On The Road

The Saab 9-3 SportWagon is no sports car, but there's a dynamic flourish to its lines

by Richard Bremner
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Inside the boot of every new Saab 9-3 SportWagon is a small plane.

Okay, it's only a small chrome-plated model of a jet that doubles as a pull-handle for the boot floor, but it's a pleasing detail symbolising the link between Saab the car-maker and Saab the plane-maker.

The two were once one and the same, but no longer - Saab the plane-maker is independent. Saab the car-maker is a part of General Motors - and this new version of the 9-3 has as much in common with an aircraft as a toaster does with nuclear fission. But GM, struggling for a platform from which to sell this once eccentric marque, is majoring on the aeronautical link.

Saab used to be highly influenced by aircraft design, but today the company is driven by a need to be considered equal to Audi and BMW rather than by the urge to bring aircraft technology to your driveway. Never mind - Saab sales in Britain are climbing, thanks to sharper marketing and the steady improvement of the 9-3, until recently a wallflower rival to the ubiquitous BMW 3 Series. A light makeover has lifted cabin quality and extended the range with an estate, ambitiously labelled SportWagon.

Of course, it's no sports car, but there's a dynamic flourish to its lines, and all but one of the seven engines available is turbocharged. The version we sample here, the 1.9 TiD 150, is expected to be the best-seller, its low-emission, low-consumption diesel diet appealing to company car drivers.

Saab has long offered cars with tailgates. The SportWagon is a decidedly more elegant carry-all, whose most striking feature is a pair of lamp clusters at the rear end resembling blocks of ice. But this car is pretty conventional, apart from an ignition slot located behind the gearlever - an old Saab tradition - and a handbrake disguised as part of the central console.

You'll need some concentration to make best use of the slick-shifting six-speed gearbox, especially as the turbocharged engine languishes at low revs. But this car is pacey enough for most needs, and a relaxing, stable motorway cruiser. The ride can turn choppy at times, but comfortable seats and a quiet aura compensate for that, as does the attractively styled cabin.

The 9-3 is deft through corners - which is just as well, as the SportWagon isn't the most practical of estates. The rear seat is generous for two but confined for three, and there's less boot room than you'll find aboard a BMW 3 Series Touring or a Jaguar X-Type estate. The back seats don't fold fully flat either. But for all that, this is a quietly charming, practical car, and one that's good to look at, too.

No, it's not going to have you dreaming that you're accelerating into a jet-propelled take-off, but it's an appealing car for all that, and a welcome alternative for those bored by the obvious BMW/Audi/Mercedes rivals.

SPECIFICATION

Price £23,980 (Saab 9-3 SportWagon 1.9 TiD)

Max power 148 bhp

Max torque 236 lb ft

Max speed 124 mph

0-62 mph 9.7 sec

Fuel consumption 47.9 mpg

CO2 emissions 164 g/km

RIVALS

Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDi £22,840

More spacious and has a better-crafted cabin, but not as brisk.

BMW 320d ES Touring £24,875

A slightly better drive and has a bigger boot, but more expensive and not as good-looking.

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