Style - but missing substance

 

FIRSTDRIVE SAAB 9-3X: Saab’s lifestyle crossover should fit KYLE FORTUNE’slife perfectly, but after a few days with it he’s not convinced

I SKI AND I own a mountain bike; for my birthday this year I received windsurfing lessons and I’ve even been known to do a spot of paragliding. Oh, and some golf, too. Badly. I’d never consider myself the sort of “lifestyle” person marketing people get so excited about in new car presentations, but I guess I fit the mould fairly well. At a push I reckon I could find the money to spend on Saab’s 9-3X SportWagon.

It should suit me perfectly – I’ve always liked estates (have you ever tried to get skis into a saloon?) and I guess I’m a practical kind of chap at heart. I can’t walk past an outdoor gear shop without wandering inside and wondering how I could possibly justify buying another GoreTex jacket, which means I’m usually to be found wearing some sort of technical clothing that offers capabilities way beyond what I actually need. Which is why I love cars like this.

Like those outdoor shops, I find plastic-clad wheel arches and big chunky bumpers on an estate absolutely irresistible. Add the raised ride height and I’m smitten. I think all estates should look this rugged, but if you’re like me, you’ve only really got a choice of four: Audi’s allroads (the A4 or the A6), Volvo’s XC70 and Subaru’s Legacy Outback. And this new Saab. It’s hardly surprising that two of the crossover machines come from Scandinavian firms, as the sort of conditions we have to deal with once in a lifetime have to be lived with for months at a time in their home markets.

So the 9-3X has all-wheel drive – XWD, in Saab-speak. At least it does on the version we tested, this 9-3X having a 207bhp 2-litre turbocharged petrol engine. But the chances of anyone in Ireland buying this model are slim, not least because its 194g/km emission figure puts it in band F and will result in annual road tax of €1,050. So, the 1.9-litre TTiD turbodiesel makes more sense – €302 a year to tax and likely to have a much more attractive price. Factor in the diesel’s fuel consumption advantage; at 5.5l/100km – compared to 8.1l/100km for the petrol – on the combined cycle, and it’s a good deal more parsimonious. It’s not much slower either, the diesel only trailing the petrol’s 0-100km/h time of 8.2 seconds by a mere tenth of a second.

Diesel it is then, but a quick look at the specification states that if you want the diesel, you can only have it in front-wheel drive. That’s shattered any fantasies of winter drives in the Alps for me. When I’m at the bottom of a snowy track I want all wheels driven, and snow chains in the boot. The 9-3X TTiD is a charlatan then, a pseudo off-roader without the ability to match its looks.

We could perhaps forgive this if it was otherwise outstanding, but the 9-3 feels old and the addition of an X doesn’t change that. The usual Saab quirks remain – a transmission tunnel ignition and cup holder that opens with an action like the stop-motion footage of a flower blossoming. Then there’s the Nightpanel button that blacks out all but the speedometer’s dial to lessen distraction and eye strain. Why the rest of the industry hasn’t copied this remains a mystery. It looks good, inside and out, but it’s otherwise utterly forgettable to drive. It steers, stops and goes, but with nothing resembling verve.

Years of GM stewardship and underinvestment has left Saab on the ropes, trailing its premium rivals and only just keeping up with the mainstream. Every bit of me wanted to like the 9-3X, but it just didn’t stack up.

Saab used to stand for out-there engineering, quirky detailing and individuality – I remember reading adverts stating that, through the gears, Saabs could out-accelerate Lamborghinis. That a 9-3 driver stopped to mention that their car was just an Opel when they spotted me getting out of the 9-3X SportWagon does rather suggest a brand that’s lost its lustre.

If there is hope, it’s that Saab is to be taken over by Swedish supercar firm, Koenigsegg. If it can inject the new 9-5 and the 9-3’s replacement with some of the lunacy of its own hypercars, Saab should have a future. I hope they ski too.

** Saab will launch the 9-3X in Ireland in time for January 2010

Factfile

Saab 9-3X SportWagon 2.0T XWD

Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol

Power: 207bhp @ 5,300rpm; torque: 300Nm @ 2,500rpm

Transmission: six-speed manual, four-wheel-drive

0-100km/h: 8.2 seconds

Top speed: 230km/h

Emissions: 194g/km CO2

Combined cycle fuel economy:8.1 litres/100km

Price: €50,000 (est)

Saab 9-3X SportWagon 1.9TTiD

Engine: 1.9-litre turbodiesel

Power: 178bhp @ 4,000rpm; torque: 400Nm @ 1,850-2,750rpm

Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel-drive

0-100km/h: 8.3 seconds

Top speed: 221 km/h

Emissions: 144 g/km CO2

Combined cycle fuel economy:5.5 litres/100km

Price: €40,000 (est)