What is it?
This is the new Saab 9-3X, which constitutes not much less than a new lease of life for Saab’s ageing compact competitor. Only available with an estate body but with either a 180bhp 1.9-litre diesel or this, a 210bhp, 2.0-litre petrol motor, the Saab 9-3X will enter the market this summer at the same time as the new Audi A4 Allroad to make a new class of compact soft-roader.
Lack of development money precludes changes to the metal on the Saab 9-3X, but the new bumpers, side sills, wheel arch covers and round tail pipes are surprisingly successful at giving the 9-3X an identity of its own.
In technical terms the Saab 9-3X has been raised by 35mm and, though its four-wheel drive system is available in other 9-3s, only the now-defunct Turbo X has the same electronically controlled limited-slip differential in the rear axle as standard.
Why not the diesel too? Because despite retaining the ‘X’ in its name, a singular absence of funding has meant that Saab has been unable to adapt the fourth-generation Haldex four-wheel drive system to its unique diesel engine. The oil-burner retains a standard front-drive configuration only and should therefore be seen as an off-roader in looks alone.
What’s it like?
You cannot expect such a limited degree of modification to turn the old and never brilliant 9-3 into a fully competitive class member, and they don’t. However, Turbo X aside, for perhaps the first time in a long time, there’s now a Saab you can buy with a new look, a new positioning and an appeal that is at least broader, if not necessarily that much deeper.
Testing was limited to skidding the petrol version of the Saab 9-3X around an ice lake in the frozen wastes of northern Sweden, but it demonstrated exemplary stability and stronger grip that the 9-3 Aeros provided as reference points. With softer springs and that rear diff, the 9-3X required less effort to drive, yet was demonstrably quicker.
Whether these advantages will translate to the more normal conditions on UK roads remains to be seen, but it’s still good to note that no dynamic sacrifices appear to have been made in giving the Saab 9-3X at least some semblance of off-road ability.
Should I buy one?
Likeable though it is, it’s hard to make a case for the petrol version of the Saab 9-3X over the diesel unless the all-wheel drive hardware is imperative; it’s rather expensive and offers very little better performance, but comes with a massive penalty in terms of both fuel consumption and CO2.
Two things seem clear: first, the Saab 9-3X successfully broadens the scope of the 9-3 by an amount you might not credit from such a small list of modifications. Second, the optimum model would be a diesel with four-wheel drive. Its current lack of availability will undoubtedly prevent the 9-3X from realising its true potential.