| First Drive | Gothenburg, Sweden | Saab 9-3 TTiD 180 |
A lot has changed since this Saab 9-3 came to market in 2002. All of the cars it competed with at the time have now been replaced with newer models. The car it's based on, the Vauxhall Vectra, was killed off because Vauxhall realised it sucked. And for a while it looked like Saab itself would go the same way.
But now the Swedish company is out of the evil grasp of GM and under the ownership of a little supercar company called Spyker. It's moving forward. Take this new diesel engine in the 9-3, for example, which is really powerful but also really green. All is feeling rather fresh around Trollhattan again, and it's nice.
In the Metal
The 9-3 hasn't quite reached the antiquated status that the old 9-5 did yet, but it is losing its sheen somewhat. Still, quality is good, with rubberised, nicely damped and weighted switchgear. The layout is intuitive, and its butterfly cup holder is a classic piece of design work.
We needn't really go any further - you know what a Saab 9-3 looks like by now.
What you get for your Money
The changes are all invisible. Saab has replaced two of the diesel engines - the TTiD 120 and TTiD 150 - with cleaner and more powerful versions and added a flagship TTiD 180 diesel unit - the £23,000 version we're driving here. Amazingly, regardless of power, the new engines all emit just 119g/km of CO2
Changes comprise taller gear ratios, aerodynamic improvements (but no drop in ride height), low rolling resistance tyres and some weight reduction by way of new sound deadening material and 'optimising' some sheet metal thickness. No start-stop, though, which Saab says would add too much cost and weight at this stage.
So, buyers can now choose between 128-, 158- and 178bhp TTiD twin-turbo diesels, all offering 62.8mpg combined and 119g/km. Those figures deteriorate very slightly for the Sportwagon estate versions, and more again for the Convertible. For the saloon and estate, it means zero first year VED, and they're available in Turbo Edition spec or Vector Sport. Both get climate control, leather (or part-leather), alloys and parking sensors.
We've only driven the new range-topping 178bhp TTiD diesel, and it's a peach, especially considering it is quantifiably an eco-car. What this Saab does, really well, is the same thing the BMW 320d EfficientDynamics
does: it requires no dynamic forfeiture for the sake of the fuel economy. It's quiet, smooth and, best of all, quick.
Its 295lb.ft comes in at 1,850rpm, though in reality the real surge is a little higher than that; this is a really flexible, responsive engine in any of its gears.
Talking of gears, though, it's the six-speed transmission that's the only real letdown of the whole package: it's mushy and too long of throw. Shame, really, because otherwise the Saab is an accomplished and fun to drive car. Its steering has nice weight and feel, but the suspension isn't wound up so tight as to make the car bumpy and uncomfortable. It's all pretty refined, while being more exciting than, say, a VW Passat BlueMotion
. And it's good on the motorway because it settles well below 2,000rpm in sixth gear.
Driving the new TTiD took us from Gothenburg to Saab's factory in Trollhattan, wherein the sense of relief is palpable. Chatting to Global Product Manager Christopher McKinnon, there's a genuine sense that Saab has been freed from the stranglehold of GM democracy and is now running its own ship under Spyker. Cars are no longer built en masse just to sit on a forecourt, and layer upon layer of bureaucracy has been stripped away.
That has seen a more malleable Saab emerge, whose future product range will be bigger and more in keeping with a brand that, says McKinnon, "not everybody at GM understood." The new 9-3 has been signed off already, and Saab desperately wants to enter the premium hatchback fray as soon as possible, though it's "not in the business plan" at the moment.
Saab's 9-3 still, predictably, can't compete with the German big boys for prestige, quality or overall dynamics, but this new flagship diesel version is probably enough to put it back near the outskirts of the boardroom. It's more powerful and £4,000 cheaper than the BMW 320d EfficientDynamics - and that's before you've specced your Beemer like-for-like. Certainly, give the old dog a try before you dismiss it...