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Saab 9-3 SportWagon Aero 2.0T XWD

Click to view picture gallery“Newly-independent Saab has
  extended its range with the all-wheel
  drive 9-3 XWD Saloon and Sport
  Wagon models. Good news for fans
  of the marque, but can they tempt
  customers away from the latest
  Vauxhall Insignia 2.0T 4x4s?

WITH GM PUTTING THEIR SAAB CAR BRAND on the market, sales have slowed down but life hasn't stopped for the Swedish manufacturer. New models are on sale and three further new ranges — the 9-5 executive saloon and estate, 9-3X and 9-4X SUVs — will come to market in the next eighteen months.

After spending 20 years in 'foreign' (GM) ownership, Saab see themselves heading for independence. This is good news for Saab dealers and, most of all, the marque's loyal customers who must have wondered where the company was heading under the control of GM. Initially the American-owned company saw Saab as their 'premium' brand; then the Saab name was marketed as being their 'green' brand with BioPower models, which they still have. In Europe, GM now has the new Vauxhall Insignia as its current premium product, so the reasons for holding onto Saab no longer exist.

The 9-3 is Saab's core model range, with saloon, convertible and SportWagon estates. Traditionally, UK customers have been older retail buyers or business user-choosers of all ages who wanted an alternative to the volume models offered by the 'premium' brands of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Saab owners wanted something not German but of a higher brand value than the Ford Mondeo or the Vauxhall Vectra (and now Insignia). They also like the sporting pedigree that is still associated with Saab.

The Saab 9-3 range comes with a wide choice of engine options and sizes: petrol, diesel and BioPower; turbocharged and normally aspirated. Prices range from 18,605 to 34,617. The range, considering the relatively small numbers it sells, is huge. And now we have the all-wheel drive 2.0T XWD models to go with the existing 2.8-litre V6 petrol XWD and 2.8 V6 XWD Turbo X. Given the economic climate with customers down-sizing and going for more tax-friendly models, these XWD version 9-3s will not sell in large numbers.

Offered in addition to the 276bhp 2.8 V6 turbocharged petrol unit, the new 2.0-litre turbo petrol unit produces 210bhp and 221lb ft of torque from 2,500rpm for the XWD all-wheel drive models. Prices are 27,669 for the saloon and 28,746 for the SportWagon.

Saab's XWD system is the same as used by Vauxhall for the new Insignia. This 'intelligent' active system continuously distributes engine torque between the front and rear axles for optimum handling and grip in all driving conditions. To optimize traction from standstill, the XWD system has a pre-emptive engagement of the rear wheels which eliminates the need to detect front wheel slippage before the rear drive is activated.

For sure-footed handling once underway, up to 70% of the torque can be transferred to the rear wheels — during hard acceleration out of a bend, for instance, it keeps the car balanced, counteracting oversteer and understeer. In optimum driving conditions — a dry motorway — only 5-10% of torque is going to the rear wheels.

The 9-3's suspension has been retuned to accommodate all-wheel drive traction, as has the steering to improve feedback to the driver. As to whether these XWD models are truly needed, the loyal sporty Saab driver will no doubt appreciate the extra traction and perhaps newcomers to the Swedish brand might want all-wheel drive grip for country use. The Saab XWD high-specification editions will have to fight for sales against the Insignia 2.0T 4x4 saloons. With Insignia 4x4 prices starting from 22,460 and the 4x4 Sports Tourer from 23,685, that will be a tough job.

In all other respects the Saab 9-3 XWD models are typical modern Saab: distinctively styled inside and out although they still feel like old Vectras. All are fully equipped for their 'executive' status; the seating is comfortable, the interior is roomy and they have the aircraft cockpit-style instrument panel.

Despite that, they still feel a bit of a compromise and there isn't any real compulsion to buy one. A Saab doesn't have the ownership brand appeal of a similar-sized Audi A4 quattro, or the driving dynamics of a rear-wheel drive BMW 3 Series. And the Insignia 4x4s are a more modern product. So while the realistic engine size and all-wheel drive will undoubtedly appeal to the Saab enthusiast, the new Vauxhall Insignia 2.0T 4x4 does it all better and cheaper. — David Miles

Saab 9-3 SportWagon Aero 2.0T XWD
| 28,746
Maximum speed: 142mph | 0-62mph: 8.2 seconds | Overall test MPG: 21.8mpg
Power: 210bhp | Torque: 221lb ft | CO2 207g/km | Insurance group 16E