New Saab tickles your turbo fancy

Saab fans will love the new 9-3, and it could make a few converts as well. By John Simister

Naming this road test in my computer, I called it Saab 900 Ecopower, which is a Freudian slip. What I meant to write, of course, was Saab 9- 3 Ecopower, because Saab will tell you they are two very different cars, even if they look the same. Well, almost the same.

Besides, there never was such a thing as a 900 Ecopower. It's just that the shape shouts 900 to me, very Saab, very distinctive, forever linked with the 900 name that it inherited from the old range of solid, strange, styleless and likeable Saabs. And the 9-3? It's simply the current version of the same car, renamed to splice more neatly with the big 9-5 in Saab's current range, and newly revamped to make it vastly more pleasant to drive.

The 900 into 9-3 metamorphosis happened last spring. What we have here now is a new engine, rather a good one at that, and a whole new set of appeals. Saab, as you probably know, is a pioneer of turbocharged cars, and for years it has been itching to make a point by having its entire product range turbocharged. And now, with this new Ecopower 9-3, the Swedish company is a step nearer its goal.

The new engine, of 2.0 litres, replaces the non-turbo 2.3. All that will remain unturbocharged, then, is the base 2.0, which is due for the chop soon. And this "Ecopower" business? Already seen in the 9-5 and the defunct 9000, it refers to a gentle turbocharging effect carried out for fuel efficiency and relaxed driving characteristics, rather than massive performance (for which Saab already has the regular 9-3 Turbo and, just to confuse you further, a new and yet more powerful Turbo Sport).

Light pressure turbocharging, as the practice is known, is also used by fellow Swedish maker Volvo, and by Volkswagen/Audi. So we are talking upmarket cars here, and Saab would just love its cars to be viewed as direct alternatives to those current favourites of the high-class executive set, Audi. After all, the individuality, quality and integrity have always been there, or thereabouts. The problem has been that the just-ousted 900 was, frankly, a dull and stodgy drive, thanks to its being based on the underpinnings (though not the engines, of course) of the old Vauxhall Cavalier, a travesty which occurred after General Motors' acquisition of a Saab majority shareholding.

Recognising this, Saab redesigned parts of the front suspension, stiffened- up the chassis where the steering gear attaches to it, and recalibrated the springiness of the springs and the damping ability of the suspension's dampers. Cosmetic markers of the new deal were a new front grille with an aeroplane motif, a brighter and better-equipped interior, and visual tweaks to the bumpers and tailgate. In all, there were 1,100 changes: the effect was dramatic, because the result was a car whose smooth steering, fluid handling and comfortable, lurch-free ride would have been near-unrecognisable to a 900 driver. The 9-3 was now what the 900 should have been in the first place.

That's recent history. This new engine finishes the job beautifully. It's smooth, thanks to a pair of balancer shafts to cancel out vibrations, yet it still sounds distinctively Saab. Power rises slightly over the 2.3's output, from 150bhp to 154, but the real bonus is in pulling power, or torque. An engine feels more muscular if its maximum torque arrives at fairly low engine speeds, so you don't have to work it hard, and the new Ecopower delivers 98 percent of its maximum (162lb ft at 3,600rpm) from just 2,400rpm. Contrast that with the 2.3: 155lb ft at 4,300rpm, of which 85 per cent was available at 2,400rpm.

Saab has no doubt chosen these figures to show the engine in the best possible light, but there's no doubt that it's a powerful, relaxing engine which gives the 9-3 great overtaking ability. Cars which use a turbocharger simply as a route to lots of power often feel lifeless at low speeds until the exhaust gases have spun the turbo enough for it to compress the incoming air usefully, but there's virtually none of this in the Ecopower. It has the power you want, when you want it.

The rest of the car is thoroughly likeable, too. The handling and ride I've mentioned, and I prefer them to an Audi A4's because there's more "meat" to the controls' responses. The cabin is roomy and well-finished in a logical, high-tech way, the seats are extremely comfortable, and the boot is big. Saab-lovers from the old days will be pleased to see that the ignition switch still locks the gear lever rather than the steering, but that is a quirk I could do without.

I like this car a lot. If you're bored with the obvious German offerings, give the Saab a try.

Specification

Box

Saab 9-3 Ecopower

Prices: from pounds 19,645 (3dr S) to pounds 21,895 (5dr SE).

Engine: 1,985cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 154bhp at 5,500rpm.

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: 131mph, 0-60 in 8.5 seconds, 25-30mpg.

Rivals

Audi A4 1.8T: pounds 21,911. Lively, looks great, is built beautifully, has light-pressure turbo, is expensive.

BMW 318i: pounds 19,745. New 3-series builds on old model's virtues without advancing the art much. 320i comes later.

Honda Accord 2.0i ES: pounds 19,895. New Accord was styled in Europe, looks like an amalgam of Euro cars. Good to drive, though.

Volvo S40 2.0T SE: pounds 18,955. Good value, smart looks, but a shade short on quality and refinement.

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