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Saab has got plenty to smile about. European sales were up 11% last year and when Fleet News road tested the 9-3 against cars from Audi, Volvo and Alfa Romeo last year the Saab came out top.
That car was the 1.9 TiD 150 Airflow – a trim level introduced in 2006 to make corporate buyers smile with exclusive extras at a fleet-friendly price.
Now there’s a heavily-revised model range which features a fresh look and new engine and transmission options.
There’s also a simplified range, with the Airflow version becoming the entry-level model for all buyers and not just a fleet-specific trim. Linear SE is next, followed by Vector Sport with Aero at the top of the range.
It’s not just the trim levels on the 9-3 that have been revised – Saab claims the facelift benefits from 2,157 changes.
Wrap-around headlights feature a thin “eyebrow” light strip; a deep splitter moulding under the front bumper features a huge trapezoidal air intake, putting a smile on the face of the 9-3, flanked by deep, black vents and a clamshell bonnet which closes over the top of the wings.
Inspiration comes from the Aero X concept car revealed at Geneva last year.
Gone are the side rubbing strips, and the door handles are now colour-coded, giving the new 9-3 a much cleaner look.
Small engines with turbos have always served Saab well.
Adding BioPower helps to maintain the Swedes’ environmental reputation and there is even talk of dropping petrol-only engines altogether in Saab’s home market, such is Sweden’s commitment to biofuels.
And it is the range of engines, plus an improved manual gearbox, that will put smiles of the faces of drivers.
Petrol units start with the familiar 1.8i, a 1.8t turbo and two 2.0t turbos (making 175 and 210bhp). There’s a 2.8-litre V6 turbo, now with 255bhp, and two BioPower turbos – the 1.8t and a new 2.0t which develop more power drinking E85 bio-ethanol than when running on petrol.
The three TiD diesel engines share the same size 1,910cc block. The 120bhp version has an eight-valve cylinder head; a 16-valve head makes 150bhp and an exciting new 180hp twin-turbo diesel is reserved for Aero-spec cars.
A small turbo is designed to improve acceleration and throttle response before a larger turbo chimes in to take care of prolonged high-speed performance. Working in unison they aim to remove turbo lag when the accelerator is pressed.
According to Saab GB’s managing director Jonathan Nash, the 1.9 TiD 150 diesel will be the top fleet seller and the saloon will be the most popular body shape.
But we were keen to sample the delights of the new twin-turbo diesel on the launch, which is why we found ourselves sitting, very comfortably, behind the wheel of an Aero-spec SportWagon.
At £27,495, the estate is £1,000 more than the saloon and well into premium sector territory alongside Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series diesel estates.
Figures from Saab suggest the twin-turbo diesel will deliver 47.1mpg on the combined cycle and 162g/km of CO2 with the six-speed manual gearbox.
It is expected to be Euro 5 compliant.The much talked about all-wheel-drive system will not be available until later next year and will be reserved for Aero versions powered by the 2.8-litre V6 turbo engine.
It promises even more driver appeal and control in slippery conditions. A brief test drive was very impressive.
Saab interiors have always drawn on the company’s aircraft heritage combined with Scandinavian design simplicity and a plushness expected by the discerning target market.
Mr Nash expects Saab to sell 20,000 9-3s in 2008, with 55% of them going to fleet customers. That share remains unchanged but the company is hoping residual values will improve by between 5 and 10% as a result of the new look and engineering changes.
Behind the wheel<
That should say “behind the big wheel” – Saab likes its big steering wheels. It can be adjusted to sit away from the thigh and doesn’t obscure any dials and helps to create a big car feel.
One of the most noticeable improvements to the 9-3 hardly warranted a mention at the press launch amid talk of new engines and “signature styling”.
Engineers have replaced the rods linking the gearlever to the gearbox with a cable. This makes a big difference to the feel of the shift. It’s fast, smooth and positive.
Combined with the new twin-turbo diesel engine it makes for a very good drive. Power arrives quickly and is spread very evenly – there’s no evidence of turbo lag.
The ride quality is very good and belies the SportWagon’s size. Steering, suspension and braking blend in a way that makes this car more sport than wagon.
At a test track we drove the cross wheel drive (XWD) on loose surfaces and a skidpan.
It was quite remarkable. Wheel slip management and a rear limited-slip differential have allowed test drivers to negotiate a handling course faster than in a Porsche 911.
Unfortunately, the Porsche wasn’t available for us to test the claim for ourselves.
A first-class makeover makes the new 9-3 a distinctive alternative with more driver appeal.
The simplified trim levels and upgraded interior are welcome additions, as it the impressive twin-turbo diesel engine which will appeal to user-choosers.
|Model:||1.9 TTiD||2.8 V6 turbo||2.0t BioPower|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||180/4,000||255/5,500||200/5,500|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||295/1,850||258/2,000||221/2,500|
|Max speed (mph):||137||155||143|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||47.1||27.7||35.8|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||162||245||N/A|