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Click to view picture gallery“With 250bhp under
  the bonnet, Saab’s
  range-topping V6
  SportWagon has more
  than enough ‘sport’
  to be going on with.
  Better still, its
  attractive estate body
  also provides more
  than enough ‘wagon’...”


AMONGST THE PRESTIGE sector lifestyle estates, Saab's 9-3 SportWagon — note the 'Wagon' in the name — comes closest to openly stating its role as a compact executive holdall. Like all these executive 'wagons', the SportWagon is more logistical-lifestyle than load-lugger. It makes adopting a touch of practicality into its executive owners' life style do-able while preserving their man-(or woman)-about-town self-image.

Image-wise, the Saab is at its most eye-catching when dressed in sporty body-kitted Aero trim. The softly chiselled front end exudes a distinctive Scandinavian 'Saabishness'. Run your eye along the SportWagon's uncluttered flanks and it all hangs together well. Subtle yet noticeably flared wheel arches add a sense of purpose without being flash. And the sharply-raked rear three-quarter styling treatment makes excellent use of smart 'hockey stick'-shaped pillars, boldly defined by frosted 'iced-look' LED tail-lights. Following drivers will find themselves behind a clean-cut tailgate topped by an integrated roof spoiler, underscored by a pair of meaty sports exhaust tailpipes one sited at each corner of the lower apron. In Aero trim, the cool-looking SportWagon definitely stands out from the crowd.

As well as having three body trim levels to choose from (Linear, Vector and Aero), SportWagon customers can also decide how fast they wish to be practical from 124mph right up to 155mph. On offer are: two turbodiesels (120 and 150bhp) and five petrol powerplants, that start with a pair of 1.8-litre units offering 122 and 150bhp; two 2.0-litre engines (175 and 210bhp) and a six-cylinder V6 that kicks out a very lively 250bhp. When it comes to changing gears, there are 5- and 6-speed manual gearboxes or Saab's Sentronic automatic transmission that has steering wheel shift buttons.

We tested the range-topping 28,715 Aero 2.8 Turbo V6 automatic, fitted with a few optional extras automatic transmission with manual shift buttons, metallic paint, heated front seats, a Convenience Pack that adds one-shot electric windows, power folding mirrors, auto-dimming interior and exterior mirrors and rain-sensing wipers that together take the on-the-road price to 31,105. In other words, well into BMW 3 Series Touring/Audi A4 Avant territory. But the Sport-Wagon hails from Scandinavia which, for many of Saab's customers, is one of its major selling points. Both BMW and Audi, despite their undeniable merits, are to some extent the victims of their own success you see them everywhere as a testament to their desirability. The Saab, thus far, is the rarer.

Pull the colour-coded door handle. It needs only light pressure and, conveniently, it's easy to open wearing gloves. Slip behind the wheel and you'll find that the SportWagon's well-appointed cockpit is as good-looking as the bodyshell. The furniture is as easy on the eye as
it is easy to live with. The shapely, well-bolstered leather-trimmed seats are comfortable and very supportive which, combined with a height and reach adjustable steering wheel, makes it easy for the driver to achieve a first-rate driving position.

The functional, gently-angled dashboard is unmistakably driver-oriented and all key controls and instruments are clear and in easy line of sight. A sliding centre armrest adjusts to five positions. Space is generous in all directions both up front and in the back, where headroom is good and with plenty of room for longer legs. There is also ample glass for a clear view out. Rear passengers get dedicated air vents, a wide well-padded centre armrest and similarly sculpted seats to those in the front.

The ignition key fits into a slot just behind the handbrake. Apart from
a safety benefit, this makes for a reassuringly individualistic touch. Tactile rotary controls take care of the dual-zone climate control and there are restrained metal-finish trim highlights. The mirror adjuster switch set is located out of the way but easily to hand on the inner housing trim for the off-side door mirror.

The two-stage heated seats warm but don't cook, which is exactly how it should be. And the rearview mirror auto-dimming can be manually switched off to make reversing at night easier. Talking of night driving, the SportWagon comes with a set of superb bi-xenon headlights. And finally, the small, soft elasticated pockets on the leading edge of both front seat bases are incredibly handy. And better still, they're also out of sight.

For those who need to stay in touch with the outside world, there's integrated Bluetooth. And if music on the move is your thing, then you'll appreciate the built-in iPod socket. Switches on the left- and right-hand side of the steering wheel allow remote driver control of the infotainment (right) and driver information (left) systems. There's also a natty cup holder in the fascia that pops out gymnastically and unfurls itself like a butterfly.

The wheel is wrapped in thin leather, with comfortable thumb rest cut-outs at 10 and 2 o-clock positions and it's nice to hold and use. To the left of the wheel on the fascia are four buttons stacked horizontally. These are panel illumination; night panel switch; a programmable button for the driver to allocate a 'favourite' function; and the on/off switch for the traction control system.

The night panel function is designed to reduce distraction when driving in the dark. Pressing this button causes all the instruments except the speedometer to fade out. However, the instant the driver's attention is required the relevant instrument immediately lights up.

The SportWagon's cabin is a refined and reassuring place to be. During dedicated people-carrying trips you're never aware of the load space behind you. Surprisingly, although carrying ability is not the main priority for the SportWagon, it is nonetheless very accommodating. With four people on board (five if needs must), there is room in the practical boot for 419 litres of luggage not bad and more than an 'adequate sufficiency' for most owners.

Fold the 60:40 rear seats flat (you only need pull a single lever to drop them forward) and this goes up to 1,273 litres, which is quite a lot of lugging space. It even made no bones about moving beds and large furniture during a house move, while on test. A wide opening tailgate combined with a sensibly low rear sill makes loading a doddle. There's also a ski-hatch, a 12-volt power take-off and plenty of luggage hooks. The front seat is foldable and provides even more cargo space: folded, it allows 2.5-metre long items such as a surfboard to be carried. But the SportWagon still has one card left up its sleeve: pull the chrome aircraft-shaped handle in the boot floor and you'll find a hidden sub-floor beneath. This useful TwinFloor stowage facility is a standard fitment across the range.

The SportWagon is well-equipped both with creature comforts (in range-topping Aero spec) and safety kit. In addition to a 5-star Euro NCAP rating, it features roof rail (front and rear head) airbags,
adaptive dual-stage front airbags, side airbags, award-winning active front head restraints, height-adjustable front seat belts, ESP Plus (tuned to allow the driver a bit more leeway without unnecessary interference) and ABS etc.

Other standard equipment includes 17-inch 5-spoke light alloy wheels, sports front seats, two-tone leather upholstery, single slot 6 disc CD autochanger with MP3 compatible CD player and 7 speakers, dual-
zone automatic climate control with refrigerated glove box, on-board computer, bi-xenon headlamps with high-pressure washers, tinted electric windows with heat absorbent glass, multi-function steering wheel controls, electric operated and heated door mirrors, Follow-Me-Home headlamps, rear wash/wipe and cruise control.

Saab revolutionised turbo technology 30 years ago and has been refining it ever since which is why all but one of the 9-3 Sport-Wagon's seven engine options is turbocharged. So no surprise, either, that the 2.8-litre 24-valve V6 engine is a smooth and tuneful power-plant that serves up its 250bhp and 258lb ft of torque in an unfussed manner.

On the move, it's a gutsy unit: kick down the accelerator and the V6 will seem to kick you back delivering low-down pressure in the small of your back! With 258lb ft of torque available from 2,000rpm, its relentless power delivery is perfectly suited to an automatic set-up. While the auto 'box adds almost a full second to the 0-60mph time,
it's certainly no sluggard: 0-60mph is accomplished in 7.5 seconds
(6.6 for the manual). Top speed is just 3mph down on the manual version's 152mph. Either is plenty fast enough. Yet another plus is the premium feel and sound of the mechanically cultured V6.

As already mentioned, the Sentronic automatic transmission comes with a manual override system. This lets you shift manually using small paddles on the steering wheel crossbar close to the rim: on the left is a 'minus' paddle for downshifts; to the right a 'plus' paddle for upshifts. Unlike some, with the Saab system they are mounted directly onto the wheel so they move around with the wheel. For hard-charges along twisty roads, you feel more in control flicking the selector lever. For roads requiring less wheel-twirling or sudden downshifts for motor-way overtaking the paddles are fine. Changes are sweet and using either mode of manual gear selection really does add flexibility of response and pleasure to the driving experience.

From behind the leather-trimmed three-spoke wheel it doesn't feel like you're controlling 250 charging horses. But this is a good thing if
you must blame something, then blame the V6's refinement. However, when you call for them, all 250 will respond and overtaking manoeuv-res will require nothing more strenuous than some gentle flexing of your right ankle.

The SportWagon is front-wheel drive and, given the amount of power going to the front tyres, torque steer is well contained. Foot-to-the-floor take-offs in the wet are about the only time it butts in. Elsewhere the chassis copes very nicely thank you and the SportWagon steers, grips and stops just fine.

The V6 SportWagon is a deceptively easy car to drive smoothly and it is made even nicer by the lack of any wind, tyre or engine noise especially on motorways. It feels agile, the handling is tidy and body roll aided by the sports chassis package (10mm lower, firmer springs, stiffer shock absorbers) is well-contained. The power steering is accurate and faithful, although some may rate it a tad on the light side and a little short on feedback. That said, the SportWagon is unexpect-edly good fun on a twisty road. The ride is also very comfortable and the brakes reassuring and easily modulated through a well-weighted pedal. Brakes are large ventilated discs front and rear and the favoured brand of rubber is Michelin: 17-inch 235/45 P Zero Rossos.

Even with 250bhp and 2.8-litres, fuel consumption is not half as bad
as one might have predicted. Officially, the V6 should return 25.7,
38.2 and 16.4mpg repectively for combined, touring and city driving. We averaged close to the official figure 23mpg over 400+ miles
that included a good proportion of town and spirited driving.

So what's the verdict? First and foremost and a fundamental quality in this class the good looking SportWagon provides refined accom-modation for four inside its appealing and well-finished cabin. Its comfort is particularly well-suited for long-distance journeys. That it willingly functions quite effectively as a family hold-all while providing
a decent drive is but another strong point.

As practical, appealing and good to drive as this 9-3 Wagon is, its
28K price does, however, pitch it right in amongst a lot of equally desirable lifestyle estates wearing very well-respected badges. At the end of the day, those who succumb to its Scandinavian charms will
be more than satisfied. And they most assuredly will not find them-selves gazing at other marques from the driving seat of their Sport-Wagon wondering what might have been.

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Saab 9-3 Aero SportWagon 2.8 V6 Turbo | 28,715
Maximum speed: 149mph | 0-60mph: 7.5 seconds
Overall test MPG: 23mpg | Power: 250bhp | Torque: 258lb ft

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--------------------------------------------------- Saab 9-3 Aero SportWagon