Minor tweaks both simplify and improve the 9-3. Likeable, but lagging behind

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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.

Saab needs a replacement, but in the meantime, the 9-3 continues, off the pace but not totally out of contention

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.

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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.

Despite that, the 9-3 isn’t unpleasant to drive. The alloys are stylish and leave their tyres wearing a 45 profile, which is almost generous these days, so the town ride is compliant.

Motorway ride and stability are also good and wind noise is low, while the steering remains light but reassuring around the straight-ahead.

That compliance means the 9-3, despite the SportWagon title, isn’t going to drive around the outside of too many other estate cars. It’s not a particularly engaging steer, so there’s not much to be gained by driving enthusiastically. But you know what? I think that’s okay.

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I warmed to the 9-3 far more than I expected to. It feels compact and straightforward, slightly out of its time but pleasant to be around and not unlike a Seat Exeo in some respects: smaller than the newest cars, but no worse for it.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Saab 9-3 2002-2011 First drives