Road testing any Saab in the current anvil-off-a-cliff company climate feels uncomfortably akin to reviewing a restaurant which has just served up perfectly roasted slices of the last remaining dodo. And road testing the new 9-3X is all the more frustrating for the fact that it should have been with us a good decade ago.
Apportioning blame for this sorry state of affairs is tricky, but, I feel, worth a punt… When I spoke to the President of General Motors Europe, Carl-Peter Forster, in Sweden last summer, he intonated that the company could have done more for Saab, but was powerless until they had total control in 2000. ‘The 50:50 was a difficult set-up’ he told me. ‘It doesn’t allow us to influence the work of the company. It means you can make suggestions, but you basically have to wait until people come to you to ask for support. If they don’t do that, you can’t do much. I think we could have gained considerably more by working together, but that didn’t happen, and I suppose we haven’t done as much as we could…’
Had Saab’s Managing Director not chosen that moment to splosh rapidly off into the sunset aboard his agreeable rib, it would have been interesting to hear his perspective back then… Yet, the fact is, today, Saab maintains it had the 9-3X on the starting blocks a good 10 years ago and GM said no.
Somebody must have said yes at some stage since, however, because Saab also now has a 9-4X waiting in the wings - which will be more in the SUV/crossover mould - and the 9-5 is slated for similar treatment. So whilst the bridge rings for full steam ahead, the engine room has to report a complete absence of coal in the bunkers…
All of which does add a certain weight to Saab’s protestations that GM has been, euphemistically, ‘inconsistent’. Either way, Saab is left lumbering penniless into the Volvo XC60 marketplace over a decade late whilst, ahem, GM’s own, perfectly acceptable four-wheel-drive system is already snugly installed in the Insignia.
So, what exactly are we looking horribly likely to miss out on?
Visually, the 9-3X is essentially a Sport Wagon bodyshell emboldened by lashings of the requisite yomping paraphernalia. The inevitable plastic nappies – somewhat clumsily executed round the front air dam – abound, trimmed on the flanks with matt aluminium. Off-road credentials are further reinforced by matt aluminium underbody skid trays which pout into a front end chin strap and a magazine down the trousers astern. Twin tail pipes and a bespoke, two-tone interior with fancy trim complete the overhaul. Everything else is pretty much where you left it in the conventional 9-3, which is an entirely good thing in term of driving position, seat comfort, ergonomics and instrument clarity.
>> Click next to read more of CAR's review of the Saab 9-3X
And what’s different mechanically from existing XWD models?
Mechanically, the 9-3X benefits from Saab’s Cross Wheel Drive (XWD) system with the addition of a rear axle limited slip differential capable of transferring almost 100% of available torque to one wheel only. Both front to rear torque transfer and rear axle LSD are courtesy of fourth generation Haldex technology, their operating electronics heavily breathed on by Saab’s Tefal-head department. Ride height gets a 35mm hike, with longer front springs, softer by some 20%, and revised damper settings. Rear dampers remain unchanged but boast self-levelling.
Power plant choice is restricted to a 2.0 litre, 210bhp turbocharged petrol unit or a 1.9 litre, 189bhp turbodiesel, both mated to either manual or automatic six-speed transmissions. For the purposes of this exercise, however, the oiler may be ignored because, for ‘cost reasons’, it somewhat disingenuously combines all the ‘X’ trimmings with conventional front-wheel drive and a lesser, 20mm hike in ride height. Thus making the diesel offering something of an Xmas turkey and effectively relegating the 9-3X range to one-horse status.
Thoroughbred, or nag, then?
First impressions would favour the former. With only two prototypes at its disposal, Saab forbade so much as one inch of real world driving in favour of a test track snow-ploughed onto the surface of a frozen lake. Though this makes it impossible to report on quite how well the car would tackle Basildon at 9.30 on a Friday night, slithering about on frozen water for a day does admirably demonstrate the 9-3’s wholesale transformation from cow on ice to something more akin to husky; the XWD system shunting power to and fro with admirable alacrity and the LSD adding perceptible levels of extra traction and stability astern.
Driving on ice remains the mixture of larf and frustration it always was, the words ‘fisted’ and ‘ham’ never too far from mind. Studded tyres afford something akin to grip, but as the sun creaks briefly over the horizon at noon the surface gets ever more slippery, making slow corners the subject of real frustration: You can either leave the fun-thief ESP on, which gives you a fighting chance of staying on the shiny bit but tends to bog the 9-3X down in slow corners (especially since it won’t allow proper power delivery unless the front wheels are very nearly straight), or turn it off and, shortly thereafter, wait for the snow plough to come and wrest you free of the verge. Again.
The addition of the LSD astern not only makes a perceptible difference in keeping the back in line but, allied to that extra ground clearance, also allows the 9-3X to straddle the lumpen dwellings of hibernating Swedish wildlife with aplomb; the ability to transfer almost all available torque to just one rear wheel allowing further progress even with its opposite number clean off the ground. It should handle all the local gymkhana can throw at it with aplomb.
>> Click next to read CAR's verdict of the Saab 9-3X
This is definitely one of the better cars we might never get to drive. Whilst Ford hasn’t put a deadline on the sale of Volvo, GM has said they’ll only hang in there until the end of the year. But who’s going to step forward? The Swedish government has said it has no interest in owning a car company, yet Saab remains ebulliently confident it’ll help to an extent, and remain extraordinarily optimistic about finding a buyer. Hmmm…
Doubtless gently amused by the ongoing mud-slinging, Old Father Time is sharpening his scythe as we speak…. Pity, really; Saab evinces the same level of gently blinkered brand loyalty in the UK as the likes of Alfa, and it would be a crying shame to see so many British architects having to resort to a dog-sled for their morning commute.