The 9-3X concept, a preview of the next-generation 9-3, premiered in January 2002 at the North American International Auto Show. Originally, the 9-3 was due to début with the Opel Vectra in October 2001, at the Frankfurt Motor Show, but in July 2001, it was announced that delays had forced General Motors to postpone the introduction. The new 9-3 was eventually launched in July 2002 for the 2003 model year. The convertible version of the second-generation 9-3 began with the MY04, and SportCombi with MY05.
The new 9-3, like all previous Saab models, remained an exclusively front-wheel-drive powertrain at launch. The most drastic change from the former generation was the elimination of the hatchback design. The second-generation 9-3 was available as a four-door saloon, an estate (introduced in late 2005 as a 2006 model, known as the SportWagon, SportCombi or Sport-Hatch dependant on the market), and a two-door convertible (introduced in 2004). It included Saab Active Head Restraints (SAHR II) to reduce whiplash and ReAxs, passive rear-wheel steering design and passive toe-in to help reduce understeer under heavy braking.