Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - range
Improved styling, interior comfort, ride quality, auto shift quality, mid-range power, steering, quiet diesel
Room for improvement
Automatic transmission ‘sport’ and ‘manual’ modes, dash-mounted ‘sport’ button, lack of initial engine response, tail-light design, convertible wind noise and buffeting
6 Nov 2007
SAAB has not had an easy time of it in recent years, and the company’s relationship with General Motors has not been as beneficial as has the relationship between Swedish rival Volvo and its American benefactor, Ford.
But things are looking up for Saab. A closer alignment with GM has already paid off on an operational level and future model plans suggest not only a fresher line-up but also a wider, more appealing range of vehicles – much-needed on both counts.
Provided Saab successfully walks the fine line between becoming relevant while retaining some of the distinctive DNA that separates Saab from other prestige brands – at least the elements that are worth hanging onto – then the brand stands a chance of survival in an increasingly discerning market.
Having been introduced in 2002, the current generation 9-3 is relatively fresh compared to the ten year-old 9-5, but it was still starting to look dated with its old-fashioned nose, so the latest mid-life facelift is a welcome arrival that should see Saab’s volume-seller through to an all-new replacement in a few years’ time.
This facelift is quite significant, at least in terms of the exterior treatment.
The front end is entirely new and follows the lead of the 2006 9-5 facelift and especially the Aero X concept car, making it look altogether more modern and attractive. Saab did not hold back, changing everything forward of the windscreen and even adapting its previous trademark ‘clamshell’ bonnet to the otherwise conventional design.
There is no doubt that the result is a more eye-catching front, with a deep nose, swoopy headlights and cleaner airdam, while new door handles and a lack of rubbing strips down the side (apart from on the convertible) contribute to a more modern overall appearance.
A black Aero convertible on the launch drive looked particularly good on the road with the chrome grille surround contrasting strongly with its body colour.
Saab has also re-worked the rear end, including new clear tail-light designs, but they are less convincing, appearing to be framed by black electrical tape.
This design overhaul does not extend to the interior, though, where you feel like you are sitting in a much older car thanks to the dated instrument panel and centre console design. A change of colour (from grey to black) cannot stop it feeling old-fashioned, and we have never been keen of Saab’s clunky indicator sound.
Having said that, the interior is generally quiet and also very comfortable, thanks to the narrow tunnel and seats that are among the most cosseting in the business. The deep squabs provide excellent leg support over long distances and they are complimented by a new, softer leather as part of the facelift.
Interior noise levels are generally good, but we detected a little whistle from the soft-top with the roof up, and there’s too much buffeting and wind noise with the roof down compared with more modern convertibles like the BMW 3-Series.
Another indication that the 9-3 platform is based on a humble Vectra – and an old one at that – is that the convertible suffers from some scuttle-shake. It’s not disturbing (unlike early Saabs), but is still present.
It also shows up in the average handling abilities of the car, though the Saab engineers have done well to make the most of it. Grip levels are not overly high but at least it is very well behaved, with good balance tending towards only mild understeer as you push harder.
Ride quality benefits from the soft suspension and is excellent in terms of comfort, with none of the harshness we have come to expect with the fitment of large-diameter alloy wheels, but it does err on the floaty side.
Saab has done a good job with the steering, which felt good for a front-wheel drive car and did not exhibit either the deadness or torque-steer that often afflicts cars with lots of power being delivered to the steering wheels.
Unfortunately, to combat torque-steer and wheelspin, Saab tunes its turbo engines so that there is not too much performance at low revs and the result is a surprising lack of engine response when you want to zip away from the lights or accelerate into a gap in traffic – even with the turbodiesel.
The Fiat-developed diesel engine may not be a flyer, but it has good mid-range performance and is at least quite refined. There is little diesel rattle to be heard at either cruising speed or at idle.
Similarly, the four-cylinder turbo petrol engine is smooth and capable in mid-boost configuration. Unfortunately, we did not get to sample the high-boost or BioPower versions, or the potent Holden-built V6.
Despite a decent enough shift quality, we were not quite as impressed with either of the available automatic transmissions, which performed best when left in regular auto mode rather than ‘sport’ or manual modes.
While ‘sport’ proved to be generally more responsive and provided snappier downshifts, which we liked, we did not appreciate the fact that it steadfastly holds third gear until you are doing some 82km/h – even if you are just cruising with a steady or even trailing throttle.
Surely the electronics could be programmed to recognise when you are cruising so that it drops into fourth or even fifth at lower speeds.
And we could certainly do without the dash-mounted select button, which seems an odd place for a transmission function, especially as it requires taking your eye off the road to select.
Slipping across the gate into ‘manual’ mode is frankly not much of an option because, oddly enough, the shift quality deteriorates, providing slow and slushy changes.
Overall, the 9-3 range – at least the three models that we drove out of some 48 variations available to buyers – proved that it is comfortable and capable but lacking the dynamic ability expected in the premium category.
No doubt the next generation will bridge the gap, and in the meantime we can look forward to the introduction of some models with four-wheel drive, which should provide better dynamics and the opportunity to unleash some untapped engine performance.
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