Another Saab vs BMW

Given that the motoring press sometimes just don’t “get it” when it comes to Saab, I’ve been publishing the occasional story here, written by Saab owners themselves to document their experiences with other marques and how that relates to their Saab fetish.

This one’s from Jon. And he hasn’t just spent a day in BMW – his wife owns one!


I own a 9-3 and my wife owns the Ultimate Driving Machine / Hate Mobile (delete as appropriate)

Saab 9-3

BMW 320d

Firstly, price.

The BMW retails at £27275 and after discount can be yours for £25616. The SAAB retails at £24355 and after discount can be yours for £22285. However, a pre registered 9-3 like mine can be yours for £18500. As you can see my car was MUCH cheaper. Says something about who runs the show here. I like to think I just bought smarter…

After 3 years The BMW will be worth £14 074 the SAAB will be worth £9339. Swings and roundabouts really as long as you don’t pay full price for your new SAAB…

The Look

Like it or loathe it, the 3 series looks like a BMW and shouts it loud and proud. I am a fan, but I have always liked Chris Bangles work right from the Fiat Coupe. Until the current 5 Series was launched I thought they were getting very bland but the new 3 is modern and eye catching.
SAAB on the other hand has always built great looking cars in my opinion and the current 9-3 is no exception. It’s very understated, though, and I think the more aggressive 08 front is a step in the right direction. The saloon rear has always been a weak point but lets be honest they have not had much practice.


The 320d – 163bhp and 251lb/ft 0-60 in 8.7 and 135mph top speed.
The SAAB – 150bhp and 236lb/ft 0-60 in 9.0 and 131mph top speed.

There is not much in it on paper and driving them I can’t see much difference either.
40-60 in my car is 6.5 seconds, the 210bhp engine in the AERO is 6.2. Mid range is what diesels are about and both cars have it by the bucket load, flex your right foot in any gear and these cars fly. The pull from the engine on either car really puts a grin on your face – it feels like you are connected to the horizon by a giant elastic band.

Ride and handling. The ride in the BM is just terrible but maybe that’s because I am a boring old fart. Getting the pictures for the BMW I drove on country roads. On the poorly surfaced first half the car was a nightmare, tramlining and bouncing over every bump. When I hit smooth tarmac the car was fantastic and a real blast. The Saab would have been better on the rough stuff and still fun on the smooth.

The controls on the SAAB are very light, which I think some road testers mistake for vague or low quality. I like to think that SAAB drivers are not ham fisted – Born from Jets and all that.
In contrast I find the 3 series steering very heavy – to the point of annoyance. However when you get a great road and turn it on in the BM, it really is magical. If any of you have seen the M5 review by Clarkson on Top Gear where he hates it until the sport button is pressed, you will know what I mean.

This is where I see 2 great cars with different characters. The SAAB is more of a GT to the BMWs sports car, making the SAAB much easier to live with day to day. We use the 9-3 for hoildays, the BMW is more of a Saturday afternoon car. My significant other summed it up nicely after the 2 week swop, some days you have had a hard day in the office and you just want to cruise home. That’s where the SAAB excels – soothing away the stress of the office not egging you on in the traffic light Grand Prix. The BMW can be massive fun in the right conditions but they are all too rare these days.

Refinement. Oddly the BMW wins here. It should be noisy and harsh to go with the ride, but it really is one of the most refined cars I have ever driven (even compared to my X-Type). Where the SAAB loses out is the engine. If it had a petrol engine it would be much better and reading Swades review of the 08 car Saab may have the issue sorted. Standing outside, both cars sound the same but inside BMW have worked really hard on keeping the clatter out. The really noisy part is accelerating – once up to cruising speed the SAAB really settles down. Both cars are noisy over tarmac but blame that on the tyres and lets face it – just turn the stereo up.

The Cabin. Taste is an individual thing so I will not comment. Actually I will, I like both but the styling of 9-3 cabin is better. I love the parchment trim on my Vector. In my opinion it gives the cabin a really light and airy “Swedish” feel. I really did not like the grey trim and I am glad it was dropped for 08. The BMW is quite retro in some ways and very different to the last 3 series. The standard trim in the 3 Series is black on black unless you pony up £1200 for leather but then you get a much wider choice than the 9-3 driver. I also noticed a smart move by BMW today. UK testers complain about the poor quality plastics low down on the transmission tunnel. BMW side step this neatly by carpeting this area – I will bet the carpet is cheaper than plastic.

Saab Interior

BMW Interior

One thing BMW have not changed in 20 years is the layout of the dials because they got it right day one. Looking at them you could not be in anything else with the trademark mpg gauge.

For SAAB it’s the fabulous joystick vents. For me they are SAAB – quirky, well engineered and functional. The seats and the head restraints are very cool too.

Ergonomically both cars are first rate with controls where you expect them with a few exceptions. The window switches are badly placed in the BMW and I don’t know anyone who likes the handbrake in the SAAB.

The seats in both are excellent and although the BMWs have a wider range of adjustment, they are much more fiddly to operate. I can get more comfortable in the SAAB much faster. Less is more, my Bavarian friends. One nice gimmick in the BM is the inflatable side bolsters – Wendy can pump them up as she is slim and I can widen them as I am not. The Saab does seem designed to suit the wider American gent.

Where the BMW scores badly is the steering wheel – it is too small and can obscure the top of the dials. Very irritating. I also find that I do not need to use the steering wheel controls in either car as the stereo controls fall easily to hand. The controversial Bow Tie stereo is better in every respect to the BMW Professional Stereo for ease of use and sound quality. BMW do pay attention to the details though. The residual heat button in the 3 series is a great idea. Stop the car and go into the shop/garage or whatever and if you press the button the interior will stay warm for about 30 mins. When you unlock the car little floodlights illuminate under the handles.

Fit and finish – the downfall of the 9-3. The BMW is better. I really can’t say anything else. It costs 10k more than the 9-3 and I think it all went on the interior. It looks to me like BMW designed the car they wanted to sell, worked out a profit margin and set a price. With the SAAB it seems like GM said right, this is your budget don’t go outside it. The 9-3 is not low rent, far from it but I think there is a level of frustration – if they spent a bit more it could have lifted the experience to a different level. I do like the silver trim on the dash and most non SAAB drivers who have seen it have told me that it adds appeal to an interior that was considered by many of them as boring. Not my words, but worth thinking about.

Which is best? In the UK there is no direct answer to the M Sport BMW diesel. Sure, the Aero is a similar car but due to our tax system 2.8 V6 turbos (sadly) remain a rarity. The direct rival to my car (based on cost) is a 318i ES. My car beats it, no question, in every area. The M Sport IS better than my car but at £7k more expensive it SHOULD be better. Now, when the Aero twin turbo diesel is launched in 08 trim maybe even without AWD I expect that car to beat the M Sport just as mine bests the 318.

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  1. Cheers Grip. The Saab is infront of Harland and Wolf where the Titanic was built (the yard is now under Swedish ownership!).

    Car spotters please note – my Vector Sport has the colour coded handles!

  2. Yep CTM, my home town. Quite a few of my family worked in the yard back in the day so I thought it a good place for the shot. The run down of the yard and the rebirth is a bit symbolic too.

  3. Sorry for my posting. Forgot to reload the page and read the earlier comments before writing my own… *doh* 🙂

    Abour the yard… I didn’t know it was under Swedish ownership. Who owns it?

  4. Had to look it up myself! Its Fred Olsen but apparently he is from Norway not Sweden. How embarrasing. I was sure he was Swedish but maybe wikipedia is wrong!

  5. So the BMW was a 320d and the SAAB? was a 19!?D? You gotta tell us aholes over here, we dont know what you speal. Virtually NOTONE has ever seen either here. Sht you didnt see one till recently.

    Can you imagine these products NA in NA?

  6. Yes the Saab is a 1.9 150 TiD. Either engine is a blast but I still prefer a good petrol. I cant argue with the economy. To run the V6 Aero It would cost me up to $250 a month to fuel comapred to $100 for diesel. The resale on diesels is much stronger here in Ireland some cars are almost unsaleable in petrol form.

  7. I would choose the Saab 999 times out of 998. The “new” BMW 3-series just looks less aggressive then the old and I can not stand the rear end that is to abrubtly “cut” off. And as always the BMW wheels in front are looking like they are threatening to run away before the car. It looks to flat in the front. I hope that you are able to understand what I am talking about even if my english is not perfect…

  8. Great write-up and very fair. I went from a 2004 9-3 Aero (the 210HP 2.0T version here in the US before the V6 appeared) to a 2007 BMW 335i. I know I’m in the wrong place to make such a confession but as the review mentions above there were some frustrating points of cost-cutting with my 9-3 and so I sold it while there was still warranty and value in it for me as well as someone else, and decided to take a break from my 10 year SAAB affair (I’ll be back someday, baby!)

    At any rate yeah, the BMW with sport pack is still as stiff as the SAAB was on bad roads but much more settled and quiet on the interior. Of course the twin-turbo is illegally fast, and the upgraded Logic7 stereo is far better than the pre-Bose “premium” 13 speaker system in the SAAB I had. The leather is higher quality, the controls and dash less plasticky, but the main thing I enjoy most over the SAAB is the quietness of the interior. The noise of the engine under acceleration intrudes but in a good way. Average consumption with the i6 twin turbo is 18mpg vs about 20mpg with the SAAB so not too shabby for what it can do when pushed. The BMW window switches are placed correctly for a long-armed orangutan – I find them by feel. I do think the SAAB interior design is better, but the materials need a significant upgrade and I’m sure they’ll get it with the full redesigns of the 9-3 & 9-5 (and why I think I’ll be back someday).

    Cheers everyone.

  9. That’s interesting. When I looked at the pictures because of your comment on the handbrakes, I realized that they are located the same in LHD and RHD models. No wonder nobody likes them when they’re on the other side of the shift knob! How annoying.

  10. turbin: definitely so. I look forward to reading that. Those two cars are pretty good matches for each-other (though I’m guessing the SAAB will outclass the ovloV).

    While I appreciate jc_atl’s comparison I think even he would admit that it’s not really a fair comparison. I think that the inline-4 2004 9³ 2.0T would be better compared to the 2004 2.5-liter normally-aspirated inline-6 325i, not the 2007 twin-turbo 3.0-liter 335i.

    The 2007 9³ 2.8-liter V6 turbo Aero would better compare to the normally-aspirated 3.0-liter 328i, I think.

    Maybe the 2.8-liter turbo V6 2008 9³ XWD Aero will better match-up against the 335i.

  11. turbin it wolud be great to get post on these two. My hope is that if we can give a fair opinion on our cars it will encourage “floating voters” to buy and counter a lot of the negativity around the cars.

  12. Gripen, I definitely don’t think comparing the 335i to the 2.0T is fair from a performance standpoint and tried not to make my comments about that. My main comparison, and the main reason the BMW has a better feel, is the tightness of the interior build and the higher quality materials. I had a loaner 328i (230HP) when my car was being prepped and it definitely would be more of an apples to apples comparison with the 2.0T. It felt about equally speedy but without the excitement of the turbo push that you get from the SAAB. It was also very shoddily maintained and had received a pretty good beating being a loaner and all. It was still surprisingly rattle free despite the apparent abuse. Frankly with a slushbox and lacking the sport package it was a bit bland to drive though I’m sure if I’d used it more than as a commuting appliance I might have found a way to have fun with it.

  13. jc_atl: from what I’ve read here one of the thousands of changes to the MY2008 is that the interior has been modified to be less rattle-prone. That’s just one of the changes they made that you can’t see. Hopefully that’d make the MY2008 2.0T better compare with the 328i.

  14. Just for your information. The handbrakes in Saab 9-3 is NOT on the same sides in the LHD and RHD models. They are always at the drivers side of the shift knob. I like their design a lot.

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