Road Test: Saab 9-3 Sportwagon

The sleek new Saab estate was designed to be nonconformist and Scandinavian – because that formula has worked in the past. But what's missing from the mix is some soul, says John Simister
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Call me strange, but I own a car with a two-stroke engine that emits clouds of blue smoke when it has just started up. When people see me climb the hill away from my house, they assume my car's engine is either terminally clapped out or has just blown up.

Neither is true. It's a Saab 96 from 1961, a car so full of non-obvious solutions to obvious problems that it's a feast of lateral thought every time I drive it.

Saab did things differently. My 96's domed roof is so strong I could roll it over almost without damage. Its tiny, three-cylinder engine sits ahead of the front wheels yet the front overhang is minimal, partly because the radiator is behind the engine.

It has a completely flat floor and is left-hand-drive, so my passenger could easily operate the accelerator although so far she hasn't, being terrified enough already by the way the Saab careers downhill, seemingly out of control, thanks to its freewheel. I could go on, but the point is made. Saab was a carmaker like no other.

Today, Saab tries to maintain that mantle, one that made it the darling brand of free-thinkers and nonconformists. It plays on its aircraft-maker heritage - the Saab acronym stands for Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolaget, or Swedish Aeroplane Company - although the car and aircraft divisions split long ago.

Nowadays Saabs are deliberately engineered to be a bit nonconformist, a bit aeronautical and a bit Swedish, because that's what is needed to give the brand identity, whereas previously they just turned out that way because that was the culture.

Now Saab is just a division of General Motors, its premium Euro-brand. People not of its culture have to work out what that culture might be, and try to make the result credible. Such is the lot of the small fish swallowed by the big shark. Such is auto-globalisation. All of which makes the arrival of this latest Saab, the 9-3 SportWagon (or SportCombi outside the UK, a more convincingly old-Saab name), an interesting exercise in brand values.

Its style is definitely Saab-ish; it couldn't be anything else, and this is a very good-looking car. The roofline of this sleek estate car thickens as it heads rearwards, merging into a thick rear pillar which adds strength and a kind of forward motion to the look. Behind these pillars are tall, clear tail-lights whose iceblock appearance is supposed to suggest Scandinavia and the frozen north.

This is a car of rather more character than the 9-3 saloon, which was created a saloon because its rivals are saloons ("Me too!" it cries) and therefore lost its predecessor's hatchback USP. "Don't worry, " said Saab at the time, "there'll be a 9-3 with a tailgate again." And this is it, as previewed in concept-car form at least two years ago.

And what's this? Open the tailgate, look at the boot floor, and you'll see, yes, an aeroplane – it is the T-handle by which you raise that floor to create the TwinFloor (more disappearing spaces between words).

The result is that the section of load-bay floor nearest the aluminium tailgate is now vertical and and can be locked in that position to reveal a deep luggage well.

This Saab is available with four trims: Linear (simple and kind of, well, Scandinavian), Arc (wood and leather), Vector (sportier seats, matt chrome instead of wood) and Aero (Vector plus a bit). And there are several engine choices: two 1.9-litre turbodiesels of 120 and 150bhp, a 1.8i petrol engine with 122bhp, and three 2.0-litre turbo engines with 150, 175 or 210bhp, the lowest-powered of which is bafflingly called 1.8t. To this existing Saab 9-3 engine range is added a V6, turbocharged of course, because turbocharging has been Saab's speciality for a long time.

It's part of General Motors' new V6 family, a 2.8-litre unit with 250bhp, and like the 210bhp four-cylinder engine, it's allied to the Aero trim and sporty-suspension package. This is the SportWagon I sample: an Aero V6.

As I drive off, there seems to be something missing. A final polish of engineering and tactility maybe? If I run my fingers around the plastic trims that surround the side windows, I can feel little lumps of moulding marks. If I apply gentle lateral pressure to the parking-ticket holder, whose position on the centre console mirrors that of the cunningly concealed handbrake, it falls off. And the pop-out, semi-rotating cupholder on the dashboard is a poor shadow of the one in the larger Saab 9-5, too springy and floppy. These things matter when you're trying to compete with Audis and BMWs.

Saab's presentation video showed the Aero V6 sounding like an old Alfa GTV6 with its deep burble, but the reality is blander. This doesn't feel like a 250bhp car, because the turbocharged power delivery is soft across the speed range and there are no fireworks. Some might regard that as a good thing, but more spirit would be welcome.

As you may know, the 9-3 range shares many of its underpinnings with the Vauxhall Vectra. However, Saab's engineers did get away with a gesture of independence by devising a unique rear suspension called ReAxs, designed to point the Saab more keenly into corners by means of some finely judged, but passive, rear-wheel steering. A GM suspension engineer I spoke to recently described Saab's efforts as a waste of resources which won't be allowed to happen again. That tells you a lot.

The SportWagon does flow efficiently around corners. And it soaks up bumps well, given its low-profile tyres, and I would like to be more enthusiastic, because I like the idea of a Saab and I like the way this one looks, but I can't. Would you go for a drive in this 9-3 just for the sensory experience and feelgood vibes? No.

The Saab 9-3 is better with four cylinders than with six. I suspect the 1.9 TiD turbodiesel SportWagon, the 150bhp one, will be a likeable car; the saloon certainly is. These new diesels have transformed Saab's sales in the UK, and there's a chance they might exceed even Sweden's and the US's this year.

Some pundits have declared Saab a spent force. Don't write the obituary yet, but someone does need to re-ignite Saab's soul. Just making the cars look "Swedish" isn't enough.

The rivals

Recent facelift brought a sharper style and better driving dynamics, although it still feels aloof. This direct–injection V6 is rapid, refined and frugal, quality is superb.

Last chance to buy this default choice of stylish, fine-driving compact estate car. It's expensive but rapid and wonderfully complete. New model is imminent.

Based on enlarged Ford Focus underpinnings, which is why it's good fun to drive. Cargo space is not great, but turbo engine and four-wheel drive are pluses.

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