8 February 2011

Saab 9-3 2008 car review

It's a long road ahead, but the introduction of the G.M. Premium Brands division is a move in the right direction for Saab and the 9-3.

Saab 9 3 2008
Saab 9-3 2008

Automotive giant, General Motors, is undergoing some brand re-positioning in the Antipodes, creating a new G.M. premium brands division to live alongside Holden - the General's staple brand in this end of the world.

Under the new Premium Brands umbrella will reside two newbie marques, Hummer - offering its Jeep Grand Cherokee rival, the H3 and Cadillac, America's quintessential luxury car.

Additionally, the one time heavy weight in NZ prestige vehicle sales, Saab, will also join the Premium Brands family.

Being honest, it's been hard to get genuinely enthused about Saab of late; a point of view that appears to be reflected by the consecutively disappointing sales of the last few years. Despite a face-lifted 9-3 and 9-5 model being introduced in 2006, New Zealand sales last year failed to top 50 units.

A luxury SUV and innovative small car are in Saab's near future, which will bring Saab up to speed with rival Scandinavian carmaker Volvo in terms of model line-up, but until then an increased marketing spend in Australia and NZ, and the new 9-3 offer the best chance of a revival.

Although in reality it's yet another facelift atop the original platform, the 9-3's new styling direction is handsome enough. The lines are now cleaner with the vehicle's side mouldings removed and striking enhancements made to the front bumpers, head/tail lamps. There are distinct cues from Saab's 2006 "Aero X" concept vehicle.

But it's exciting new technology we see as being the biggest draw card.

Saab now offer the 9-3 not only with a variant capable of running a 85% blend of ethanol, but will also add a turbo-charged, all-wheel drive version labelled the Turbo X to the range in June.

In Europe, Saab leads the charge in Bioethanol technologies with their BioPower versions of the 9-3 and 9-5 vehicles, and GM Premium Brands Director, Praveen Batish is keen to introduce the benefits here and hopes an infrastructure will eventually follow.

"Saab is committed to helping break the chicken and the egg cycle that prevents an alternative fuel such as E85 from coming to market" says Batish.

"Australia's largest independent fuel supplier has announced plans to install the first E85 pumps in Australia and we hope to see similar interest in New Zealand"

Don't worry if E85 fuel isn't here yet, the BioPower 9-3 carries a mere $1000 price hike over the base model and can still run on ordinary pump gas.

On the road we noticed little perceivable difference to the BioPower's performance when running on ordinary fuel; apparently power is slightly less than the 129kW, base 2.0t model. Although when running on 85% ethanol blended fuel the power output is increased greatly to 147kW.

Saab actually risks muddying the waters slightly when it comes to the 9-3's model range. With three body shapes (sedan, convertible and wagon), five engine combinations and three spec levels to choose from, there is now a staggering 24 possible variations of 9-3 available. This will grow to 28 when the Turbo X models come online.

Considering the low sales performance, it seems Saab hasn't much to lose, but stands to gain serious kudos by dropping the 2.0t entry model, and offering the BioPower as the 9-3's base model - preferably minus the $1000 premium.

In addition to BioPower the 9-3 also offers a 1.9 litre diesel version with either 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic drivetrains. It's an excellent diesel power unit; smooth, quiet and with 110kW @ 4000rpm and 320Nm @ 2000 rpm on tap, powerful enough to provide strong performance, particularly from above 50km/h.

Given the huge $16,000 price jump from mid spec Vector models fitted with the 2.0 high output Turbo engine, the 188kW Aero spec, while quite exhilarating to drive, really seems the reserve for brand enthusiasts only.

It'll be interesting to see where the upcoming high performance Turbo X model sits by comparison.

Available in sedan or Sport Combi (wagon) configuration, the Turbo X will reach 100km/h from standstill in 5.7 seconds (manual) thanks the 206kW / 400Nm engine and all-wheel drive grip.

As with the model it replaces the new 9-3 offers a 5 out of 5 star NCAP safety rating and all of the latest variations are fitted with active headrests and six-airbags.

Creature comforts are equally impressive with rain-sensing wipers, heated seats, cruise control, steering wheel audio controls and stability control on every model.

For our money it's the recently-added Sport Combi that exhibits the best blend of practicality, good looks, features and drivability.

Even with the retuned spring and damper rates, the decade-old GM platform is showing its age in the 9-3, and no longer makes a fair comparison for the likes of BMW or Mercedes. It's still enjoyable, but chassis dynamics are notably softer when pressed on windy roads. Ride comfort is still impressive for the city commute or Sunday cruise alike. No drive of the Turbo X was available at time of launch.

It's a long road ahead, but the introduction of the G.M. Premium Brands division is a move in the right direction for Saab and the 9-3. Combine this with significant technology advancements like AWD and BioPower, the 9-3 may finally start to generate the attention it's lacked in recent years.

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