Saab's been a bit cash-starved for a while, so the 9-3 Turbo X is the first new product from GM's Swedish outpost for some time. Don't get too excited: it's not a brand new car. But its advanced four-wheel drive system and twin-turbocharged V6 take the 9-3 into new territory.
Is the 9-3 Turbo X a soft-road crossover or a proper Quattro-alike?
The Turbo X comes as a four-door saloon or five-door Sportwagon but it's very much an on-roader. It's also a special edition to celebrate 30 years since the first Saab 99 Turbo, and only 500 of the 2000 to be built will be available in Britain. You can order one now for £32,495 and expect delivery from April, or wait until this September for the series-production Aero XWD. Prices for that are yet to be announced, but it's mechanically identical except for the optional rear e-LSD that's standard on the Turbo X, and it lacks the Turbo X's cosmetic enhancements (dark satin chrome, rear diffusor, sexier alloys and faux-carbon cabin inlays).
The twin-turbocharged 2.8-litre V6 is good for 276bhp and a whopping 295lb ft of torque spread from 2150rpm to 4500rpm. Naturally, it's quick if a touch thirsty: 5.4 seconds for the 0-62mph sprint and 155mph flat out, in return for 26.4mpg and 254g/km.
Surely the 9-3's too old for a new performance version?
It's certainly been around for a while but last year's facelift – the moody grille is its most striking aspect – helped the 9-3 achieve its best-selling year yet. And if any brand ever suited four-wheel drive, it's Saab. Expect to see this hardware rolled out on the forthcoming 9-4X SUV.
What's special about XWD?
Saab calls the new system 'cross-wheel drive'. The latest-generation Haldex clutch at its heart is permanently primed to feed at least 10 percent of torque to the rear wheels, and up to 80 percent can be fed back as conditions demand, which is great for the enthusiast driver (the BMW driver?) – or so Saab claims.
The eLSD electronically controlled rear differential is a first for this class, able to divvy up torque between the rear wheels to the benefit of balance and grip. Elsewhere, revised spring and damper settings and new geometry make the most of the technology.
Enough of the theory. How does it drive?
In short: very impressively. You'd never think you were driving around on a load of old, old Vectra running gear. The hottest 9-3 feels uncannily supple, almost soft in an old-fashioned French way, yet deftly damped so it's never mushy. Throw it into a bend and you're immediately aware of its innate agility: this Saab is quick to change direction and neat in doing so.
Don't go expecting tail-out thrills, whatever the Swedes' claims of all that torque going rearwards. On the Paul Ricard test track in southern France, the Turbo X was a committed understeerer, and the Aero XWD, while grippy and nimble, occasionally betrayed the weight of that big V6 up-front in the tightest bends on French roads. This is no BMW, but neither is it quite so demanding to drive, because the Saab feels extremely light on its feet, with steering inputs to match.
There are some faults inherent in this old design, though. The gearshift is long in throw and obstructive when you try to change gear quickly, especially when dropping down into second. And the steering, though quick and accurate, is lacking in real feel. The wheel is extremely broad too, though you soon get used to it, and the Sportwagon's ride is firmer and less settled than the saloon's.
Is this new 9-3 any good inside?
The 9-3 has a rational, logical and well-laid out cabin. Material quality is mostly good (try to ignore the awful, flimsy centre console box), enough to elevate it well above, say, Renault but not slick enough to challenge Audi. The driving seat is superbly comfortable and supportive and the driving position easy to tailor.
But age really shows in the 9-3's packaging. It feels small, narrow across the front and truly cramped for legs in the rear. If you have older children, you couldn't really call it a family car. And though the engine growls impressively under acceleration and remains muted at a cruise, wind noise is disappointingly noticeable at motorway speeds.
The Turbo X and Aero XWD add a little intrigue to the sports saloon market, especially if you're after a slightly left-field choice to take you away from the predictable German bunch. In this guise, the 9-3 is quick, refined, genuinely enjoyable to drive and extremely comfortable, as well as looking distinctive. The Turbo X and Aero XWD are not completely free of faults but they deserve to elevate the 9-3 range above its former invisibility.