Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £20,315
CO2 emissions (g/km): 199
BIK % of P11D in 2002: 21%
Graduated VED rate: £155
Insurance group: 12
Combined mpg: 34.4
CAP Monitor residual value: £7,650/38%
Depreciation (20.28 pence per mile x 60,000): £12,168
Maintenance (2.54 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,524
Fuel (11.23 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,738
Wholelife cost (34.05 pence per mile x 60,000): £20,430
Typical contract hire rate: £460 per month
IN the company car scheme hierarchy, the compact executive market is traditionally the first car sector where driver choice really becomes important.
Running costs are, of course, still critical but the deciding factor for these cars is image and performance – no junior executive in his or her company wants to be seen in yesterday's model.
And so it has been for many years now that if you want a car in this sector, you can almost guarantee it will wear a 'Made in Germany' sticker.
BMW, Audi and, to a lesser extent Mercedes-Benz, have made this market sector their own, offering a prestige badge and quality engineering at a relatively affordable price.
But others are getting in on the act, too. Lexus has mimicked the BMW 3-series with its IS200, although high emissions rule it out of this particular road test.
Volvo now has a sports saloon worthy of contention in the S60, although this car should be seen more as a grand tourer than a sports saloon as it doesn't feel particularly happy when you want to press on across country roads.
And until recently, its fellow Swede, Saab, had not had a car that could seriously compete in this sector. The 9-3 range was popular in some quarters but it couldn't cut the mustard in the sports saloon market.
Well, things have changed and the 9-3 (now with the added monicker of sport saloon to hammer home the point) poses a significant threat to the established marques in this sector.
Saab has ditched the hatchback bodystyle and now only offers the 9-3 in saloon format because this is what everyone wants (although convertible and sports estate variants will follow next year).
Not only has this done wonders for the car's looks, it has also improved handling no end. Saloon cars are traditionally more stiff than hatchbacks and this shows when driving the 9-3 – it handles and rides superbly and the chassis lets you make the most of the 150bhp on tap from the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine (confusingly badged 1.8t).
In this company the Saab's 150bhp compares well against the class-leading car, BMW's 3-series which offers 143bhp.
However, Audi extracts 163bhp from its turbocharged 1.8-litre engine while Volvo trumps everyone with 180bhp available from its five-cylinder 2.0-litre unit. But power is not everything as the Volvo doesn't relish attacking corners in the same way as the Saab and BMW.
The Audi is also quick, but that traditional VW Group bugbear of vague steering feel lets it down.
Driven in isolation, the Saab is as good as it gets in this sector. The ride is compliant at low speed but if you feel like indulging in spirited driving it makes you feel as though it wants to play too.
But the big question is: can it rival the 3-series in driving terms? Well, yes it can. It is not better to drive than the 3-series but it certainly scores a well-earned draw. Which leaves price and specification and it is here that the Saab pulls ahead. All 9-3s are loaded with standard equipment and are keenly priced.
Add in a great-looking cabin similar to that found in the 9-5, quality materials and excellent interior space and the Saab wins it for me. Dynamically and emotionally it makes great sense. But how about financially? Well, read on.
Three rivals to consider
WITH 180bhp on tap, the Volvo S60 appears to be the performance bargain of our quartet, coming in at below the £20,000 price barrier. However, in S trim the Volvo is at the lower end of the range, while its rivals are all higher spec. The Audi and Saab offer 150bhp and 163bhp and come in quite high up their respective ranges. The BMW is the most expensive car here and in SE trim still lacks some equipment found on its rivals as standard.
THE Saab scores an easy win here, costing 2.54pence per mile in servicing, maintenance and repair costs over three years and 60,000 miles. The Volvo runs it close on 2.87ppm but the Audi and BMW lag well behind on 3.20ppm and 4.33ppm respectively. However, both the Audi and BMW have variable servicing intervals, so how hard the car is driven will dictate servicing intervals and costs.
BMW's Valvetronic engine is a gem, offering the highest fuel economy figures of our group and figures which run many diesel engines close. At a combined average of 39.2mpg, the BMW eases ahead among this quartet, recording a running cost figure of 9.74ppm. The Audi and Saab, both turbocharged four cylinder engines, return about the 34mpg mark and are tied on 11.23ppm. The Volvo is the most thirsty car here, returning 30.7mpg and costing 12.43ppm.
WITH the lowest P11d price (£19,815) and the highest residual value forecast (CAP predicts it to retain 40% of its cost new after three years and 60,000 miles), the Volvo emerges as the winner, costing 18.40ppm over the fleet bechmark operating cycle. It shares the highest residual value prediction with the Audi, although the German car's higher front-end price rules it out of a class win. The BMW is predicted to retain 39% of its cost new and the Saab 38%. It's close, but the Saab falls behind by nearly 2ppm.
JUST 1.39ppm separates the least and most expensive cars here in terms of wholelife costs, indicating what a tough sector this is for competition. The Audi takes the honours with a running cost of 32.93ppm, a few fractions of a penny ahead of the Volvo and just over a penny per mile more than the Saab and BMW. The Audi scores well on price, depreciation and is the joint cheapest on fuel cost terms. But we're talking fractions of a penny here – it's too close to call on running costs alone.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
THE aforementioned Valvetronic engine fitted under the BMW's bonnet takes emissions levels way down the scale to the 17% banding for benefit-in-kind tax for this year – well clear of the rest of the competition. It means a 40% taxpayer will pay £119 a month to drive the BMW, £142 a month for the Audi and Saab and £172 for the Volvo. As the table shows, the Volvo is outclassed on emissions here.
AS you will have read earlier, the Saab is my choice in terms of driving and living with. And while running costs are important, in this sector it is the image and performance that win the day. The Saab costs 1.12 pence per mile more to run than the Audi – amounting to £672 more over three years and 60,000 miles. That's a small price to pay for a cracking car which offers drivers in this sector a change from the German dominance.