Fleet News

Saab 9-3

Review

It is turning into the most chanted mantra in the motoring industry, the old 'we want to be the premium sector alternative for drivers who don't want a BMW or Mercedes-Benz' incantation.

So far this year, I've heard it said on launches about the Renault Vel Satis, Mazda6, Audi A4 Cabriolet, Skoda Superb, Jaguar X-type and now I have heard it again, this time from Saab executives.

In many ways, Saab has been planting its flag in this alternative territory for years with the 900 and then the 9-3, alongside Audi and, to some extent, Volvo. But its problem has been that 'alternative' has been mistranslated as 'eccentric', and as such, Saab has been a low volume oddity in the premium sector, attracting drivers euphemistically referred to as 'individuals'.

The new 9-3 once again is being promoted as an option for those not wanting Stuttgart or Munich largesse, but the package is now much less anachronistic. Dare I say it, this Saab is undeniably mainstream.

Gone is the old hatchback – too weighty and inherently wobbly to compete against the 3 and C – and in its place is a Sport Saloon, based on the Epsilon platform that forms the basis of such General Motors alumni as the new Vectra. It is very different in the 9-3 though, with a wider track and wheelbase, and ReAxs, Saab's four link passive steering rear suspension to prevent excessive understeer – the traditional Achilles' heel of front-wheel drive cars.

The 2.0-litre petrol engine also comes from GM but has been 'Saab-ified', with three different sized turbos to give three outputs: 150, 175 and 210bhp. The 175bhp version is badged 2.0t and the 210 2.0T carries the Aero badge.

The 150bhp 2.0-litre, however, is badged 1.8t even though it is a 2.0-litre turbo. Apparently this makes it easier to distinguish as the bottom of the range model, so helping secondhand buyers and anyway, Mercedes-Benz and BMW do it, Saab says.

Be warned, it doesn't do exactly what it says on the tin.

Pricewise, the model range starts at £18,495 on-the-road for the 1.8t Linear, with the 125bhp 2.2 TiD diesel derivative the same price, which makes a nice change.

From the base model, Arc and Vector trim cars will cost £1,800 and £2,000 more respectively, while a step up to the 175bhp 2.0t engine will result in a further £1,100 increase. The hotted-up 9-3 Aero will go on sale at £22,895 on-the-road next year.

The 9-3 is the key player in Saab's plans to spread its wings and have a bigger worldwide presence, expanding from 136,000 to 230,000 units a year. In the UK alone, Saab wants to see an expansion, powered by the new 9-3, from 18,000 in 2002 to 28,000 by 2005, of which 23,500 should be the 9-3 sports saloon.

And of that number, more than 70% will be bought with corporate cash, according to business operations manager Andy Dunsdon.

Traditionally, small businesses have been loyal Saab buyers, but Dunsdon believes the new car will attract more large fleet buyers than before, with about 35% of corporate sales coming from this market.

With 75% of sales in the premium sector coming from saloons and estates, Saab has turned its back on the hatch, which only commanded 7% of the market. The firm has done research that suggests this shift will upset 20% of loyal buyers who want a hatch, but in the search for volume, it has decided it is a necessary step forward.

Saab bosses admit the brand has been under-performing in terms of volume, especially when Volvo, its next closest premium sector competitor, sells 45,000 units in the UK annually.

Dunsdon said: 'We now believe we have a car that is a true competitor to the A4, 3-series and C-class. We have been careful to ensure this car has all the right attributes to succeed in the fleet market – good pricing, more performance per pound, the right P11D values, a 35% reduction in servicing costs, three services and only four scheduled workshop hours during a typical three-year/60,000-mile fleet life.' Saab is confident about residuals, expecting to match the competition around the 40% mark.

Behind the wheel

IT has Sport in its name and with a low, flat front, high rear and swooping roofline, the 9-3 certainly looks sporty. So it can talk the talk, but can it walk the walk?

On 17-inch alloys with low profile tyres the low speed ride feels stiff and uninviting, and I was left with the concern that things had to improve. Fortunately they did, because having traversed every notch in the road with little grace, picking up the pace on some quiet roads resulted in a lot of inane grinning.

The new 9-3 provides excellent stability at high speeds and corners with wonderful balance and little understeer for a front-wheel drive car. Saabs with powerful turbo engines have also historically torque steered all over the place under acceleration, but the engineers have suppressed that almost entirely now.

In fact the three guises of the 2.0 petrol engine and the 2.2 TiD are fantastic, with imperceptible turbo lag and a hard exhaust note to keep you in the mood. The 175bhp is a hoot, but the 210bhp unit has the extra low down burst of power which makes it a hard-charging sports saloon. Following the lower powered model, the extra spring in the step of the Aero was very noticeable.

This is a fast, fun and safe handling car. The steering is geared about right and the brakes showed no tiredness after an hour and half's hard driving. Truly a sports saloon, the Saab beats the A4 and C-class, coming second only to the 3-series in terms of driving dynamics.

Ergonomically, it is a huge improvement, with a much better fully-adjustable seating position than before, and it still retains Saab's beloved cliff face dash. The ignition is still on the centre console but the transmission does not need to be in reverse to get the key out. The pistol grip handbrake has been adapted into the centre console cunningly, and looks like a grab handle, although the space for its right hand drive conversion has been shoddily filled with a cheap plastic part.

Some of the plastics in the cabin feel like budget stuff too, with hard edges, but in general the 9-3 is at least on a par with Volvo as a quality cabin, although behind the Germans. The indicator stalks are a case in point: notchy and brittle.

Another gripe would be rear passenger space, which is awful, and no better than the Fiat Stilo I had parked at the airport upon my return. A Saab engineer told me it was because the 9-3 had to have less rear space than the 9-5, which is hardly good product succession planning.

But Saab engineers have retained the title of 'Best Cupholder in the World'. The graceful simplicity of the 9-5's unit has been surpassed by 'The Butterfly', a cupholder that at the press of a button sweeps out of the dash and performs two elegant arcs like a ballerina – as fitting a place for my can of Coke as I have yet to find.

Driving verdict

Saab is on to a winner with the 9-3 Sports Saloon. The car still retains the attributes that sets the firm out in left field, but is now allied to up-to-date car manufacturing practices and better reflects buyers' preferences.

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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