Performance: 0-60mph 9.4 seconds; 33.2mpg; 138mph top speed; automatic turbo
CO2: 70-116g/km while running on E85 fuel
It seemed too good to be true: a car with solid green credentials that looked great, performed beautifully, came with a soft top and wouldn't let me down in style-obsessed France.
In fact, Saab's BioPower range seems to have found its spiritual home across the Channel, where environmental issues are taken rather more seriously than in Britain. First of all, the eco-friendly fuel that the BioPower uses, E85, is found in 160 pumps across France, whereas only 19 have popped up in the UK so far. Admittedly, France is double the size of Britain geographically, but that's still an incredible difference, given that we have roughly the same population.
Secondly, the French autoroutes are a dream to drive, especially in comparison with horribly congested British roads unless you're in a summertime tailback on the A75, of course. Luckily I wasn't, having decided to test the Saab BioPower 9-3 in mellow late October. The leaves were changing colour and the harvest had been and gone, leaving nothing but golden vineyards, the heady smell of fermenting grapes and the first of the new vintages in the wine shops.
It was even better once I got off the motorways and sauntered along the quiet D-roads in the Languedoc region. To the golds and crimsons of the autumn leaves I added the attractive baby-blue 9-3 convertible. With the top down, of course. It was just mild enough to get away with it (while wearing a hat and scarf), and the sky was too vividly blue for me to hide it from view after enduring so many weeks of dull, dreary British weather.
These mostly deserted roads were perfect for putting the Saab through its paces. My model was an automatic 2.0 turbo, and the engine, as on most bioethanol fuel cars, is tuned to be more powerful than conventional powertrains because of the relatively lower power output from bioethanol.
The car scored highly when it came to turning heads too. At the car park near Hotel de Vigniamont, our handsome B&B in Pzenas, I was a bit nervous to see a gang of local youths hanging around on their bikes outside. Were they going to hassle me, maybe do something to the car? Not a bit of it. "Wow, that's a beautiful car," they said, crowding around it in appreciation. "Super cool. Bravo, madame!"
So no quibbles regarding the Saab's performance, comfort and style. But I was just as interested in exploring some of its green credentials. The E85 on which it runs is so called because it's made of 15 per cent fossil fuel and 85 per cent bioethanol, derived from plants such as wheat, corn and sugar cane. Bioethanol has received some bad press lately because of the fear of deforestation in poorer regions in order to grow these cash crops. What is heartening to hear, however, is that a second generation of biofuels is becoming more widespread. This fuel makes use of the agricultural stuff that would normally go to waste, such as straw and wood shavings from sustainable forests.
Driving through Languedoc, you can't help but notice the number of wind farms dotted about the landscape. This makes sense: the region has its own version of Provence's mistral, the tramontane a vicious, evil wind that can almost blow the door off a car. Why let such power go to waste?
Making full use of natural resources is a concept that hasn't escaped one British expat wine-grower in the area either. When Robert Eden (the great-nephew of former Prime Minister Anthony) bought the Château Maris vineyard in the La Livinire appellation 10 years ago, he quickly discovered the effects of relying too much on chemicals and not caring about the environment. "I inherited a lot of sick vines and dead soil," he recalled, describing the 40 hectares he bought in Languedoc, the world's largest wine-growing region. Robert tried the organic route first, then went a step further by using "biodynamic principles". This method of farming, pioneered by the philosopher and social thinker Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, is a more holistic approach to organic farming; its popularity is growing in both France and Britain.
Robert laughed when he saw me approach. "I knew it was you when I saw you turning into the lane," he said. "Who else but the British would go around in October with the top down?" The car won him over, however, as we drove up the hill to one stretch of vineyard where he was cultivating a particularly fetching pile of manure. "Everything that has gone into this shit is biodynamic," he said proudly, getting his hand stuck in. His two horses, Karabi and Malicieuse (who apparently lives up to her name), not only contribute to the manure supply but also plough three hectares of vineyard using a home-made contraption that would make Heath Robinson sigh in admiration. (Robert's plan is to get rid of all motorised tractors eventually.) The rest of the vineyards are ploughed using an ancient tractor that runs on the oil from rapeseed grown in what would have been a fallow field. Waste not, want not, and produce some very good wine in the process.
This sort of ecological thinking is finally making headway in the car industry. Saab is very proud of its BioPower fuel option, and has offered it across its entire range. But what use is that with so few E85 pumps in Britain? Well, these "flexi-fuel" cars run on unleaded petrol as well as E85, and can mix the two: the engine determines how to get the best performance out of whatever combination of fuel is in the tank. The only remaining problem was reluctantly putting the top back up and giving the car back after such a pleasurable journey. Bonne route!
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