Yes, yes, I know: a first drive of a car that has been around for longer than some of the showrooms from which it is sold. But despite being in its ninth year, the 9-3 has been given some minor, but worthwhile, tweaks.
From a shopper or fleet manager’s perspective, significant among the changes is that the range has been simplified. There’s no more Turbo Edition/Vector Sport/Linear SE and the like; now there’s just SE and Aero, which is far more straightforward.
On SE models, such as our test car, come a new design of alloy wheel and new ‘ice block’ headlight treatment, grille and bumpers. Plus it now says ‘Saab’ instead of having the Griffin badge at the back. Not a lot, then.
Inside, there are some changes to seats and trim, plus some additional equipment for the £24,120 you’ll pay for this model. Which, given that it delivers 158bhp and still, to my eyes, looks fairly classy, leaves the Saab appearing conspicuously good value next to, say, a similarly powered Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series.
The question is, of course, whether the 9-3 can still cut any mustard on the road. And let’s be honest, regardless of how many tweaks it gets on the way, nine years is a long time for a car to be on sale in this business. In the compact executive segment, in fact, it’s virtually unheard of.
But, as I settle down into it – on a driving seat that proved too high and too close to the dashboard for several of our testers – I think it’s not all bad. The quality of construction and materials is okay, although the green-on-green displays are looking a bit tired and pixelated. Things have moved on here in quite a big way.
The engine – a twin-turbocharged, 1910cc diesel – spins into life with a bit of a clatter. It’s not Vauxhall Insignia loud, but most diesels from a couple of classes below comfortably leave it behind.
Still, the gearshift is positive enough and all the pedal weights are progressive and natural. The steering is light, too, and the 9-3 is an easy car to get along with in that respect – quite Swedish. While some German car makers like you to feel the engineering and weight behind the controls and load them with heft, the 9-3 strokes along very easily.
Less relaxing is some turbo lag and high gearing. At least it means this 9-3 returns a quite creditable 119g/km of CO2, which makes it a compelling draw alongside some of competitors in the 130-140g/km bracket. But at anything under 2000rpm the 9-3’s motor is unresponsive, and because it’s geared generously for good cruising economy and low noise levels, you’ll often find yourself dipping a gear lower than you’d like. Even on a motorway I found myself dropping down to fifth if the traffic slowed at all. Typical third-gear roundabout exits call for second.