Saab already makes a diesel 9-3, but now it makes a better diesel. A much better diesel. Saab will provide the oil-burner in question, Fiat’s excellent 1.9 JTD unit, in 120 (8v) and 150bhp (16v) forms. It comes with a six-speed manual and, for the 150bhp, the option of a six-speed auto gearbox– a fresh combination in this class. Not only is this second-generation common-rail diesel more civilised, less thirsty and cleaner than the outgoing Vauxhall direct-injection 2.2, but the 150bhp version is both quicker and more attractive for company car drivers. Helped by low CO2 emissions of just 157g/km, the 120bhp version attracts the same low level of benefit-in-kind tax as the class-leading BMW 320d, while the higher powered unit emits a very competitive 169g/km. So, from having one of the least-competitive diesels in the class, Saab now has one of the most competitive. The Fiat engine is little changed when going Swedish, but it’s tuned to deliver sharper throttle response – a Saab turbo tradition. In the 150bhp version we tried, you can stand on the throttle at 1800rpm and, after the briefest of pauses, the 9-3 gathers useful momentum. Do the same thing in the lower gears and it accelerates with satisfying zest, rapidly convincing you of its credentials as a long-haul device. The manual gearbox is easily manipulated, while the additional weight of the engine does little to spoil the 9-3’s tidy handling, which resists understeer well and handles difficult surfaces with aplomb. There’s no mistaking that an oil-burner lies ahead, but noise isn’t particularly penetrating, and Saab says that it will add more sound-proofing for production models. The six-speed auto makes a smooth drive smoother, even if its shifts aren’t always seamless, and its inevitable habit of drifting along in sixth takes some of the edge off that keen throttle response. You can select gears with paddles, though downshifts are often lumpy in this mode. For 2005, the 9-3 is also available with voice-activated controls and, much needed this, a CD player that’s easier to load. Saab has high hopes for these new 9-3s, and justifiably so – they work financially and they work on the road.