Future Saab 9-1 vs Astra VXR vs Saab 9-3 Convertible

It’s time for another comparison drive.

As many of the automotive journos don’t really “get” what Saabs are all about, it’s up to we Saab nuts to drive some of the competition and then reflect on how good/bad it is and what it makes us think about our Saabs.

I’ve bought the future Saab 9-1 into this one as it’s going to be based on the same platform as the next Astra and both will be built in Trollhattan. Obviously there’s no direct comparison here as the 9-1 isn’t built yet, but it’s interesting to get an insight into what will likely be regarded by some as its forbear.

Our reviewer is WooDz, and I should add that he does have a very special affinity with Saabs – and he sells them.

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Astra VXRI’ve been unfortunate enough to have to drive an Astra VXR for the past 4 months. Outside the car looks cool. Saab should have rebadged this car as a 9-2 and not the Impreza. I’m sure production costs would have been less and it could have been sold in Europe too. But hey, we can’t rewrite history.

The interior is far better than the Japanese competition and although many have written to the contrary, the VXR’s ‘Klavier Black’ centre console is far more appetising to the eye than the Grey dull plastic interior of a Golf.

However there are some hang-ups.

First up are the Recaro sports seats, which are built to fit the 13 year old kids who have this car plastered on their bedroom wall. I’m what you call a 6-foot bean-pole and the seats are snug on me. It presses my wallet so tightly against me that it constricts the blood flow to my leg and thank God my journey to work is only 25 minutes, as any longer would no doubt start the onset of deep vein thrombosis.

Then there are the large useful side pockets that you can’t pull anything out of after you’ve dropped it in, as the average hand is too big to slip between the seat and the door. Naturally this has also been designed for the juvenile delinquent that can fit in the seats.

The engine: What I really like about Saabs and even the 2.8 V6 Turbo does this, is that the power is delivered silky smooth but with purpose: you’re doing double the speed limit before you know what’s happened. (ring any bells with your first test drive?)

It does NOT have a clutch bite that seems to catch you consistently by surprise, leave the front tyres scrabbling around until either you ease off or let the ESP kick in and then launch you from stand still to warp factor 9 in a blink of an eye. (Albeit now on the wrong side of the road because you don’t have the strength of Goliath to over come the torque steer.) This car is about as refined as your good old British beer. Over loaded and perfectly warmed to cultivate the unwashed herpes stains fermenting around the lip edge.

The Suspension must have been supplied by LEGO because I’m sure I can feel every crack, every nook, hump, drain or manhole cover and lets not even go there when it come to divots and pole holes.

This car really is as tight as a duck’s butt and yet Vauxhall have added a sport button? As if this car isn’t sporty enough in ‘relaxed’ mode. You have his little button that the owners manual will tell you activates the continuous damping control and adds more response to the throttle. When you activate ‘SPORT’ mode the first thing to happen is you actually feel the car tighten up – honest to God – there’s no other way to explain it. It’s like it shrinks a few inches and hey we can appreciate a few inches, right?

Then, next thing you notice is that you don’t just feel bumps and twigs on the road you can almost feel grains of dust as you drive over them. It’s more your part of the road rather than on it. Then you become aware that your day usually starts with filling the car up again, and again, and again. So now I am left with a 240hp beast that I dare not use the turbo on as it is almost impossible to control the torque steer and would leave me no other option but to mortgage the house to pay for the fuel. Which I’m actually happy with, because as long as you change gear before 2000 rpm the car behaves quite reasonably and the fuel consumption reaches mid thirties.

You can have your moments drop a gear and scoot round a lorry or annoy that BMW driver who’s flashing you to get past, then wonders why you have just disappeared into the sunset. But after all is said and done it’s not a Saab and I love Saabs. So it was with great joy this week that I was allowed to drive my favourite Saab of all – the 9-3 1.9TID Convertible.

There’s a few things that always seem to always crop up in Saab reviews. Seating is fantastic or Best in the business. Interior is not up to the other German brands. And there is this one: It lacks feel in the steering.

Now I’ve been driving Saabs for about 5 years now and I have never had a problem feeling the road… until now. I now get what the journalists have been writing about. I’ve read that some journalists think the Saab steering wheel is too big. Compared to the VXR it is and not as thick either so it doesn’t give me the same response the VXR does. The steering is somewhat subdued. These are all things I’ve never noticed before.

I don’t like the VXR and I hope that has come across. It’s fun for a while but living with it is something else entirely. But now I’m back in the Saab there is something missing. I very much welcome the suspension but the best way I can explain driving the Saab at the moment is it’s like wearing a condom. You know what doing, you know where you’re going and it feels Great, but it just lacks that sensation that makes it feel Fantastic!

We the Saabisty collective has some big expectations of Saab’s future generations. I’m certainly not saying that Saab should build a car that handles like a VXR because most of time it’s ragged and uncouth. As soon as you go over 4000 rpm you feel more like the car is in control and not you. It’s an electrifying experience, the car is constantly on edge. Travelling at high speed on a German autobahn demands the utmost concentration because you feel the car is going to twitch any second and you want to be ready to react.

The same speed in a Saab is calm, relaxed and you still feel in control.

Despite my over exaggeration about torque steer the VXR is actually extremely stable. You just think you’re on the ride of your life every time you get in the car. After a few months I can tell you it becomes exhausting. A Saab has never left that impression and for 90% of the time I’m happy about that. But as the saying goes ‘if you can’t beat them….’ Then Saab is going to have to join the full on feeling brigade. Maybe Saab just need to join the brigade when the driver demands it.

BMW has a big ‘M’ button and Saab need a Big ‘E’ button. This isn’t about changing the genetics of a Saab entirely. This is about ticking boxes and today drivers have expectations and having a journalist telling you, that you can turn on and turn off the ’emotion’ with a press of a button is certainly going to create interest, especially if they place the Saab on Top.

Saab will be launching the 9-1 in just a few years and it will share the same platform as the future Astra VXR. We’ve heard recently that the 9-1 will have a very iconic style, meaning this car will be Saab’s baby. This is the car they really have to get right because it should behold all the traits that pushed Saab through the 70’s and 80’s. There will no doubt be benchmarks made against the VW Golf R36, Audi S3, and BMW 135i.

In a recent review of the BMW 135i in Autocar weekly, it was beaten only by the Porsche Cayman. As a side piece they mentioned that they did bring the Audi S3 along but it was so out paced that it was not fair to include the vehicle in the comparison. It is without doubt that the BMW 135i is the car Saab will have to beat in the performance class. A Twin-Turbo 2.8V6 Bio-Powered engine will certainly do the trick without question and tuned correctly the XWD system would put the BMW to shame.

But I don’t want another VXR in drag, otherwise why pay the extra for a Saab? This Saab needs to be able to take it’s occupants on an 800 mile journey with them feeling as fresh as they were when they got in. It also needs the driver to experience the ragged edge, to have their pulse racing like they’ve just jumped out of an aeroplane, their bodies need to be so pumped full of adrenaline that they can’t even hold a glass of water to calm there nerves afterward.

Anyone who pushes that button needs to become so overwhelmed with emotion that it will eat them up if they don’t tell someone else about it.

Can Saab do this?

Absolutely – because just like us, they’re Pure Saabcore too.

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15 Comments

  1. Loved the article – I just watched Top Gear the other week and saw the Astra VXR featured – Clarkson said the same thing about the torque steer – I agree that saab 9-1 needs the XWD – I love the idea of an “E” button for emotion – Can’t wait to see what the 9-1 looks like

  2. I’ve taken the 2005, the 2006, and as of last week, the 2008 9-3 out for test drives. And, yes, they are VERY NICE.
    But, even with the letter of pre-approval from the bank in my pocket, they just didn’t have the ‘ragged edge, to have their pulse racing like they’ve just jumped out of an aeroplane, their bodies need to be so pumped full of adrenaline that they can’t even hold a glass of water to calm their nerves afterward.’ feeling.

    I guess I’m still waiting…
    ..maybe the 9-1 will do it.

  3. J, I never liked the center exhaust either. The BMWs I’ve seen look like a dog squatting, if you get what I mean.

  4. As well as the ’08 2.8 ‘vert 9-3, we also have a 5 door 1.8i automatic Astra.

    The Astra isn’t anywhere near as comfy as the 9-3, especially over a long distance cruise, but, the Astra does have many good points. We got it for the practicality and for the wife to scoot around in. It’s well built and I also like the piano black finish on the dash, looks very nice.

    But it isn’t as good a handler as the 9-3 on sweeping a-roads, on tight b-roads, its smaller size gives the Astra the edge. It does have better steering feel than the 9-3 mind, and is a little more direct, which is saying something as the 9-3 steering accuracy is superb in relation to say, an Audi A4 for example.

    The current Astra is a good car, but the next one should be a belter. It will have independent rear suspension, and an option for xwd, and this bodes very well for the 9-1.

    I don’t think too much of the Volvo C30 personally. Volvo just doesn’t have a cool aura about it, but Saab still has kudos, I think the 9-1 will sell like hot cakes, especially in the UK. Best version will probably be a 1.9 TTid Aero with XWD 🙂 Yes, I heard all of you just get a teensy bit excited 🙂 :). If it looks like the 9-X concept too, then that is game over for the competition 🙂

    For me, the 1 series is too ugly, the A3 too boring, the Merc C Class coupe too compromised and the VW Golf is too common, although the R32 is just lovely :). If they get the interior quality right, and hold true to Saab values, then the 9-1 will herald a bright new future for Saab.

  5. Oh, and I also agree about the steering wheel, I so hope Saab dispose of the ships wheel that is the current choice in the 9-3 and 9-5. It’s just too big! A smaller steering wheel would be incredibly welcome.

  6. I definitely know what you mean about the first test drive..when I was on a learner’s permit I drove my Mom’s wagon with her a lot and I would always find myself going over on accident. Every person who I’ve converted to Saabs or who we’ve recommended a test drive has commented that they looked down at the speedometer and holy shit, they were doing 80 in a 55!! And at first in the Viggen I would speed on accident, when I wasn’t intentionally speeding!!

  7. Regarding steering “feel”…I drove classic 900’s for almost 20 years before moving to a 1st-gen 9-3 (which I still have). Although I love the car, I’ve always thought the steering seemed a bit over-assisted, if there is such a term. The 900, in my opinion, was just right and provided excellent feedback without making the driver uncomfortable on long journeys. Swade, have you noticed this? I wish Saab could use a system like that on their current cars!

  8. 1. center exhaust: i didn’t know why that’d be a problem, until i thought about opening the back. sometimes the car is running when i open my hatch and i wouldn’t want the exhaust coming out in the center, which is where i stand, typically.

    2. steering wheel thickness: i have a leather cover over my steering wheel, so it feels thicker; a point the writer would like to see, as well.

    3. steering wheel size: i thought the steering wheel is a standard size. maybe a smaller diameter would be better. the pics of the concept cars–9x, aero-x, and 9-3x (old school, not the upcoming combi) seem to show a smaller steering wheel, plus the bottoms were flattened (i think), which may not be a proven advantage.

  9. Very True! They must get that car right because those that drive it will one day be looking to upgrade… leave a good taste in their mouth and they’ll want another.

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