Saab 9-3X

Two-wheel-drive diesel has rugged looks without 4WD costs

If Subaru ranks as an established player in the crossover sector, Saab is more of a novice. The 9-3X hit UK showrooms this summer and is based on the 9-3 Sport Wagon.

While the flagship petrol car has all-wheel drive and 35mm raised suspension, the TTiD diesel model sends power to the front wheels and rides only 20mm higher than the regular Saab estate.

Faux underbody protection in the form of aluminium-effect panels and a set of plastic wheelarch extensions add a degree of off-road ruggedness, but you really need to pick a contrasting body colour to make the most of them. Otherwise, the sleek Saab simply looks like a regular estate.

Inside, the car’s 9-3 roots are clear. The flat facia, trademark air vents and centrally positioned ignition switch will be familiar to fans of the Swedish brand – as will the high-set driving position. You get plenty of kit, including heated front seats, part-leather upholstery and cruise control. Yet our test car’s electrically adjustable seats add £539 and you have to pay an extra £49 for a  third rear head restraint – both of which come as standard on the Subaru.

The Saab also trails on space, particularly in the back seats, which tall adults will find cramped. Its boot is at a disadvantage, too, although the lifting floor doubles as a handy divider to help prevent small items from sliding around when on the move.

But while it’s behind for practicality, the Saab leads the way in terms of performance. Its 1.9-litre oil-burner features two turbos – a small one that comes in at low revs to boost responses, and a larger unit for delivering serious mid-range punch.

On the road, the result is a rush of torque at around 1,800rpm that lasts all the way through to the red line. This car feels truly quick on country roads, accelerating from 30-70mph more than a second faster than the Subaru. This lively character isn’t without its problems, though.

Because the Saab is two-wheel drive only, torque steer can be a problem, especially in the wet, as the front tyres scrabble for grip.

The gruff powerplant is refined at cruising speeds, and the supple suspension absorbs imperfections more smoothly than the Subaru’s. There’s less body roll when travelling through tight bends, too.

However, the six-speed manual gearbox lacks precision and there’s too much play in the steering around the straight-ahead position. Under hard cornering, a lot of effort is required to turn the wheel.

If you want to go off-road, the Saab isn’t really an option. For anyone planning to tow a caravan or head across unmade tracks and grassy fields, the Subaru makes more sense. The 9-3X provides minimal extra ground clearance over the Sport Wagon, and the lack of all-wheel drive doesn’t inspire confidence in muddy conditions.

The Saab is the cheaper choice. But will this help buyers overlook its limited versatility and higher fuel bills?

Details

Chart position: 2WHY: Saab is new to the sector, and its diesel-engined 9-3X is cheaper and more powerful than the Outback.

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