Fleet News

Saab 9-3 1.8i


I feel this is what has happened with the Saab 9-3, which we recently tested in entry-level 1.8i trim. This is the first non-turbo Saab to be offered in the UK for several years and uses a normally- aspirated 1.8-litre engine lifted from the Vauxhall range.

In fact, a Vectra 1.8 SXi is on sale for a few hundred pounds less, but the point for the badge snobs on the roads is that a fiver under £17,000 gets a more exclusive and stylish vehicle.

So, what do you get for your money? You get a car that has achieved a five-star rating for occupant protection in the Euro NCAP tests, with driver, passenger, side and curtain airbags. You get four electric windows – something BMW, Audi and Jaguar are still too tight-fisted to offer on their entry-level cars – a CD player and the usual sophisticated braking system.

But it's not all good. You get manual air conditioning in lieu of automatic climate control, a plastic steering wheel so rough you could file your nails on it, and the four-speaker audio system has appalling sound quality for a car in this class. There is also no cup holder in the dashboard.

The interior is well designed, but the execution is flawed. We have referred in the past to how the 9-3's 'pistol-grip' handbrake lever results in an awkward-looking piece of plastic on the opposite side of the transmission tunnel because of the need to offer a lever on either side according to left or right hand-hand drive markets. But the poor interior quality goes further with this model.

There are too many rough edges on the plastics if you look hard enough and our test car had an ill-fitting panel separating the ventilation controls from the audio controls which was in too far on one side by a couple of millimetres and stuck out by the same margin on the other side.

If you were buying a Vectra, you could rely on it being better finished inside. Another source of disappointment about the interior is the lack of legroom in the rear. As the boot is improbably deep, it seems Saab could have re-shuffled the rear and liberated more space for rear-seat passengers by sacrificing some luggage space but it was not to be.

Still, we know the 9-3 offers a pretty good drive and despite the lack of a turbocharger the 1.8-litre engine feels quite keen, and seems to enjoy being revved.

The slick gearchange is only spoilt by having an over-long throw action and the steering allows some pretty nimble wheel work when venturing off the main roads.

The standard 16-inch wheels don't look that impressive (although admittedly better than the standard 15-inch wheels on a Honda Accord 2.0 SE) but there is more than enough grip for cornering with moderate enthusiasm.

Is it enough to convince drivers to choose one over another car with premium aspirations?

The Saab badge might be a draw for a few people, but as the rivals listed in the running costs comparison show there is no shortage of smart and capable alternatives.

At a glance


  • Smart styling
  • Willing engine
  • Strong RV


  • Patchy build quality
  • Rear legroom
  • Relatively high tax bill

    Fact file

    Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £16,797
    CO2 emissions (g/km): 188
    BIK % of P11D in 2004: 23%
    Graduated VED rate: £160
    Insurance group: 10
    Combined mpg: 35.8
    CAP Monitor residual value: £6,575/39%
    Depreciation (16.08 pence per mile x 60,000): £9,648
    Maintenance (2.45 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,470
    Fuel (11.17 pence per mile x 60,000): £6,702
    Wholelife cost (29.70 pence per mile x 60,000): £17,820
    Typical contract hire rate: £378 per month

  • All figures based on 3yrs/60,000 miles. Monthly rental quote from HSBC Vehicle Finance

    Three rivals to consider

  • Honda Accord 2.0 SE
  • MG ZT 120
  • Subaru Legacy 2.0i

    P11D price

    SAAB has the most expensive car on P11d value and it is a true entry-level model, doing without climate control. The MG is on a par for kit with the Saab but about £1,000 less, while drivers in the Legacy do better with climate control, a more powerful engine and four wheel drive but no curtain airbags. The Accord is also more powerful and has all the airbags, climate control, power windows and electric sunroof.

    Subaru £15,802
    MG £15,812
    Honda £16,330
    Saab £16,797

    SMR costs

    THE Saab comes second best to the Accord in SMR costs. It requires fewer services in 60,000 miles, but the Accord has a 90,000-mile warranty. The difference in cash terms over 60,000 miles is £174 in the Honda's favour. The Subaru works out only £54 more expensive than the Saab over 60,000 miles, despite more frequent servicing and a 1,000-mile oil change. Top of the pile here for expense is the MG ZT which works out £150 more than the Saab over three years/60,000 miles at £1,620.

    Honda 2.16ppm
    Saab 2.45ppm
    Subaru 2.54ppm
    MG 2.70ppm

    Fuel costs

    IT seems strange that the two most powerful cars here perform best for fuel consumption. The Honda's i-VTEC engine has 30bhp over the Saab, but has a 2.4mpg advantage on the combined cycle. It will equate to about £420 over 60,000 miles. The MG ZT is closest to the Saab's power output and is £114 cheaper over 60,000 miles. The Legacy offers more power than all but the Honda and still comes out with the second best consumption.

    Honda 10.47ppm
    Subaru 10.75ppm
    MG 10.98ppm
    Saab 11.17ppm

    Depreciation costs

    WITH the highest percentage retained value, the Saab scores well for depreciation. The Honda does better, though, thanks to its lower P11d price. Both the Saab and the Honda stand apart from the others on depreciation, as the MG and the Subaru have RVs more in line with mainstream upper-medium cars. The Saab is expected to lose £9,648 over three years/60,000 miles, compared with £10,296 for the MG ZT 120 and £10,566 for the Subaru Legacy 2.0i. The Honda's £9,486 is comfortably ahead.

    Honda 15.81ppm
    Saab 16.08ppm
    MG 17.16ppm
    Subaru 17.61ppm

    Wholelife costs

    DESPITE the Saab's best efforts, it's a clean sweep for the Accord with the best score in each of our categories. The Honda's advantage in running costs is more than £800 over the Saab, accumulated in its superior depreciation prediction, lower maintenance and servicing bills and better fuel consumption. The MG is nearly £700 more expensive than the Saab, with difference between the 9-3 and the Legacy about £720.

    Honda 28.44ppm
    Saab 29.70ppm
    MG 30.84ppm
    Subaru 30.90ppm

    Emissions and BIK tax rates

    HONDA'S great achievement with its VTEC engines is high power outputs with low fuel consumption and emissions. It easily outclasses the Saab 9-3 here which has the disadvantage of having the highest P11d price and the highest CO2 emissions. At £71 a month for a 22% tax-payer, the Accord has a £9 a month advantage over the Saab, while the MG's low list price ensures it is almost as cheap. The Legacy driver would be a few pennies better off than the MG driver.

    Honda 176g/km/21%
    Subaru 182g/km/22%
    MG 184g/km/22%
    Saab 188g/km/23%


    THE trouble with the 9-3 is that in entry-level trim it is at its least impressive. The other premium wannabes here show up the Saab as too little car for the money and while it takes second place for running costs, it lacks the finesse of the latest Legacy and the presence of ZT. But the Accord is streets ahead of all of them in nearly every way.

    Winner: Honda Accord 2.0 SE

  • 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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