Saab, the Swedish subsidiary of GM has introduced its new 9-3 in sedan, convertible and wagon form to the local market.
The new range of cars features a station wagon derivate - a first locally for Saab - as well as the characteristically popular convertible and sedan models. Saab hopes to up sales significantly from the 112 units it shifted locally during 2007.
All three bodystyles share characteristic Saab styling cues both inside and out including the signature Saab clamshell grille and bonnet arrangement, front bumper air-intakes, which are deep cut on the Aero sedan models, and clean styling surfaces throughout.
The SportCombi wagon hides its generous rear bulk loading capacity well, whilst the sedan and convertible versions feature quad-split rear light clusters which herald a neat, attractive rear-three quarter view.
Descending from a distinctive line of stylish convertibles the latest drop-top Saab does not disappoint aesthetically. The latest 9-3 convertible, with its canvas top either open or closed, looks great, especially in black with contrasting light beige interior trim.
Saab goes to great lengths to remind one the interior architecture and ergonomics owe much to the company's aircraft engineering heritage.
The car division is a wholly owned subsidiary of GM since 2000 though, and has practically nothing to do with the new Grippen fighters set to go into service with the South African Air Force soon.
Despite this, some remnants of the aeronautic cockpit ergonomic heritage remain, especially in the open, uncluttered interior control surfaces and their neatly spaced button and function arrangements.
You get cool stuff too, like the button which disables all instrumentation illumination when travelling at night, only leaving the speedo illuminated up until 140km/h.
The rest of the cabin features typically comfy seats in the finest Swedish tradition, yet the centre console is starkly dark, and some texture contrast, especially wood inlays, would have improved interior ambience remarkably.
Torquey turbo engines
Underneath the stylish exterior, the new Saab 9-3 rides on the GM Epsilon front-wheel drive platform, a chassis it shares with the Cadillac BLS.
Suspended by MacPherson struts and a hydro formed sub-frame with anti-roll bar at the front and an independent multilink suspension set-up at the rear, Saab 9-3 aims to blend dynamics and long-distance cruising comfort.
The multilink rear suspension now features ball joints instead of bushes to accommodate the ReAxs system, which allows slight deflection of the rear wheels to the opposite direction of steering input, thereby quelling understeer.
Dynamic handling safety is further bolstered by the usual list of engineering acronyms including the Electronic Stability Programme (ESP), Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), Cornering Brake Control (CBC), and Traction Control System (TCS).
Passive safety is well catered for too with driver and front passenger side and front airbags, as well as curtain airbags for all occupants on the sedan and SportCombi. The convertible features the Saab 'DynaCage' pop-up roll-bar protection.
Engines are carried over from the previous 9-3 range, and feature a two-litre, four cylinder turbo in three states of tune, a 2.8-litre, V6 twin-turbo and the obligatory common-rail injected 1.9-litre turbodiesel.
The sedan versions feature the 1.9-litre turbodiesel, producing 110kW and 320Nm driving through a six-speed manual gearbox only, as well as 110- and 154kW versions of the 2-litre turbo engine, driving through a five-speed manual and five-speed automatic gearbox respectively in the 2.0 LPT linear and 2.0 TS Vector models.
An 184kW twin-turbo 2.8-litre V6 tops off both the sedan range in Aero guise as well as the open topped version, channelling 350Nm of torque through a six-speed autobox only.
The SportCombi estate and entry level convertible are both powered by a 129kW version of the two-litre turbomotor which produces 265Nm of torque too and powers through a five-speed autobox SportCombi guise, whilst the convertible has the option of five-speed manual too.
On the road the strong long-distance cruising attributes of the Saab range become abundantly clear. The engines might not appear overly enthusiastic in power comparisons, but matched to slick shifting, responsive gearboxes - especially the automatics - overtaking performance is strong and effortless, even from the middle-rung 2-litre turbo models.
The range topping 2.8-litre turbocharged Aero sedan tracks solidly at speed and although the steering wheel is hardly a tactile delight with its thin rim, hustling the four-door at speed across the Kromdraai roads outside Johannesburg saw no obvious handling foibles. It's a comfortable high-speed cruiser with unflustered overtaking capability and high refinement levels.
Pick of the range is probably the SportCombi station wagon, which blends keen performance with capacious practicality, swallowing 419-litres worth of luggage with a full complement of passengers, and 1273-litres with the seats folded.
Sophisticated, safe choice
Styled to represent something out of the ordinary in the mid-sized sedan and wagon, the new Saab 9-3 has a lot going for it. The range of engines are perfectly suited to long-distance driving, providing smooth, effortless overtaking power throughout the range and showing off the legendary Saab turbo-plumbing know how.
The cabins are distinctive, although a bit dark and with some indifferent plastics, yet interior architecture and appointments are cosseting enough for long-distance journeys.
With characteristically comprehensive Swedish safety equipment levels coupled to keen pricing the new 9-3 should sell well beyond its perceived South African market presence as a niche brand.
Saab 9-3 2.0 LPT Linear Sedan R 227 500
Saab 9-3 1.9 TiD Linear Sedan R 252 500
Saab 9-3 2.0 TS Vector Sedan A/T R 296 300
Saab 9-3 2.8 V6 Aero A/T R 360 500
Saab 9-3 2.0 T Linear SportCombi A/T R 262 500
Saab 9-3 2.0 T Linear Convertible R 406 500
Saab 9-3 2.0 T Linear Convertible A/T R 420 000
Saab 9-3 2.8 V6 Aero Convertible A/T R 460 000