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First drive: All paws for effect as Saab evolves 9-3

Helping hand: Midlife 9-3 revisions include the availability of AWD.

Saab throws its 9-3 a lifeline with a facelift, AWD, ethanol and uprated engines

21 Jun 2007


MORE than just a nip and tuck, the 2008 model year 9-3 is a virtual re-skin of the five-year-old Saab. Leading the change is the Swedish brand's first all-wheel drive system, dubbed XWD or Cross-Wheel Drive.

The regular front-wheel drive (FWD) versions arrive first, in November, with the XWD in flagship 9-3 Aero sedan and SportCombi wagon models (for now) pencilled in for a February 2008 release.

The General Motors premium division's XWD cars also debut an uprated Holden-sourced 2.8-litre V6 producing 206kW of power and 400Nm of torque, although the FWD Aero must make do with only 188kW/350Nm - 4kW up from the outgoing version.

In all its guises, the enduring 9-3 Convertible will remain resolutely FWD for the time being.

Buyers will also have to wait until early next year to sample a new, 132kW/400Nm two-stage turbo-diesel model dubbed TTiD.

The MY08 facelift also brings a host of significant mechanical and engineering upgrades that are designed to lift the 9-3’s performance, dynamic and refinement qualities.

In the face of searing competition from the new BMW 3 Series and Lexus IS250, Mercedes-Benz's upcoming all-new C-class and next year's redesigned Audi A4 and Volvo S60, the revamp cannot come soon enough.

The recently released 110kW/320Nm 1.9-litre TiD diesel option continues, as do the 110kW/240Nm ‘1.8t’ and 129kW/265Nm ‘2.0t’ 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine models that power the majority of 9-3s.

Despite the misleading nomenclature, both petrol units are identical (1.998-litre) in size.

However, Saab’s greenie-gleaning ethanol 2.0t BioPower powerplant, destined for overseas 9-3 models, will not be made available to Australian buyers, at least for the time being.

"We will assess how buyers react to the (soon to be released) 9-5 2.3t BioPower first," says Saab Australia’s Parveen Batish.

With some 2157 changes, Saab says that up to 70 per cent of the 9-3 sedan body is new. Lining up the old and new side-by-side reveals a complete redesign forward of the A-pillar.

According to Saab designer Simon Padian, a wider and more aggressive look was sought, so larger headlights and a deeper grille design mirroring the successful Aero X concept car’s visage has been incorporated in the new nose.

A reshaping of the front and rear bumper, with matching air diffuser designs, as well as the inclusion of permanently-on running lights above the headlights, add a more modern veneer. Aerodynamics also improve slightly.

Yet retro Saab 900 trademarks can still be found in the clamshell bonnet and flared wheelarches.

Less clutter is the aim of the elimination of body moulding rubber and inserts along the flanks, restyled door handles (which won't appear on the convertible and are pilfered from the 9-3-in-US-drag Cadillac BLS that Saab builds), new frosted tail-lights and the repositioning of badges and garnishes.

Fewer changes were wrought inside, as Saab implemented a revamped dashboard fascia and trim earlier this year, as part of the outgoing 9-3’s MY07 freshen-up.

The big news is what lies beneath the latest 9-3.

XWD, supplied by Sweden’s Haldex firm, will underpin all future models for now on.

Being fully automatic and on-demand, XWD can send up to 100 per cent of torque to the rear wheels, but only transmits between five and 10 per cent in normal cruising conditions.

38 center imageFunctioning with the vehicle’s ESP stability control and ABS anti-lock brake systems, it features a ‘Power Take-off Unit’ in the front final-drive that sends drive down to an RDM Rear Drive Module via a three-piece ‘anti wind-up’ prop shaft fitted with a TTD Torque Transfer Device.

On the move, TTD dishes out torque between the front and rear continuously via a valve that increases or reduces pressure on wet clutch plates, and uses data from the ESP and ABS sensors that measure speed, yaw rate and steering angle to counterbalance oversteer and understeer and maintain stability and road-holding.

The major innovation with XWD is that when the driver first accelerates from rest, the clutch plates are forced together under hydraulic pressure to activate the RDM, resulting in a "pre-emptive" actuation of AWD without having to wait for sensors to detect slippage first before kicking in the rear wheels, as virtually all other current ‘on-demand’ systems do.

Thus, according to Saab’s global platform engineering manager Tomas Camen, the advantage here is AWD the instant you need it, Audi Torsen differential-style, without having to rely on a weighty and energy-wasting constant 4WD set-up.

He says that the unit adds less than 30kg to the vehicle’s mass.

The 9-3 XWD is the first vehicle to feature this latest-generation (MkIV) Haldex AWD system.

XWD also comes with an optional active rear electronic limited-slip differential called eLSD, allowing alternating torque transfer between the rear wheels.

In slippery conditions, it uses inputs from rear wheel sensors to transfer up to 40 per cent of torque between the drive shafts, to whichever wheel has more grip, for more balance and greater control.

The eLSD technology can also apply torque to whichever rear wheel needs it for smoother progress through high-speed manoeuvres, without the need for the ESP/ABS devices to chip in.

The upshot? Completely foreign-to-Saab power-slide possibilities! It is unclear whether Saab Australia will offer – let alone standardise - eLSD for our 9-3s at this time.

Interestingly, the GM Epsilon platform that underpins the current Opel Vectra was designed from the beginning to accommodate AWD.

Nevertheless, Saab has fitted a new rear subframe to accommodate the RDM, implemented revised suspension geometry and new wheel hubs for the drive shafts.

And while XWD will be limited to the Aero V6, Saab insiders assure us it will trickle down as an option with all other powerplants.

Expect the next-generation 9-5 (due later in 2008), the all-important 9-4X crossover SUV (due in Australia sometime in early 2009) and 2009’s 9-1 small car series to use the Haldex set-up. Other GM affiliates may also be in line for it later on.

Other new-to-9-3 innovations include a Sport mode on the Aisin-supplied six-speed automatic gearbox with software that "aligns gear selection more closely with the intentions of the driver", resulting in faster acceleration or engine braking via gear ‘holding’ methods when desired.

Except for diesel models, all 9-3s use a five-speed automatic, while a six-speed manual is the rule of thumb barring the 1.8t opener.

In the engine front, the 1.9-litre TTiD is a development of the twin-cam 16-valve common-rail turbo-diesel unit that General Motors co-devised with Fiat.

Its 132kW and 400Nm are delivered respectively at 4000rpm and from 1850 to 2750rpm, via a segment-first two-stage turbocharging system.

Basically, there are two turbos of different sizes, which work together or separately to provide a much wider spread of torque by using by-pass valves to direct exhaust gases according to which of the two is best suited for the job.

Saab’s figures put the TTiD sedan’s fuel consumption at 5.9L/100km, while delivering in-gear performance ‘on-par’ with the more powerful version of the 2.8-litre V6 turbo.

Meanwhile, BioPower-enhanced 9-3s use the existing 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine to whisk up power and torque from 129 to 147kW and 265 to 300Nm respectively, running on 104 RON E85 ethanol.

Saab says its carbon dioxide rating is a miniscule 40g/km, but it does use more than 20 per cent more fuel than the equivalent 2.0t engine.

Last but not least, all 9-3s now benefit from suspension upgrades that include retuned dampers for more balanced handling and reduced noise transmission, according to Mr Camen.

On a quest to quell the latter, Saab’s engineers also combed through the 9-3 to plug gaps and install more insulation – including in the dash, rear-seat and floor sections – while new engine mounts were designed, primarily to help quieten all diesel applications.

New door trims are present to accommodate the fresh Bose audio system, while improved crash-test and fire-resistance performances are the result of the 9-3’s ability to better meet new US crash tests.

MY08 9-3 prices will be announced closer to the vehicles’ November launch.

Expect to see some of the range displayed at the Australian International Motor Show in Sydney the month before.

Drive impressions:

ACCORDING to Saab Australia’s boss Parveen Batish, the Swedish brand was in decline until recently because consumers were simply not aware that the 9-3 existed.

We agree. The current 9-3 is nice to look at, but as bland as unbuttered bread to behold compared to the striking first generation 900, sold here between 1979 and 1994.

Iffy residual value perceptions, the lack of an SUV and some service and occasional customer-care issues are also mooted as being central to Saab’s woes over the last five years.

We would also include the fact that most of the 9-3’s competition has become too hot for the Swede to handle.

Saab’s recent ‘repositioning’ of the range was effectively an acknowledgement of the latter (although Volvo employed a similar scalpel to slow S40 and V50 sales at the same time).

Now, however, the company has seen the light. Ironically, just as its one-time collaborator Subaru is striving not to stand out, Saab is setting out to do just the opposite, by rediscovering what it was that made cars like the 92, 99 and 900 so special.

So while the basic shape of the 9-3 remains much the same as it has since 2002, a welcome new nose is literally more ‘in your face’.

In the metal, this – along with tail-lights boasting Tammy Faye Baker levels of eyeliner, far-less fussier flanks and hot new wheel designs (including a spoke look lifted from the 1970s 99) – succeeds in giving the 9-3 more road presence.

We hope it is enough though, because the next Audi A4 and new Mercedes C-class will be very smartly dressed indeed.

On the road, the 9-3 impresses on several fronts.

Pre-production examples of the XWD ‘Cross-Wheel Drive’ SportCombi wagons, powered by the new 206kW version of the 2.8-litre V6 petrol turbo engine, shocked us with its much higher levels of wet, slippery and rough-road surface grip and control.

Driven on Saab’s own proving ground, the 9-3 Aero XWD flattered the driver with its progressive, deliberate tail-sliding abilities, revealing a whole new world of power-oversteer fun in a Saab.

Happily, the engineers have decided to tune the stability control to activate at quite a high threshold, and with seamless intervention, so drivers can really enjoy themselves in the XWD.

However, this is all quite relative, because the 9-3’s chassis still feels a little inert and remote from the seat of the pants as well as in your hands, compared to the best rear-wheel drive competition.

But it is a huge advance for a Saab, a great leap forward for the model and should give Audi and Volvo something to think about.

Another reservation is that Saab does not yet make this more accessible by offering it on lower-end 9-3s. Apparently XWD will eventually be available with the four-cylinder petrol and turbo-diesel units.

As it stands, the XWD’s V6 turbo is amply smooth and powerful, but not the fire-breathing rocket that its exotic specification implies. Perhaps the extra weight of all-wheel drive has blunted the engine’s performance potential a little.

Much more impressive is the TTiD 132kW/400Nm turbo-diesel number. Adding a two-stage turbocharger, with an extra turbine to help plump out the already healthy torque curve, has resulted in a rip-snorter of a 1.9-litre engine.

In no uncertain terms, this premium powerplant puts Saab right up there with the diesel engine leaders.

Acceleration and progress is deceptively quiet, its mid-range punch is amusingly eager, and the TTiD’s overall smoothness is exemplary, especially when combined with the beautifully responsive six-speed automatic gearbox.

A refined and appealing pair, we think that the eventual XWD TTiD pairing might be the most sought-after acronyms in Saab’s vocabulary.

After this dynamic duo of 9-3 developments, the as-yet-uncertain-for-Australia 2.0t BioPower that we sampled felt quite underwhelming, until we realised that this E85 (85 per cent ethanol-powered) five-speed automatic wagon delivers its swift and energetic performance with the ease of its petrol-powered counterpart.

Any doubts about the driveability of E85 vehicles will be dealt a blow in the 9-3 2.0t BioPower. For simply getting people to consider the implications of their actions, we say ‘bring it on.’ Saab has wrought far more changes to the 9-3 than a mid-life facelift might suggest.

Its price may limit access for now, but XWD is impressive enough to make the rest of the range feel a little ordinary in comparison, even if the brilliant TTiD diesel is as good as anything that the Germans and French bring to the table.

And the 2.0t BioPower should win over many converts simply because it is so easy and effortless to use and live with.

No, keen drivers won’t find too much to get excited about in the front-wheel drive 9-3 but the new additions, along with the more distinctive styling, increased refinement and expected keen prices, should push the newest Saab back into contention for inspection by premium buyers once more.

Better still, what lies beneath it presents a promising picture for the next-generation 9-3, as well as other future Saabs.

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