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