Saab 9-3

Restyled rather than all-new, the Saab 9-3 is still a good option if you want something different.

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

Restyled rather than all-new, the 9-3 still offers buyers something a little different. The raft of subtle changes have given it a more modern and sporty appearance, and the interior is less fussy than before. The car retains its good standard of comfort and refinement, and the new 178bhp 1.9-litre twin-turbo diesel engine is a gem, with lots of mid-range punch. Yet while the Saab is competent, it’s not as focused as BMW’s 3-Series, while cabin quality is no match for German class leaders, either.

If you’re thinking the ‘new’ Saab 9-3 looks incredibly similar to its predecessor, you are not alone. The firm says it has made more than 2,000 changes to its top seller, but unless you’re a real Saab fan, you’ll be hard-pressed to notice all of them.

True, many of the revisions have taken place under the skin. However, this is more akin to a mid-life nip and tuck than a brand new model. The fresh looks are inspired by the Aero X show model, and are adopted on all 9-3s, including the SportWagon and convertible variants.

The biggest changes come at the front, where a clamshell bonnet sits above new headlamp lenses, with a distinctive eyebrow light across the top of the main lamp. There are reshaped bumpers all-round, and the smarter styling continues with clear light clusters at the back. To give a cleaner look, Saab has also removed all rubbing strips, although we’re a little disappointed by the new door handles, which come from Vauxhall.

Last year saw the introduction of a revised interior, and this has been carried over to the latest model. As a result, it’s not as button-heavy as in previous versions. However, quality isn’t up to the standard of class-leading rivals, and some of the switchgear feels a little dated.

But the real talking point of the fresh 9-3 is the arrival of a twin-turbo diesel engine. The unit, badged TTiD, uses one small turbocharger and one large one to minimise lag and pro­vide instant throttle response. And with 400Nm of torque available from as low as 1,750rpm, it’s certainly rapid off the line, while in-gear performance is equally impressive.

The 1.9-litre powerplant is fairly smooth, although it can get a little raucous when pushed hard. And, due to its better reactions, we prefer the manual gearbox to the optional six-speed automatic transmission.

Saab has streamlined the model line-up from seven to four trims – Airflow, Linear SE, Vector Sport and Aero. The 178bhp diesel engine is currently available only in the range-topping Aero spec, alongside 2.0T and 2.8 V6 petrol units. But buyers do get a twin sports exhaust, uprated brakes and a sportier chassis set-up.

The flagship variant certainly looks the part. For all Saab’s talk of driver appeal, though, it lacks the sparkle of rivals from BMW and Audi. Body control could be better, and the steering is short on feel. To its credit, however, the chassis copes well with feeding all that torque through the front wheels. The ride is supple and overall, this is a relaxing, if somewhat uninspiring, car to drive.

And that sums up the 9-3. Safety remains a strong point and the new looks are an improvement. It’s competent but, aside from the new TTiD engine, there’s little to make it stand out in such a competitive arena.

RIVAL: Alfa 159 1.9 JTDM The 159 is an attractive car and, as with the Saab, a good alternative to German rivals. Its smooth engine isn’t as powerful as the 9-3’s, yet puts in a decent performance. The Alfa is cheaper than the Saab, too.

Most Popular

Driving test update to preserve the manual gearbox
Dacia Duster gear lever
News

Driving test update to preserve the manual gearbox

With more drivers learning in autos and electric cars, the DVSA is looking to update the driving test so people can still drive manuals in future
16 Jun 2021
Ineos Grenadier prototype 2022 review
Ineos Grenadier prototype
Ineos Grenadier 4x4

Ineos Grenadier prototype 2022 review

Can the Ineos Grenadier really fill the mud-splattered void left by the old Land Rover Defender? We take a first drive in a prototype to find out...
15 Jun 2021
New 2021 Vauxhall Astra to offer plug-in hybrid power
Vauxhall Astra render
Vauxhall Astra

New 2021 Vauxhall Astra to offer plug-in hybrid power

The new Vauxhall Astra will get a plug-in hybrid powertrain and a more premium image - here’s how it could look
17 Jun 2021
Tesla Model 3 police car all set for evaluation by UK emergency services
Tesla Model 3 police car - front
News

Tesla Model 3 police car all set for evaluation by UK emergency services

Tesla hopes to offer UK police forces a new zero-emission emergency responder option with the Model 3 police car
17 Jun 2021
Illegal car modification hotspots revealed
Volkswagen Polo exhaust
News

Illegal car modification hotspots revealed

Gloucestershire has the highest proportion of illegal car modifications, with altered number plates the most common breach
14 Jun 2021
New Renault Arkana 2021 review
Renault Arkana - front
Renault Arkana

New Renault Arkana 2021 review

Does an eye-catching coupe-SUV body give the new Renault Arkana the edge over other mid-size SUVs? We find out...
16 Jun 2021
New Vauxhall Astra prototype review
Vauxhall Astra prototype - front
Vauxhall Astra

New Vauxhall Astra prototype review

A new Vauxhall Astra is on the way and we've driven a prototype ahead of its official arrival
14 Jun 2021
UN report highlights ethical problems with electric cars
Electric car charging
News

UN report highlights ethical problems with electric cars

Analysis reveals lithium refining takes 65 per cent of Chilean region’s water, while 40,000 child miners dig for cobalt in DRC
14 Jun 2021
New Nissan Qashqai 2021 review
Nissan Qashqai 2021
Nissan Qashqai

New Nissan Qashqai 2021 review

We get behind the wheel of the larger, more comfortable and higher-tech Nissan Qashqai SUV in the UK
16 Jun 2021
New Porsche 911 GT3 Touring tones down the styling
Porsche 911 GT3 Touring - front
Porsche 911

New Porsche 911 GT3 Touring tones down the styling

The optional Touring package aims to bring a few creature comforts to the track-focused Porsche 911 GT3
15 Jun 2021
Dacia unveils new badge design
Dacia badge
Dacia

Dacia unveils new badge design

The new Dacia branding will feature on the company’s cars from 2022, with the Bigster being the first candidate
17 Jun 2021
'I was cynical about Hyundai's aim to be the world's 2nd biggest carmaker, not now'
Opinion Genesis Hyundai Ioniq
Opinion

'I was cynical about Hyundai's aim to be the world's 2nd biggest carmaker, not now'

Steve Fowler is impressed by Hyundai's electric cars, its N division and now its luxury Genesis brand
16 Jun 2021
New SsangYong Korando e-Motion breaks cover with electric power
SsangYong Korando EV
Electric cars

New SsangYong Korando e-Motion breaks cover with electric power

The new SsangYong Korando compact electric SUV will be on sale later in 2021, says the financially stricken South Korean manufacturer
15 Jun 2021
Motorists think they can get away with driving offences due to lack of road police
police speed gun
News

Motorists think they can get away with driving offences due to lack of road police

Lack of road traffic police officers in the UK is making it easy for drivers to break the law, according to a survey of 15,500 British motorists
16 Jun 2021