Saab’s (very) hidden gem

I have spent much time recently contemplating Saab, its cars and its future.  It started last year with Saab’s sale from GM to Spyker, the Dutch super car manufacturer.  Having written about Saab’s presence at the Paris motor show last October and reviewed the new 9-5, I now find myself sitting in a nine year old 9-3.  

Actually, this Saab is not nine years old – it’s brand new, but apart from some relatively minor face lifts during its life, the 9-3 Sports Saloon (as it was originally marketed to differentiate it from the former coupé and hatch) looks pretty much as it did when it was first released.  

Back in 2002, GM forced the 9-3 down the conventional route, shedding the hatchback and a little of the quirkiness to put it head-to-head with the likes of BMW’s 3-Series and the Audi A4.  And to be fair, it sold reasonably well but it was always going to be a tough fight with the mighty German rivals; Saab did need to retain some differential.  The other issue is that in the UK, one of Saab’s larger markets, the three box saloon sector has diminished in favour of hatch backs, MPVs and various cross-overs.  And although functional, the 9-3 Sportwagen was never as pretty as its rivals. 

Having driven countless 9-3s, what is today’s attraction to this aging Saab with new plates on?  The interest is actually as much about the company and its direction as the car itself.  Think of the swan analogy – all calm and serene above water yet paddling its legs in a frenzy beneath the surface.  This is exactly what is going on at Saab, which hasn’t stood still through times of troubled parentage; we are seeing a whole stream of new developments.  In this case, the 9-3 has been coupled with a fabulous new diesel engine under the bonnet – the most powerful engine on the market in the sub-120 g/km CO2 arena.

It is sometimes forgotten that engines and models don’t evolve at the same rate, so this is likely to be planted into the 9-3’s replacement, due to be released in 2012.  The current car might be showing its age aesthetically but its engine reminded me that the 9-3 is still extremely competent – and hopefully retains enough brand identity to appeal to buyers. 

The extra power is gained through the use of two-stage turbo charging, not just in this model but right across the range.  BMW’s 320d Efficient Dynamics variant has been seen as the bench mark for this sector for some months but Saab really has upped the game, its new engine enjoying an extra 17 hp and 5% additional torque over its Bavarian rival.  It falls into tax band C, adding a mere £10 per annum over the BMW. 

Inside, I am pleased to see the fit and finish is improved over earlier models.  This isn’t just because of the lovely leather trim – even the plastic parts look and feel better.  What I don’t like (and never have) is the flush, awkward hand brake which allows one’s knuckles to foul the keys due to the central, floor mounted ignition switch.  Secondly the sat-nav seems to be missing a post code search facility.  When I finally managed to insert a place name just to try it out, I couldn’t switch the damn thing off.  If anyone spotted a black 9-3 weaving for 30 miles on the M56, it was me looking for a button to shut it up. 

So assuming you don’t tick the ‘I’d like a sat-nav’ box on the options list and take your house keys off the key ring, it does the job I have always admired most about Saabs – that of being a flying arm chair.  It is quick and civilised; 400Nm of torque enables it to pull right across the rev ranges in all gears, yet it never feels twitchy when pressing on.  

The switches are all very sensible and intuitive, which is never going to earn it the description of ‘funky’ but provides a very stress-free cockpit.  After four hours driving the 9-3 today, I know I could queue on the M6 or charge across Europe – it wouldn’t disappoint.  It’s frugal too, managing an average of 45 mpg despite some hideous traffic and being opened up a little to enjoy all of its 180 horses. 

Although no spring chicken, it has been improved and remains a very good car.  The problem is that it looks just the same as the other 9-3s out on the roads.  Only Saab fans would spot the new alloy wheel designs or very subtle TTiD4 boot badge.  While there have been some changes to the gearing, steering, engine mappings and even under-body aerodynamics, I fear its familiarity prevents it standing out enough to potential buyers.  This is rather a shame because it’s the best 9-3 Sports Saloon I have ever driven, the silky V6 included.  Saab drivers have traditionally enjoyed the quiet capability of their cars but it might be time for a final, light facelift to attract new buyers and take this model through to 2012.

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