When I read, in a sister publication, that Saab was testing an in-car warning system that can detect the onset of drownsiness or inattention in drivers and advise them to stop for a rest, I thought the idea preposterous. Saabs are so dull that such a device, which works by focusing infra-red cameras on the driver's eyes, would be going off all the time. Just walking past one has been known to send people into a coma.
But two things have since changed my mind. First, I've been informed that MT's editor drives a Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget and, designer shirts apart, his taste is impeccable in most respects. Second, I spent a week driving the diesel-powered Saab 9-3 SportWagon and was impressed. Which is not to say the model is a thrill. The steering is not as responsive as in its Mercedes equivalent, the ride and suspension are not as rewarding as they are in the comparable BMW, and the diesel engine is much noisier than in the Audi A4 estate I hired over Christmas. The performance of the model I sampled was lethargic - I've driven faster vans. To attach the adjective 'sport' to it is misleading.
But the Saab is much cheaper than its German rivals, making such shortfalls tolerable. Moreover, it looks better than all the competition. The press pack talks about a 'sporty stance', a 'moving when stationary' look, and a 'wedge-like profile' with a 'rising beltline culminating in that distinctive hockey-stick curve into the C or D-pillar'. But it's easier to just say that the redesigned 9-3 - in estate form, at least - looks properly mean.
And things aren't bad on the other side of the glass. The gadgets are a mixed bag. The parking sensor is bizarre. It emits a warning tone that sounds like a kid on a xylophone and seems to have just two modes: 'There's loads of space' and 'You've crashed into your boss's Mercedes.' But the touch-screen satnav system - a £1,980 extra - was the most intuitive I've ever used.
Some nastier Saab design quirks, such as painted plastic, have gone, and cooler things, such as an ignition on the transmission tunnel and a slab-flat fascia panel, have been retained. Meanwhile, the large and sturdy cabin will deal with anything you want to hurl at it - which in my case included, at various times, a mountain bike, a month's groceries and a table from Ikea. If this is an attempt by Saab to offer a pretty and affordable alternative to German diesel estates, it's persuasive.
I'LL TAKE ONE ...
Relatively low price tag.
Cheap to run.
THANKS BUT NO THANKS ...
Not a refined drive.
Not a refined cabin.
Saab 9-3 SportWagon Vector Sport: £25,080
Engine: 1.9 TiD
Power: 150 hp at 4,000 rpm
Torque: 320 Nm at 2,000 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel: 42.2 mpg (combined cycle)
CO2: 179 g/km
0-60 mph: 10.7 sec
Top speed: 121 mph