One of the hottest stars of the Geneva Motor Show received a surprisingly frosty reception - but then it was minus 10 degrees Celsius outside! Auto Express was granted exclusive access to Saab's new 9-3 Sport Wagon two days before the world's press saw it for the first time on the stands.
The 9-3 Sport Wagon is a convincing package. An attractive addition to the lifestyle estate market, it will give Audi and Volvo sleepless nights. With a wide engine range and expected keen pricing, Saab's first foray into this class looks promising. A well designed boot and elegant rear end should help ensure the UK is the second biggest market for this car after Sweden.
One of the hottest stars of the Geneva Motor Show received a surprisingly frosty reception - but then it was minus 10 degrees Celsius outside! Auto Express was granted exclusive access to Saab's new 9-3 Sport Wagon two days before the world's press saw it for the first time on the stands. The catch was we had to travel to a secret location in the French Alps to get behind the wheel for this preview of Saab's latest load-lugger.
The car is expected to account for 40 per cent of 9-3 sales, with Saab hoping it will push its compact executive challenger through the 100,000 barrier worldwide next year. Many buyers will be tempted by the looks alone. Using General Motors' Epsilon platform, the Sport Wagon shares the same wheelbase as the 9-3 saloon, but has a longer rear overhang for extra boot space.
It is all-new from the B-pillars back, though, with a distinctive window line and unique, bold tail-light styling. Simon Padian, Saab head of project design, admitted that during market research customer clinics not everyone had liked the white LEDs, but said: "We wanted to do something that would cause a stir." The rear certainly achieves that, while the estate previews other 2005 model-year changes for the range, including body-coloured door handles.
Open the tailgate, and the first thing that impresses you is not the space on offer, but what appears to be a flat metal plane in the middle of the floor. Designed to reflect Saab's aeronautical expertise, this is a handle to access the 20-litre underfloor load area. Boot capacity is good, but not class-leading; fold the seats and the 419-litre bay expands to 1,273 litres, putting the 9-3 on a par with the Audi A4 Avant (442/1,184 litres) and Volvo V50 (362/1,257 litres).
Further forward, things remain much the same, but the reshaped back doors and higher roofline give passengers easier access and more space, while cabin detail changes aim to boost quality.
However, the Aero we sampled has another ace up its sleeve - an all-new 2.8-litre V6 turbo engine. To be offered in all flagship 9-3s, this potent unit delivers 250bhp and 350Nm of torque.
Yet while Saab engineers are known to be keen to develop a 4WD system, the Sport Wagon is front-wheel-drive only for now. Low-speed traction has never been a Saab strength, but technicians claim to have revised the front suspension to cope with the power. Once up and running, though, the firm's turbocharging expertise means searing mid-range acceleration is guaranteed. The 7.3-second 0-60mph sprint time may be unremarkable, but in-gear the Aero is likely to better the A4 Avant 3.2.
Will it be as good to drive, though? Our time with the Sport Wagon was too brief to give a definite answer, so a final verdict will have to wait until the May launch. However, first impressions suggest this car is better balanced than the saloon, thanks to Saab's recent work on refinement and damping. What is certain is that buyers will have a lot of choice, with six petrol and two diesel models, plus an optional six-ratio auto (with steering wheel-mounted shifters) in place of the slick manual gearbox.