‘This car is our answer to customers’ mid-size premium wagon questions.’ So said Michael Mauer, then design boss of Saab, when he introduced the 9-3 Sport-Hatch at the 2004 Geneva show. If Saab is to build on its 39 per cent UK market growth last year then it desperately needs an estate version of the successful 9-3.
But those customers have had a long wait. Mauer has moved on to Porsche, and the market into which the Saab, now badged SportWagon (or SportCombi in Sweden), arrives has become a lot tougher with the arrival of the facelifted Audi A4 Avant and the new BMW 3-series Touring. Yet Saab is confident about the estate’s chances, expecting it to become the firm’s biggest seller in the UK.
A large part of that confidence stems from the SportWagon’s styling, which remains largely unchanged from the concept car down to the ‘ice-block’ taillights that evoke the marque’s chilly Scandinavian homeland. It’s distinctively a Saab, with short overhangs, a wedgy profile and a fastback-style slanting tailgate. There’s a real dynamism to the shape that’s missing from the saloon and even the flagship cabrio.
The model line up apes that of the £1000 cheaper four-door, with six turbocharged power units – two of them diesels – and a normally aspirated entry-level 1.8. Most exciting news for many – unlike other premium brands, Saab’s volume comes from the upper echelons of its ranges – will be the new, all-aluminium 247bhp V6 turbo, shared with the Vectra VXR and forthcoming Caddy BLS. But like the saloon, the biggest-selling estate variant is expected to be this 1.9TiD 150 Vector Sport. With 148bhp (a 118bhp 8v version is also available) the 1910cc Fiat-derived common-rail turbodiesel is among the class leaders for power, but its 236lb ft of torque is some way off that of Jaguar’s new 2.2 (266lb ft).
Saab is keen to push the SportWagon as a car that’s sporty and fun to drive, and this diesel’s rev-happy nature reinforces that impression. Around town it’s easy to get caught off-boost, but stir the six-speed gearbox – a happier task now thanks to a much-improved cable linkage - and past 1800rpm it’s powerful and flexible up to the 4500rpm redline. It’s refined too, what little diesel grumble there is gets swallowed up by the Saab’s sound deadening far more effectively than in this engine’s Vectra/Astra applications.
The impression of refinement is further reinforced by a spell on the motorway. At speed this Saab feels exceptionally stable, its fuselage-style shape producing little wind roar. Front and rear subframes do an effective job of isolating suspension noise from the cabin, though with the luggage cover furled there is some tyre roar from the back.
But Saab wants the Sportwagon to appeal away from the motorway, too. A pair of ‘structural rings’ built into the roof and floor mean the estate loses just 6.6 per cent of the saloon’s torsional rigidity, and it’s underpinned by the same MacPherson strut front and four-link rear suspension setup. Our test car avoided the £250 sports suspension upgrade, which is no bad thing: it absorbed large bumps comfortably and though broken surfaces do cause it to fidget at low speeds the expected crashing through the 17in alloys doesn’t come.
And it’s still a decent steer. Body control is good and the light electro-hydraulic steering, though devoid of any feel and therefore not the most involving rack around, is fluid and accurate. Through tighter corners the 225mm front tyres squeal an early protest, but ease back on the throttle and you can feel the ReAxs passive rear wheel steering working with you to tighten the Saab’s line.
The sports seats are comfortable and supportive, and you won’t have to worry too much about flinging your cargo around, because the SportWagon’s short rear overhang – and the resulting snug 419-litre boot – ensures that larger loads will be a tight fit. But this is still a practical estate car. The compact rear suspension produces a boot that is usefully wide and flat, and the low sill makes it easy to load. There’s the usual under-floor compartment and 12v power socket, with some neat detailing such as a bottle store, ski hatch and an extra runner for the luggage cover so it can slide up for easy loading. The rear seats will accommodate a couple of decent-sized adults in comfort, and they split 60:40 and fold flat for larger loads. Go for a lowlier model (without sports seats) and you can specify a fold-down front seat, too.
‘We should not hide, we need to tell people ‘I am a Saab’, not ‘I would like to be a Saab’,’ Mauer explained. This car screams Saab, both in its style and its character, which is no bad thing as long as you find its quirky charms appealing. The SportWagon won’t immediately grab you with its dynamics, like a 320d Touring, or wow you with Audi-style cabin quality, but the appeal of its comfort, high-speed stability and refinement should be enough to tempt those looking for a stylish alternative to the German norm.