What is it?
Saab's 9-3, freshly revised for 2011. The current 9-3 has been around for so long that you can hardly call these 'mid-life' revisions. Next year will be the smallest Saab's ninth in the showroom.
The focus for this refresh has been on reducing CO2 emissions and increasing standard specification, and in the former respect, the 9-3 diesels have made the biggest gain. On average, they emit 12 per cent less carbon than before thanks to an updated ECU, an on-demand alternator, electro-hydraulic power steering, low rolling resistance tyres and lighter materials.
Perhaps most importantly, every 9-3 diesel is now a 'TTiD' twin turbo, and all 9-3s get Bluetooth 'phone connectivity, heated front seats and a shift indicator as standard.
What's it like?
Initial impressions of our range-topping 178bhp TTiD Aero Sportwagon test car aren't great: from cold, its engine seems poorly insulated, causing nasty resonant cabin vibrations in a car with fewer than 1500 recorded miles. It calms down a little once warm, proving responsive and providing just enough mid-range thrust to make for athletic performance. But it's still not an engine with the flexibility of BMW's excellent twin-turbo diesel from the 123d.
'Aero' trim adds sports suspension and bigger brakes to our 9-3 but, on optional 18in wheels, the car is far from perfect on the road.
Although well-bushed, its ride feels abrupt and a little wooden over larger bumps, and although the car has decent body control, its steering seems strangely unresponsive. It's also marred by torquesteer at times and lacks feedback.
Truth is, the whole car seems to speak of a somewhat anti-sporting philosophy. You sit quite high in the 9-3 and close to the pedals, rather than low and snug. The driving position is comfortable and gives you good visibility, but it lacks support and certainly doesn't feel 'sporty'.
Steering is particularly slow around the straight ahead, clearly configured with directional stability rather than agility in mind. The chassis keeps the 9-3's body flat, but it's also strangely unyielding. All in all, the car drives as if 'enjoyment' was absolutely the last thing it was set up to deliver.
Should I buy one?
On this evidence, the 9-3 Aero falls a long way short of the standards set by good sporting compact executive oil-burners. It remains relatively unaccomodating (amongst rivals that have grown quite a lot over the last decade, admittedly) and its straight line performance comes at quite a price when you consider its uncommunicative steering and strangely unengaging handling.
The cheaper, softer-sprung TTiD Vector Sport saloon, however, may be more appealing: for fleet drivers, no other car in the class combines 178bhp with sub-120g/km emissions. In that respect at least, if you're looking for a compact company four-door that won't do much damage to your P11D, and offers a little more performance and style than the average repmobile, that 9-3 may well be worth further investigation.
Saab 9-3 1.9 TTiD Sport Wagon
Price: £28,864; Top speed: 140mph; 0-62mph: 8.3sec; Economy: 55.4mpg; Co2: 135g/km; Kerbweight: 1690kg; Engine type: 4cyls in line, 1910cc, twin-turbo diesel; Power: 178bhp at 4000rpm; Torque: 295lb ft at 1800rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd manual