About the Saab 9-3
Before this came the original 9-3, itself a rebadged facelift of the Cavalier based 900 launched in 1993 – a worthy car but not one capable of seriously rivalling the BMW 3-Series.
Despite being based on the Epsilon floorpan and having suspension similar to the Vectra, Saab extensively reengineered it to the point where very little was actually interchangeable with the Vauxhall/Opel car. The Vectra C was a good enough car for its intended market but Saab felt that they could improve on it – and they did.
Road testers felt that it was a good effort and certainly competitive with the C-Class Merc and Audi A4 B6 but it was still competing with a 3-Series that was already five-years-old that would be replaced in two years time. Saab was fighting a losing battle in the same way Jaguar were with the X-TYPE – the German manufacturers had too strong a foothold in that sector with saloon, estate, convertible and coupé versions of most models (particularly the BMW) whereas Saab had just the saloon initially with convertible and estate model joining later.
GM had taken the decision to drop the previous practical hatchbacks and replace them with a saloon which was possibly their biggest mistake. Along with the ageing 9-5, Saab gradually lost market share in a market that was too competitive for GM’s pockets. The end came in 2012 when, after GM’s bail-out in 2010, Spyker closed the factory after huge losses. An attempt to restart Saab in 2012 by NEVS (National Electric Vehicle Sweden) failed and the doors were closed for the final time in 2014.
The saloon arrived here in 2003 on the 53-plate with various different engines. These were the 1.8i with 120bhp, the 147bhp 1.8t turbo (2.0-litre) with a dualfuel option later on, 173bhp 2.0t turbo and the 125bhp 2.2 TiD diesel that was already outclassed. The four-cylinder petrols were no longer traditional Saab units whose basic design dated back to the days of the Triumph Dolomite – instead, the 1.8i was a Saab-modified GM XE type unit as seen in various Vauxhalls whilst the 2.0 turbos are both Saab’s own version of the GM Ecotec units. The 1.9 diesels launched in 2005 are four-cylinder units designed by GM with Fiat and were seen in various cars from Saabs to Vauxhalls, Alfas such as the 156 JTD (the world first commonrail passenger car diesel) and Fiats like the Brava – the engine was even found in the Suzuki SX4 and the MG6 later on. The 2.2 diesel was a short-lived unit phased out in 2004, replaced by the 150bhp TiD.
The popular convertible arrived for the 2004 model year and was available with four engine options – these were the 1.8t turbo, the 2.0t turbo and from the 2006 model year the 1.9 TiD – and even a 2.8 V6. The estate (called Sportwagon in the UK) arrived for 2005 and used the same range of engines as the saloon minus the 2.2 TiD – so 1.8i, 1.8t and 2.0t turbos and both 120 and 150bhp 1.9 TiD’s with the diesels being by far and away the most popular choice over all the models.
At this point it’s worth pointing out the differences between the two 1.9 TiD lumps – basically the lower-powered unit has eight valves whilst the 150bhp version is a 16-valve engine with a standard diesel particulate filter (DPF). 8-valve diesels (very rare in the UK it seems) were six-speed manual only using the often troublesome GM M32 unit, and the 150bhp 16-valve diesel has both that and Saab’s Sentronic automatic box. Note that this is a regular 5-speed auto of GM manufacture and not the old ‘Sensonic’ clutchless manual.
Arriving in 2006 was a 2.8-litre V6 using the GM LP9 turbocharged engine, a blown variant of the normally aspirated LP1 unit. Developing 247bhp and 350-400Nm of torque depending on the state of tune, this unit was later seen in cars such as the Cadillac BLS as well as VXR versions of the Insignia. Sales were slow but it was an impressive engine – the most powerful version knocked out 330bhp in the last Saab 9-5 Hirsch Performance cars seen in 2010.
The 9-3 was given a midlife facelift in 2007 for the 2008 model year. This involved a mildly restyled and updated interior and dashboard – whilst externally, the front-end was restyled with a noticeably deeper front grille, new bumpers and a more rounded bonnnet – don’t worry if you never noticed as the changes were hardly radical and the new-style front-end was similar to the recently shown Aero-X concept car, as well as the Subaru Impreza based 9-2X sold in the USA. Mechanically, the 2.0t turbo was given a GM 6-speed gearbox to replace the old five-speed shared with the 1.8t, whilst petrol cars were now available as Dual-Fuel with the ability to run on E85 fuel that has an 85% ethanol to petrol content. Finally, a new 180bhp version of the 1.9 diesel was launched called the TTiD – that’s what we have bought here.
Saab had various confusing trim options as well; it’s an absolute nightmare and it seems that there is no fixed spec list for any one model. The trim levels were, in order from basic to lavish; the Linear with CD player and alloys, Linear SE with climate control, cruise control, lumbar support and parking sensors (PDC), Linear Sport adding front foglights, different alloys and seat trim. The Vector adding half-leather sports seats with PDC in Sport Vectors – these also had 17-inch wheels and Sport suspension. Airflow models were apparently an option on top of another trim level such as Linear Airflow and these cars were supplied without a DPF. The top Aero model (like ours) had pretty much everything; 17- inch alloys with 235/45 tyres, climate, full leather, cruise, fogs, headlight washers and unique alloys and a more powerful engine: 180bhp TTiD and 207bhp 2.0T for example. This is on top of the standard equipment on all 9-3’s which is pretty generous but expected in a 2000’s car – ABS, traction control, fully adjustable steering column, ABS, remote alarm, electric heated mirrors, dual front, as well as side airbags, electric front and rear windows and ISOFIX. Plus a space saver spare wheel – an early task is to find a correct full-size spare as being 80 miles from home with one tyre suitable for a Morris 1000 doesn’t appeal.
What Goes Wrong?
The Saab 9-3 is a fairly robust old thing and being an older GM-based design means it’s quite well-known. The TiD engine is reckoned to be more reliable than the later 2.0 CDTi engine used in the Insignia, but from our dramas with that later engine, we’d say that’s not really an achievement. The M32 gearbox is known for bearings failing and how ours has survived with 180bhp and a load of torque remains to be seen.
The TiD engine is also famous for EGR problems as well as swirl flaps in the intake manifold clogging-up with black death as a result. EGR faults manifest themselves with assorted symptoms -– black smoke, EML on, low power at lower rpm – though a lot of these can be due to other problems such as a split intercooler, faulty MAF our MAP (manifold pressure) sensor or even a duff injector or two. The usual old diesel stuff basically, and cambelts need changing officially every 90,000 miles.
Don’t forget that most TiD cars have a DPF that will need a weekly caning to keep working, and as well as that the inlet manifold will eventually clog-up and need to be removed and cleaned out – we’ll probably be doing this on ours as well as checking the swirl flap operation.
Petrol models really do need regular oil changes with the correct synthetic oil to avoid oil sludge build-up, a problem that afflicts every petrol engine made in the last 15 years. Broken front coils springs are another common 9-3 issue and you’ll hear a weird noise from the front-end as well as the car feeling odd to drive. Strut top mounts and bearings can also dry out and cause similar groaning noises.
Petrol fours have a unique chain driven water pump that is driven by the timing chain itself, an utterly bizarre design that makes replacement a bit harder than it ought to be as it involves chain locking tools. Lovely. And if you thought BMW and Audi had the monopoly on badly conceived chains, the B207 Saab four has a chain-driven balance shaft set-up that has to be seen to be believed – of course the plastic guides break up.
Inside the car, the famous floor mounted ignition switch can play-up. This is actually a module and as soon as a warning comes up on the dash, get it fixed ASAP as if left too long, you may find the car won’t start anymore. A dodgy battery can also cause problems here – the joy of ageing modern cars! The clutch pedal helper spring can break resulting in a pedal that won’t come back up, and a faulty door lock is fairly common – you’ll need to replace the lock unit in the door with either a new or good used one, noting that the design changed in 2005.
Finally, rust – and yes they do. This is generally cosmetic around the rear arches and the rear sill edges due to mud trapped behind the arch liner, but we’ve seen some early ones with rot in the front wing just ahead of the arch itself.
Nothing that can’t be fixed on the cheap with a budget car but it’s worth cleaning the arches regularly and maybe removing the front arch liners and brushing some anti-rust wax in there.
WJ08 OUE is a 2-owner 9-3 Aero Sportwagon facelift 6-speed manual with beige optional heated leather, lumbar support and power fold mirrors. It was registered April 30th2008 – the first being Astley Saab in Yeovil who sold the car to its one private owner in 2009 – they closed their doors in 2017 sadly.
Since then, OUE has covered151,915 miles with regular servicing, a lot of which was done at Saab in the earlier days. A cam belt change was carried out in 2016 at 107,000miles but did they change the water pump as well? Most garages would know to do this but at the very least we need to remove the top belt cover and have a look. We’re going to do the belt anyway – without an invoice there is always that black cloud of a 12-year-old 150,000-milewater pump.
Condition wise, it’s basically a twelve-year-old £1200 diesel estate with 150,000 miles so that means small scratches, marks, wear on the drivers seat bolster as well as some mechanical bits that need doing.
From cold there is a definite shake from the engine that results in the exhaust clouting the under side some where – a dodgy injector, failed engine mount or exhaust hanger broken? We’ll soon find out
- If you own or have had Saab’s in the past you will be familiar where to put the ignition key. Note the hidden handbrake which reveals it self when applied.
- Lifting the diesel engine cover we discover that the top of the engine has no injector seal leaks. The four glow plugs look like new replacements. While 12 stamped services in the service book is great to see, we don’t have any invoices to back up any of the work.
- The driver’s front seat bolster has worn to this degree – we may try to perform a perfect repair.
- The bonnet hinges felt a bit rough when closing it – a squirt of white grease helped.
- The offside rear door hinge – note how it is perfectly greased. All doors hinges are like this.
- The gas rear shocks are original Sachs. Given the mileage we will be renewing these.
- The hydraulic PAS reservoir sits low-down at the back of the engine.
- A Mann fuel filter demonstrates to us that at least it has been renewed in the past.
- Located in the engine bay under a cover is a Bosch S4 (4-year guarantee) 12V battery.
Watch this video for Knowing The Saab 9-3 1.9 TTiD Aero Before You Buy It