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Click to view road test review picture gallery“Revamped Saab 9-3
  models show off their
  sporty new image.
  But is it enough to
  tempt buyers away
  from other premium
  and sporting brands
  such as Audi, BMW
  and Mercedes?”

SINCE IT HAS BEEN UNDER THE CONTROL OF GM, Saab seems to have lost its identity; and along with it, its appeal to independent-minded drivers. Not surprisingly, sales have stalled — this year, UK sales are down by 10.5 per cent.

Since GM took over the Saab brand they seem to have been less than focussed on where they are aiming the Swedish brand. GM also lost sight of a number of core Saab characteristics: the marque's motor-sport heritage, for one; the fact that Saab were the inventors of exhaust driven turbochargers for volume production passenger cars; the company's aviation background; as well as pioneered in-car safety technologies. All these things seemed to have been overlooked by
GM — at least, not until now. Worse — all of this information has not filtered through to a new generation of premium car owners and con-sequently potential Saab owners were lost to the premium and sporting German brands of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

GM sees Saab as a brand selling above Vauxhall models to premium car buyers in the fleet and business market sectors. Retail customers — the previous heartland for sales — were seemingly unconvinced by the 'long in the tooth' products and dalliances at an early stage with Saab's BioPower flex-fuel technology (Bioethanol). Saab, under GM's leadership, is still promoting the fact that each Saab model range offers an alternative fuel engine. But while alternative fuels might well become a significant selling point in the future, for performance-loving independent motorists green fuels are not currently a big turn-on.

Now, at last, GM and Saab seem to have grasped the situation and
the new 9-3 range of Saloons and SportWagons should inject desir-ability back into this once famous brand and start attracting indepen-dent-minded drivers once again.

The recent announcement of an additional 'hero' model for the new Saab 9-3 range — the 280hp, 2.8-litre V6 Turbo X model with its XWD all-wheel drive system — will lift the brand's image further. Available
in Saloon and SportWagon body styles, 500 of these models will be available in the UK from next March with prices from 32,495. Prices
of the new mainstream Saab 9-3 models start from 18,575 for the Saloon derivatives and 19,575 for the SportWagon versions. The older 9-3 Convertible models remain in the range with prices from 25,975.

For the record (for younger drivers), Saab was founded in Sweden in 1937 as Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (Swedish Aircraft Company), revealing the prototype for its first aircraft-inspired passenger car in 1947. Thirty years ago Saab introduced turbocharging, and 60 years since its first car was launched, the marque Saab might now just be back on a flight-path to a brand resurrection. At least, Saab now has
a sporting chance.

The new Saab 9-3 range of medium sized four-door Saloons and five-door SportWagon estates sells against the Audi A4 (soon to be re-placed by an even better model), the fine BMW 3 Series and the new and highly-rated Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

The latest Saab 9-3 models are said to feature no fewer than 2,000 changes over the outgoing models, but it remains based on the current Vauxhall Vectra platform. There is a raft of new and retained petrol, diesel and BioPower flex-fuel engines and, of course, the new XWD cross wheel drive system. And there are no less than eight petrol and BioPower engines, ranging from 1.8 to 2.8-litres (seven of which are turbocharged), and three, 2.0-litre, turbodiesel engine options with 120, 150 and 180hp power outputs. So, the focus for the brand is still seemingly to provide an engine option for every rung of the company car ladder.

Pride of ownership is undoubtedly a big factor in this premium medium sized car sector, and the new Saab 9-3 models have a bold and assertive new look — the styling certainly looks far more exciting than that of the previous generation 9-3s. The styling comes from the well received Aero X which has been doing the rounds of recent European motor shows as the 'Saab of the Future'. The new design brings back the sporty appeal and, for Saab traditionalists, the clamshell bonnet is retained. New front and rear bumper mouldings and aerodynamic side sills now give the appearance of a thoroughly modern car of premium quality.

The 9-3 is a relatively spacious five seater with enough rear seat leg-room for adult passengers. There is also a huge boot (425 litres) and the rear seats split 60/40. From the driver's point of view the improved cockpit area is first class: in particular, the position of the steering wheel relative to the driver's seat is excellent. The aircraft-style instrument panel is canted towards the driver, so controls are easy to use and instruments clear to see. In this respect it really is a 'driver's car'. There are some areas of indifferent quality in the interior — for example, cheap plastic control stalks.

Four trim and equipment levels are offered: Airflow, Linear SE, Vector Sport and Aero, with Vector Sport being the likely most popular ver-sion. Standard features on all models include alloy wheels, dual-stage front airbags, active head restraints, front seat side airbags and curtain airbags (the 9-3 has a five-star Euro NCAP rating), dual-zone climate control, a 'driving pack' consisting of cruise control and on-board computer, all-round electrically-operated windows, tinted win-dows with heat absorbent glass and a seven-speaker radio and CD system.

Linear SE models additionally feature rear parking assist and a comfort pack. Vector Sport versions get a sports chassis and suspension set-up and electronic stability programme as well as a sports leather steer-ing wheel. Aero models receive extra 'sporty' body styling tweaks, bi-xenon headlights, uprated brakes and heated front seats.

My test car was the well-kitted Saab 9-3 Vector Sport Saloon with a 1.9-litre TiD 148bhp turbodiesel engine and a six-speed manual trans-mission. The price of this middle-of-the-road model is 24,080 but it had options which included a convenience pack of memory seats, auto dimming rear-view mirror and rain sensing wipers plus a business pack which includes DVD satellite navigation and leather upholstery. This brought the total price of the test car up to a hefty 28,860 — but
still cheaper than corresponding German models. And even more good news: Saab dealers will move on the price.

The 1.9-litre, 148bhp engine may not be the newest in the new model line-up but to my mind it is the best option for higher mileage business users as well as private buyers. The low-ish CO2 emissions of 156g/km puts it in road tax Band D at an acceptable 140 a year, and the fuel economy potential is very good indeed. Officially, the combined cycle fuel consumption is 48.7mpg and that is exactly what my car returned overall during a week of motoring over all types of roads. In fact on a long motorway journey it achieved a highly commendable 50.2mpg. Even more impressive is the official touring figure of 60.1mpg — and this from a 'normal' car! Even city driving comes out at 36.7mpg.

Not only is this engine economical, but it is quiet and — thanks to 236lb ft of torque from 2,000rpm — it pulls strongly. Another 'plus'; the gearbox ratios were ideally suited for relaxed open road driving or busy in-town traffic. Top speed is 131mph and 0-60mph takes just nine seconds, so it is not slow either.

However, the driving dynamics of the car are probably best described as 'lazy' — ideal if you want to sit back and enjoy the drive. The steer-ing is slow to respond, lacks feedback response and the car labours through fast corners. It is just not as agile or as sharp as its German competitors. The Sport suspension is firm — but not uncomfortable — and there is more road and wind noise intrusion than is ideal.

Overall the new Saab 9-3 Saloon is a good effort, but is it good enough to ruffle the sales feathers of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz? Not
very likely as it lacks 'sporty' driving appeal. Some poor areas of interior finish and road and wind noise intrusion don't help its case either. How-ever, it does score well for its high levels of safety equipment, good level of specification at a reasonable price and strong yet fuel-efficient engine. And finally, its distinctive Saab styling helps it stand out from the crowd. And, of course, it looks pretty smart on any driveway. — David Miles

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Saab 9-3 Vector Sport 1.9 TiD 150 | 24,080
Maximum speed: 131mph | 0-60mph: 9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 48.7mpg | Power: 148bhp | Torque: 236lb ft

CO2 156g/km | Insurance group 12
Visit Saab's website Click to go there now

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