REVIEW DATE: 05 Oct 2010
In the fast-moving world of the modern automotive marketplace, the manufacturer that stands still is quickly reduced to a speck on the horizon. Saab hopes its improved 180bhp TTiD engine can help its latest 9-3 keep pace with the compact executive elite. Steve Walker reports.
The smooth, fast and economical 180bhp TTiD twin-turbo diesel engine could be the best powerplant in the Saab 9-3 line-up. The car has been around for some time but it's still a relevant compact executive saloon, even if it must rely on value for money and the fact that it isn't German for most of its sales successes. It's very comfortable and relaxing motorway car that can still raise a smile on twisty roads.
Saab has long prided itself on the leftfield appeal of its vehicles, happy to operate on the margins as a sanctuary for freethinking individuals determined not to follow the crowd and buy German. Spooky reliability and dashboards modelled on your sideboard stood them in good stead for a long time but more recently, big horsepower figures and sharky styling have been relied upon to draw the customers in. The 9-3 TTiD 180bhp model covered here is a variation on this theme, blessed with a twin-turbocharged diesel powerplant and a front end that's more aggressive than a basket of honey badgers.
180bhp is a useful amount to squeeze from a 1.9-litre diesel engine. Getting big power from a comparatively small capacity engine has helped Saab retain a strong fuel economy showing and keep weight down. This is weight over the front axel too, right where it could have highlighted the shortcomings of a powerful front-wheel-drive car in a market populated by rear-wheel-drive rivals. Where the Germans tend to employ six-cylinder diesels in order to achieve power of the TTiD's magnitude, the top 1.9TTiD looks a sensible solution for the 9-3, that enticing horsepower figure only overshadowed by the highly muscular 400Nm torque rating.
Powerful Saab models of the past often had trouble deploying their hefty bhp outputs effectively. As the turbocharger got into its stride and the wave of torque hit, the front wheels would struggle for grip and violent torque steer would often ensue. Today's front-wheel-drive 9-3 models effectively overcome these problems with a carefully-honed chassis achieving superior grip and the smooth power delivery of the TTiD unit.
"180bhp is a useful amount to squeeze from a 1.9-litre diesel engine."
The engine uses a pair of turbochgargers working in sequence. A smaller blower spools up quickly to boost pulling power at low revs while the big hitter comes on stream once the engine's into its stride. It means that turbo lag - that pregnant pause between throttle input and the power coming on stream - is effectively reduced. It all helps make this 9-3 TTiD an amiable companion for everyday driving. The committed enthusiast will probably always plump for a rear-wheel-drive alternative but the Saab's composure and comfort on the motorway, coupled with its power and well-judged handling, give it a good balance for many drivers.
The latest improved 9-3 inherited its dramatic frontal styling from the Aero X concept car that caused quite a stir at the 2006 Geneva motorshow. It's definitely not short of aggression and the 9-3's malevolent front end seems sure to have the desired effect on outside lane dawdlers when it looms up in their rear view mirrors. The extensive use of chrome to trim the grille and the bumper recesses that house the fog lights on plusher derivatives may not be to everyone's taste, especially those who favoured Saab products because they were notably less ostentatious that the German alternatives. The smoked glass tail lights must also have a question mark over them, especially on the SportWagon estate bodystyle. For some they will smack too readily of the aftermarket equivalents often seen fitted to souped-up Citroen Saxos and Vauxhall Corsas.
Unlike many vehicles that campaign in this class, the SportWagon estate version offers some serious carrying capacity. There's 419 litres available with the rear seats in place and a whopping 1,273 litres of space available with the seats folded down. The recessed sub floor allows valuables to be stowed out of the view of prying eyes and can also be used to store wet or dirty gear without muddying everything else up. Despite its sporting looks, the rear hatch is actually fairly steeply raked, allowing for additional carrying capacity. This is where rivals such as the Alfa 159 Sportwagon and BMW's 3-Series Touring fall down, favouring style over practicality. Saab aims to offer both.
The 9-3 has been campaigning since 2002 and it's no longer feeling as fresh as it once did in comparison to the big guns in the compact executive sector. The interior is not without its merits, however, with excellent seats that give a comfortable driving position and simple controls that will come as a pleasant change to drivers baffled by the complexity of the latest compact executive crop. The plastics are reasonable in terms of quality but there's rather too much of them with the ambiance inside the 9-3 missing the class of a 3 Series, A4 or C-Class.
With a convertible, a saloon and a SportWagon estate, the 9-3 covers a fair bit of ground, which is crucially important for Saab, a company that has only two main product families. Saab are only asking a premium of around £500 over the 160bhp model but even, pricing in the £23,000-£28,000 bracket puts this car directly up against some very stiff competition. Which is why this car's low running costs are so important.
The 9-3 TTiD 180bhp gives great fuel economy returns for such a powerful compact executive saloon. The official combined cycle figure of 62.8mpg will appeal to company car users as will the 119g/km CO2 emissions. Residual values aren't as strong as those of the German alternatives but the TTiD diesel should perform noticeably better than some of the other engine options, particularly in SportWagon estate form.
The Saab 9-3's 180bhp 1.9-litre TTiD is a smooth, refined powerplant that enhances the car's already admirable long distance cruising abilities while also giving diesel buyers the option of some serious pace. The 9-3 is showing its age in some key areas when compared to its longstanding German adversaries but the refreshed styling and the car's core strengths mean it still has something to offer.
Average fuel economy of nearly 63mpg and an 8-second 0-60mph sprint are not to be sniffed at even in the ultra-competitive compact executive sector. Overall, then, there's a lot to like about the car, especially as a hardworking motorway tool, and the addition of Saab's XWD 4x4 system could really up the fun factor.
|For 9-3 TTiD|
|OVERALL||7.5 OUT OF 10|
|Space / Versatility||8|