Fleet News

Saab 9-3 Sportwagon

Review

BRITAIN’S fastest growing premium brand is planning a three-pronged attack on its German rivals with a new estate car range being launched this autumn.

Saab will use a combination of greater power, higher specification levels and lower prices to wrest sales from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz when 9-3 SportWagon goes on sale in September.

After two years of spectacular growth, the Swedish firm is aiming to grab a 10% share of the burgeoning UK market for mid-size premium estate cars with its first compact hold-all range in two decades.

Saab’s UK managing director Jonathan Nash said: ‘Last year our sales were up 41% and so far this year they are up by 39%. I’m confident we can grow to 25,000 sales over the next few months.

‘The SportWagon will play a key role in this development – particularly in diesel form, which we see as eventually accounting for half of sales – and the cars we’re gunning for are the Audi A4 Avant and BMW 3-series Touring.’

Speaking at the launch of the new model in Sweden, he added: ‘We may be the last company to enter this market, but our car has the styling and refinement to make it an interesting alternative.

‘It will appeal to user-choosers looking for something different after owning a string of Audis or BMWs. The SportWagon represents a great opportunity and we’ll do our best to exploit it to the full.’

Though cars will not be available until late summer, a pre-launch ordering system is already in operation and Saab is aiming to hit 800 orders before the on sale date.

Nash said: ‘September is late for a launch in this sector because most user-chooser orders have been placed by this time. We started our pre-launch activities early in May to overcome this problem and I’m confident we will sell between 2,000 and 2,300 units before the end of the year, subject to supply constraints.

‘This sector accounts for 75,000 registrations per year and we plan to sell between 5,000 and 6,000 units in 2006 to gain a 10% market share.’

User-choosers are expected to account for about half of SportWagon sales of the model, which debuts the new General Motors 2.8-litre turbocharged V6 petrol engine that produces 250bhp. But Nash believes the 150bhp 1.9-litre turbodiesel version will be the most effective weapon in a battle for sales.

He added: ‘Diesel has played a key role in our growth. After the benefit-in-kind tax regime stranded us because it penalised heavy CO2 engines, we came back with improved designs and both versions of our latest turbodiesel unit are excellent performers.’

Designed to mirror the 9-3 saloon on spec, the estate gets its competitive edge on pricing by carrying a premium of £1,000, which is lower than average in the sector.

Using aluminium rather than steel for the rear tailgate has limited the weight penalty of the SportWagon’s estate bodywork to just 40kg on the model, which has a relatively short rear overhang, a neat rear spoiler and distinctive, clear-lens rear lights.

Thanks to the compact rear suspension layout, the box-like boot space is free from intrusions and provides 419 litres of space with the 60/40-split rear seat in position, converting to 1,273-litres when folded. An underfloor compartment is big enough to accommodate supermarket shopping bags and the tailgate has handles for both right and left-handed users.

Standard specification on the 1.8-litre 122bhp Linear entry-level model includes 15-inch alloy wheels, five-speed manual transmission, traction control, air conditioning, electric windows, a premium sound system and electric heated door mirrors, while the Linear Sport has dual zone climate control, front fog lights, cruise control and a parking assistance monitor.

Standing on 17-inch wheels, the Vector has body-coloured side skirts and bumper extensions, sports seats and metallic trim, with the Sport adding stability control, on-board computer and a higher-grade sound system.

The Aero, available with a 210bhp turbocharged petrol engine as well as the new V6 unit, gets a lowered sports chassis, upgraded braking, six-speed manual transmission, twin chromed sports exhausts, part leather upholstery and chrome side window trim.

Behind the wheel

DESPITE being practical transport which provides adequate room for four adults and their luggage, the new SportWagon retains the traditional feel of a Saab with an inviting cabin and high-grade finish.

In the case of the V6 version we drove, it certainly goes like a Saab, too, with power flowing in super-smooth fashion from a refined engine which operates in hushed tones – until you drop into a lower ratio for maximum power, when the exhaust system produces a very satisfying rasping noise to go with the high revs.

Featuring the same torsional stiffness as the regular 9-3, the SportWagon displays equally sure-footed manners and its refined roadholding characteristics turned press-on driving into a delight during our test route through the thickly-wooded Swedish countryside.

Neat detailing is reflected in a handbrake assembly that’s incorporated in the centre console, but a particularly individual touch is the handle which accesses the discreet underfloor stowage compartment – it echoes the firm’s aero industry heritage by being shaped like an aircraft.

It’s a pity the automatic six-speed transmission is a £1,200 option, though. The manual transmission works well enough – and includes a hill start assistance function to guarantee smooth take-off and avoid rolling back once the handbrake is released – but the top Aero V6 turbo model appeals most in two-pedal form with a smooth, responsive transmission that behaves impeccably.

Driving verdict

SAAB’S newcomer will be pitted against some pretty impressive rivals in the premium estate sector, but the signs look good from a pleasing, well-executed design which carries the stamp of quality, as well as being keenly priced.

Saab 9-3 Sportwagon fact file

Model: 1.8i 1.8t 2.0t 2.0T 2.8 V6 1.9 TiD 1.9 TiD 16v
Engine (cc): 1,796 1,998 1,998 1,998 2,792 1,910 1,910
Max power (bhp/rpm): 122/5,800 150/5,500 175/5,500 210/5,300 250/5,500 120/4,000 150/4,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 123/3,800 177/3,500 195/2,500 221/2,500 258/2,000 206/2,000 236/2,000
Max speed (mph): 121 127 133 142 152 121 124
0-62mph (sec): 12.5 10.2 8.6 7.9 6.9 12.0 10.2
Comb fuel consumption (mpg): 34.8 34.4 34.0 33.2 27.6 47.8 46.3
CO2 emissions (g/km): 194 197 199 204 245 159 164
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 58/12.7 58/12.7 58/12.7 58/12.7 58/12.7 58/12.7 58/12.7
On sale: September
Prices (OTR): £17,995 – £27,795

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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