How new is this 'new' 9-3?
Saab has made 2157 changes in facelifting its 3-series rival, rendering the 9-3 almost completely distinct from its Vectra platform. Or so says Saab. The nose is the most striking aspect; it’s all-new from the A-pillars forward, and its clamshell bonnet and perma-lit ‘eyebrow’ headlight strips lend it some presence. The side profile has been cleaned up with new door handles and the removal of rubbing strips, while the saloon and convertible get SportWagon-like frosted rear lights. Under the bodywork, the platform has only had NVH tweaks; bigger news is a two-stage turbo 1.9-litre TTiD, a bio-ethanol 2.0t and, from 2008, the availability of a 4WD variant.
A 4WD Saab? Tell me more.
Big technical news, this: Saab has taken the latest version of the VW group’s Haldex 4x4 system, and added its own electronic limited-slip diff. Called cross wheel drive (XWD), it can split torque not only from front to 100 percent rear (with pre-emptive engagement for slip-free getaways), but also divide it between the rear wheels. So if a front wheel hits a patch of ice, drive can be shifted away from the rear wheel before it reaches the slippy stuff. Clever stuff. This technology is expected to make its way across the GM group, but for now it will only be mated with the 280bhp 2.8-litre V6 turbo.
The diesel sounds decent...
With 180bhp and 295lb ft, you’d be right. But it’s the power delivery that makes it stand out. Saab has integrated a two-stage turbo (one unit containing a small and a large turbine) for a broad, linear spread of shove and crisp, near-instantaneous throttle response. Capable of 47.9mpg, it still sounds a bit gravelly but revs smoothly and suits the 9-3’s laid-back nature. The 2.0t Biopower will be a 250-per-year sideshow in the UK until the Government changes its tax policy on bio-ethanol. Unlike Sweden, where the company is set to phase out regular unleaded cars. Pity, as the tri-power range is a torquey, green way of turning a 175bhp engine into a 200bhp one when using E85.
And the rest of the range?
Saab has simplified things, with easier-to-fathom trim names: Airflow, Linear SE, Vector Sport and Aero. Sales of the 1.8i, 1.8t and 2.0t petrol engines will be dwarfed by sales of the 1.9 TiD 120 and 150, and prices remain healthily below 3-series' levels and (by a narrower chunk) less than the Audi A4 which Saab reckons is this car’s key rival. Prices kick off at £18,575. The Vector Sport SE that BMW 320d ES buyers might eye up is £24,080 - £175 less than the base-spec BM.
What’s it like to drive?
No different from the old 9-3, to be honest. Chassis settings are on the soft side, giving a relaxed ride on motorways but a tendency to feel underdamped on the twisty bits. There is some body roll and the steering isn’t that crisp or detailed (plus the wheel is enormous), and it isn’t a patch on the BMW for driver appeal. However, it soaks up high miles and the passive-steering rear axle does liven the drive at speed – almost to the point of over-sensitivity. Needless to say, the Saab's seats are fabulous and the gearchange has improved vastly over the previous model.
Did you get to drive the XWD model?
Only a prototype on a gravel test track, but it showed potential. The 4WD system dealt with 280bhp far better than the standard car copes with 200bhp. Gone is the flighty, twitching steering, while the adjustability of the chassis on a low-grip surface suggests the engineers really have been able to exploit the passive-steer rear in a surprisingly driver-involving way. Bring it on.
This is a facelift, but a good-looking one, though the sleeker looks suggest sparkle that the chassis fails to deliver. Better news is the TTiD diesel, particularly when it filters down from current Aero-only spec (a steep £26,495). Biggest news is the XWD system, as its significance and potential outweighs the 9-3. Overall, Saab’s junior exec should steal some A4 buyers on account of its more modern styling and keen pricing, but the 9-3 is still no driver-centric sports saloon. You rather get the impression Saab ran out of funds to really turn the 9-3 into something special...