20 February 1998

SENSIBLE SWEDES FINALLY

DISCOVER THE DIESEL

In this months Country Car,

David Cousins packs

toothbrush and flannel to

drive Saabs new diesel in

Italy, while Geoff Ashcroft

stays at home with the Audi.

Andrew Pearce, meanwhile,

makes a lifestyle statement

in the oh-so-hip, leisure-

orientated Freelander

OLD Rudolf Diesel, busy these last few decades in the great workshop in the sky, must surely be beaming. How could he have guessed that his invention, once grubby, smelly and snail-slow, would develop into something as nimble and svelte as the modern automotive diesel engine?

Its taken some car makers a while to dip their toes into the water, though. Saab, for one, has waited until now to launch its first diesel (co-designed with GM) in the new 9-3 range. But if the experience of driving it around the swooping and diving terrain of central Italy earlier this month is anything to go by, it was worth the wait.

On paper the 2.2-litre units 115hp looks tame enough. But it musters great gobs of torque just where you want it – low down on the rev range.

The result is a turbodiesel in which you never have to say sorry (except maybe to traffic policemen). Lumbering lorry? No problem. Just dip your right foot gently and youre past it. Mad-eyed rep in a Mondeo steaming towards you the other way? Push the throttle a bit further and you can tuck in in front of the lorry with barely a muffled scream from passengers. It runs out of puff eventually, but then who among us doesnt?

So far, so good. But better news still is that even under duress the engine stays as quiet and civilised as a Swiss watch. And road noise levels are low too, so the only unwanted sounds are a bit of wind whistle and any unwanted chat from the passengers.

Spread around and behind Saabs impressive engine in various shapes and hues is some seriously Scandinavian thoughtfulness. Ahead of the driver is the characteristic north-face-of-the-Eiger dash, with every whim of the driver catered for. Theres a good, deep boot too and a full set of safety features, including side air bags and active head restraints, as standard fitment.

Gripes are few and far between. In an age when cars – both inside and out – are bespeckled with swoopy, curvy, angular features, the 9-3 is very conventional in its looks and feel. In fact its about as wild as cheese on toast. But, what the hell, its a great engine.

New 9-3 range replaces 900 and goes on UK sale in March. New diesel engine is a peach. 2 litre, 2 litre turbo and 2.3 litre petrol also available.

SAAB 9-3S 2.2TiD

&#8226 Price: £19,995.

&#8226 Engine: 2.2 litre 115hp turbodiesel.

&#8226 Torque: 260Nm at 1900rpm.

&#8226 Max speed: 120mph.

&#8226 0-60mph: 10.9sec.