Saab is on the warpath. Its UK managing director is railing against the inactivity of the government to do anything genuinely useful about green transport, while its staple car has come over all Grant Mitchell.
There’s also talk of aggressive product expansion and ambitious levels of increased sales.
It’s not very Swedish, but it reflects the increasing confidence of the brand within the General Motors portfolio. For years the tough talking Detroit executives haven’t really understood the Saab way of doing things.
But there’s a clearer plan now, to turn it into a serious European premium brand. And to do that, it needs to be more aggressive.
Saab believes that, with its BioPower flexfuel range, it has the short and medium term answer to alternative fuels.
Yet UK MD Jonathan Nash is frustrated by the lack of action from the Government on bioethanol fuel that produces more power while reducing fossil fuel emissions by up to 70% (E85 bio-ethanol has only 15% petrol in it)
Mr Nash feels that the Government has failed to tackle the issue head on, and his example of the Swedes is a strong one.
Since the Swedish government got behind E85, offering numerous tax and cost incentives, 1,000 filling stations now stock it, and 90% of petrol Saabs sold there are now BioPower models.
Fleets in the UK wanting the new 9-3 2.0t BioPower model will pretty much have to put in place their own bunkering services – hardly the most cost-effective of options.
Saab’s been busy making changes to the 9-3. The major difference is that it now looks considerably more assertive.
It’s inspired by the concept Aero X of 18 months ago, with all new bodywork forward of the A pillar, new bumpers and new light assemblies.
The Saab grille is now much deeper and sharper with more distinctive headlights and an LED “eyebrow” strip at the top of the light housing that is more subtle than the individual lights in new Audis, but effective in giving the car some presence on the road.
The bonnet has reverted to the “clamshell” design of historic Saabs.
There are also deep side skirts while the rear lights on the saloon have black frames like those on the SportWagon.
The cabin has been given an overhaul too, and perhaps has lost some of that unique Saab feel in favour of a more corporate, logical feel. But the quality of materials is noticeably higher.
Will it mean that an increasing number of company car drivers used to their masculine German cars suddenly take notice of the usually more subtle Swede?
Only time will tell, but there’s certainly a more confident air to the 9-3 now which can only be positive.
There are new engines in the line-up, and one that is significant to company car drivers.
Until now, fleets have had to make do with the 150bhp engine at the top of the diesel range, which just is not enough power for this sector.
Now, with the introduction of the 180bhp TTiD, there is a twin turbo powerplant that gives the thrusting executive all the nec-essary clout.
It uses a small turbo low down for a quick getaway, while a larger second unit spools up and steps in later to give strong mid and high range thrust.
Its performance is such that it will be the first time Saab applies its top-of-the-range sporty Aero moniker to a diesel, at a cost of £26,495 on the road.
It’s not available at any other trim level yet, although with even the likes of Volkswagen doing good fleet user chooser business with 170bhp diesels in the Golf at not far off £10,000 cheaper, it should feed down through the range later.
Alongside this engine is an updated 2.8-litre V6 turbo with 280bhp to blast from 0-62mph in only 5.9 seconds.
The range has also been simplified into entry level Airflow, Liner SE, Vector Sport and Aero which might sound a little clumsy, but are intended to make it easier for those comparing Saab with Audi and BMW variants.
Sales next year for Saab are expected to remain fairly static, with 9-3 taking up to 85% of its business.
With 9-3 though, these changes come at an unfortunate time.
The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class is a class act, and Audi’s new A4 is available to order now, so it has its work cut out.
But there are grand plans afoot. New models, probably an SUV and new 9-5 being the most obvious, are in the pipeline, and Saab would like to see the impressive growth in the UK of the last five years repeated again by 2012.
It’s ambitious, aggressive and bold. How very nouveau Saab.
Behind the wheel
There really is a very different feel to the 9-3 now. Saab claims there have been around 2,000 changes although what all of these are, who knows?
But the ones that are obvious have been made to count. It’s now a good- looking car and the interior, while not up on a par with the high standards of BMW and Audi, are much-improved.
We tried the 2.8 V6, which is a powerful unit that has that lovely, characterful Saab turbo whistle, and plenty of mid range grunt for overtaking.
But the key model for fleets is the 180bhp TTiD and Saab has really scored here.
At start-up it’s a bit clackety, like all the 1.9-litre GM diesel seem to be, but get it moving and things improve dramatically.
In fact, it is smooth, flexible and has an urgent feel when you press the accelerator, collecting speed easily and without fuss.
We had a left-hand drive, automatic version imported from Sweden for the launch event, and it felt right at home on English roads.
The ride comfort is exemplary too, though it doesn’t handle with as much intensity as BMW.
But it is a more laid-back feeling car and is very pleasurable to spend time in, especially with those ultra comfortable seats for which Saab is so famous.
This engine finally gives Saab an offering to compare with the competition at the top end of the market. The sooner it can get it into models lower down the range, the better.
Saab has always attracted a loyal band of followers, and the 9-3 added some more to that group.
These changes should further that cause, although introducing these changes a year earlier would have been better timed.
|Model:||2.0t Biopower||2.8 V6 Turbo||1.9 TTiD|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||220/5,500||255/5,500||180/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||221/2,500||295/5,500||295/1,850|
|Max speed (mph):||143||155||140|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||25.9||35.8||47.9|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||N/A||259||159|
All figures for manual saloon