In November 1998 another engine variant was launched, the HOT designation, basically a powerful 2.0 turbocharged unit developing 200bhp. June 1999 saw the launch of the Viggen 2.3i versions, which developed a mighty 225bhp and were available in all three body styles. September 1999 saw the introduction of the Aero models with the 2.0 HOT engine. These models boasted a striking bodykit and a lavish equipment list. The diesel range, which by now also came with three doors, also gained a short-term Airflow edition, which looked sportier and was priced to sit between the S and SE trim designations. In August 2000, the 2.0t engine was improved with extra torque, though outright power dropped to 150bhp. The turbo diesel was also improved. Meanwhile, the Viggen was dropped due to poor sales and the Aero models upgraded. In late 2001 the appeal of the 9-3 range was boosted with some tweaks to standard trim and a rethink of gear ratios resulting in a 5% improvement in economy. Saab also curiously started dubbing the three-door version the 9-3 Coupe.