I must confess, until today I was under the impression that Saabs were for, how should I put this, the ?older generations? and that driving one would most likely be uninspiring; mediocre. You know the Swedes, they focus on safety and efficiency. Where?s fun in that?
I have a further confession to make though. The prospect of comparing a 2 litre turbocharged petrol engine and a twin-turbocharged diesel engine did serve to raise an eyebrow.
There?s no doubting that the 9-3 appears modest and understated compared to its peers. Mixing slab-sided, contemporary looks with Saab?s unmistakable wraparound headlight and grille combination that taper in and meet in the centre at the front to give the car a purposeful and aggressive stance the 9-3 certainly looks the part upon closer inspection, yet manages to avoid standing out too much within a crowd.
Slip inside and you can?t help notice how almost absurdly comfortable the seats are. Not like the bulbous leather ?armchairs? of years gone by found in 1970?s Rovers and Jaguars but supple and supportive. There?s ample room in the rear for adults and children alike and I suspect that the ?SportWagon? estate versions are extremely capacious.
Twisting the unconventional key in the centre centre console, the 2 litre turbocharged petrol engine idled quietly as you would expect and the auto ?box on the model tested engaged smoothly with no ?jumping? or surge and pulled away smoothly on acceleration.
At this point you will probably be expecting me to rant and rave about how ?surprisingly good? the car is on the open road, and you?d be right. I cannot stress just how effortlessly the 2 litre turbo Aero version wafted along, soaking up every gearchange and bump yet with the steering remaining solidly weighted at all times, surpassing my expectations of this seldom thought about £25k saloon. Then I noticed the modest yet clever addition of an unmarked boost gauge flicking and rocking lazily that reminds you that this Saab isn?t quite so pipe and slippers as you might imagine.
The power delivery from the 180ps 1.9TtiD is slightly different, with the smaller turbocharger spooling up at low revs to give a healthy dose of torque and the larger one coming into play further up the rev range to extend the torque band as far as possible. On light acceleration it is almost indistinguishable in delivery as compared to the 2 litre petrol version but as your foot becomes heavier you feel a real surge of power as it comes on boost making it feel just as, if not slightly more livelier to drive spiritedly. What shocked me the most was that, when in sport mode the diesel didn?t tend to drop a gear on hard acceleration but just kept changing up the gearbox whilst pulling, pulling and pulling almost relentlessly. Needless to say, the diesel engine is very quiet, especially on idle.
The tiptronic automatic gearboxes on the models tested were smooth and responded fairly quickly when used manually from both the gear lever and the buttons on either side of the steering wheel and the ?sport? button supplied a noticeable amount of engine braking when engaged. For a small executive or family saloon the handling is far from lumbering ? you can push it into corners and the ride remains comfortable yet stiff. Up to third gear can be engaged to pull away, which both of our test cars managed effortlessly. I?m sure that feature is at its best when tackling the Swedish winters, enjoying a ski trip or towing, say, a caravan. Not that I?m advocating the towing of caravans.
Being a Saab, everything has been designed with ergonomics in mind so that all of the controls are easily within reach of the driver and are intuitive, even the sat nav fitted to the test model was easy to use despite being laid out differently to any system I had used previously.
There are no doubts in my mind that the Saab 9-3 Aero, be it in 2.0T or 1.9TtiD guise is a serious alternative for anybody considering purchasing an Audi A4 or BMW 3-series. Understated, powerful and yet economical (the single turbo diesel engine managing 44.1mpg combined and the petrol a respectable 32.8mpg – twin turbo figures TBC) these cars are definitely worth looking at, even if only to get a glimpse of the cup holder.
It may sound ridiculous, but the way that it operates, although difficult to put into words, has an elegance and genius that warrant taking a look next time you?re filling up at Motor Mall and seeing it in action.