It was a small, local launch, General Motors laying on the full range of new Astras to allow hacks to sample the versions they haven’t previously driven, and to experience Saab’s new 9-3X. Then, suddenly, this launch took on a slightly morbid character, because it came the day after Konigsegg announced that its deal to buy Saab had collapsed.
That puts the famous Swedish company in mortal peril – while GM hasn’t given up hope of finding a buyer, it will almost certainly kill the brand if none can be found. That will make the 9-3X a rare car over here, and the new 9-5, of which there are some preproduction versions about, rarer still – most will probably end up in the crusher.
So it was with heavy heart that I set out in this 9-3X, a 2.0 litre turbo petrol yielding 207bhp that’s channelled through all four wheels. The 9-3X is an Audi A4 Allroad equivalent, a four-wheel drive estate whose loftier ride height allows it moderate off-road capability. There are minor styling changes, but the main benefit, apart from the additional security of all-wheel drive, is a ride more pliant than most cars can muster these days, and certainly any Saab. The 2.0 litre turbo gives it decent pep, which the chassis encourages some exploitation of if you can put up with steering that feels springily distant when you start going hard.
That’s one area where polish is lacking, while the datedness of the 9-3 is starting to show, from its slightly clunky sat-nav to the nasty, sharp-edged plastic casing shrouding the instrument binnacle. But a more serious deficiency, and one that amply demonstrates GM’s half-hearted and often witless stewardship of the company (remember the Saabaru, the US-only Impreza badged 9-2X?) is that there wasn’t the money to develop the diesel version with the all-wheel drive system. So the model with greatest sales potential in Europe can only be had with front-wheel drive.
As it is, this petrol edition is not without appeal as a versatile family wagon offering above-average comfort, but its 194g/km CO2 rating would always have limited its sales, and never mind the potential disappearance of the company making it.
For that, we can largely blame GM, which has never understood Saab, never paid it decent attention and usually regarded it as a millstone rather than the business opportunity that it represented when it bought into it 20 years ago. The opportunity lay in the fact that Saab had a reputation stretching far beyond its modest 100-120,000 annual sales, and more to the point, a very positive one.
Realising that potential now, even with several new models in the pipeline like the 9-5 and 9-4X, is probably going to take more money and commitment than any buyer can muster. Saab is on the precipice, and the chances of a rescue look slimmer than ever.
Dated though it is, this slightly more characterful 9-3X is a more solid hint at what might be about to be lost.