With all the recent turmoil in and around Trollhättan, most people wouldn’t necessarily have expected the availability of a brand new SAAB, let alone the possibility to purchase one and get it delivered straight from the factory.
Could “the impossible” be possible anyway? The answer is YES!
The 9-3 that wasn’t meant to be
When the first 9-3N rolled off the production line on 18 September 2013, it marked a really important milestone. NEVS had taken over the main assets of SAAB Automobile roughly a year before and significant work had been done since to build the organisation,the supplier base and much, much more. While the NEVS business plan has been (and still is) crystal clear from the start to want to build electric vehicles, another opportunity presented itself when the Chinese city of Qingdao became minority owner. As part of the investment conditions, Qingdao wanted NEVS to also start manufacturing combustion engine-based vehicles. While there were arguably many reasons to *not* want to restart the production of the older 9-3, the fact that the production facilities could get into normal operation again was a really compelling arguments (in addition to the pre-order from China of course).
New and improved
While NEVS had acquired the intellectual property (IP) rights for the 9-3, restarting the production was a challenge in itself. If anything, the previous design still contained many General Motors components and as the temperature of the relationship with previous SAAB-owner GM had essentially turned below the freezing point, NEVS had to find different solutions (and different suppliers!), fast. Regular production kicked off in December 2013, Swedish customers were able to order directly from the NEVS website and the first cars were delivered in April 2014. From a product standpoint, several hundreds of components were replaced and upgraded for this MY14 9-3, with probably the new seats, new logotype and upgraded front as the most publicized elements.
The last ones?
When NEVS in February announced their plan to finish the remaining approximately 100 cars that originally were meant to be shipped to Qingdao, I must admit that I was skeptical at first. Not necessarily about the cars themselves, but about how much this could contribute to the ultimate goal of getting NEVS out of reorganization and new investors to commit. That latter part we’ll probably only be able to start to learn more about from mid-April onwards but it does seem that the sale of the 100-odd 9-3’s had a tangible and positive contribution to the reorganization extension and composition agreement earlier this month.
During my most recent Trollhättan visit in February, I got wind of a special offer for these “last 9-3’s”. I could buy a 9-3 Aero MY14 directly from the factory at a great price, with 3 year free maintenance, 2 year free road-side assistance, 2 year warranty and 3 year insurance coverage. I had test driven the 9-3N twice before and I had been quite impressed with the car. This, combined with the uniqueness of the car (only approximately 400 built!) made the argumentation financially, practically and emotionally come together, so a signed order form followed by a swift order confirmation sealed the deal!
The specifications of my MY14 9-3 Hirsch Edition are pretty straightforward: a jet-black Aero with parchment interior powered by the proven 2.0T petrol engine that also can be found in MY12 9-3’s and 9-5NG’s. The vast majority of the items I recognized from earlier 9-3’s I had driven, but a few details I do want to highlight here:
- Seats. NEVS had to find alternative seats for the 9-3N as the original supplier had gone out of business. While a number of earlier stories in the media were quite negative (primarily apparently as the new supplier also provides their services to the other car manufacturer based in Gothenburg), I personally find the new seats fantastic, both esthetically and ergonomically. Another kind of cool feature is the fact that the front passenger seat can be folded very quickly and easily now with the push on two dedicated buttons.
- DRL. The front upgrade for MY14 didn’t only mean another grille and updated inserts for the extra lights, the extra lights have now been turned into actual Daytime Running Lights (DRL’s). I think they give a really nice touch and make the car look even more “brutal” (apart from reducing power consumption through the applied LED-technology).
- Hirsch. The 9-3N Hirsch edition provides the extra touch that I personally think should have been included in all SAAB’s. From simple –yet highly effective and differentiating- details like the leather hand break and door handles to the characteristic diffuser and rear spoiler. But what impressed me the most is the breath taking performance. I was already very satisfied with the Hirsch upgrade on the same engine in my 9-5NG, but Hirsch did an even more amazing job on the 9-3N: a boost from 350Nm to 420 Nm, 55 additional horses (to 275 hp) and an increased maximum speed to 260 km/h doesn’t just do justice to SAAB’s aircraft heritage, it almost turns the car into a rocket and really confirms the slogan for this model:”the fun to drive is back”.
- No sharks… There is no shark fin antenna on the roof of the 9-3N anymore (the antenna function has been built into the rear window instead). I am still kind of on the fence whether I like this or not, but it was definitely the design element that I hadn’t noticed previously.
- Quiet! The 9-3N is extremely well built. No crackling noises or other semi-irritating sounds you find in quite a few other cars. Best of all though is the sound isolation around the engine. OK, it’s not as dramatic as in the 9-3EV, but I find it noticeable quieter in the cabin at all speeds- a great achievement!
- Memories of China. Given that the car was originally intended to be exported to the city of Qingdao, I was somewhat curious to see whether I could find any remnants of this. With the exception of the Chinese language on one of the decals under the hood and the fact that the car came with ashtrays and a cigarette lighter, I was pleased to see that NEVS had done a thorough job in getting it to Swedish specifications. I had earlier heard that these cars could be equipped with buttons on the back of the front seat (so that the passenger could adjust the front seat) and that the cars wouldn’t have the ESP system installed, but the front seats in my car look pretty normal and I can confirm that ESP has been fitted!
- Logo. Last but not least, the new design language and the new SAAB logo in particular. The silver-on-black logo is a great fit with the overall style of the car.
With the introduction of the 9-3 MY14, NEVS also launched a new way to order the cars and to handle the delivery. For the first time, a brand new SAAB could be ordered through www.saabcars.com, a move that intended to bring the company closer to its Swedish end-customers on the one hand, but also addressed the issue of a no-longer existing authorized dealer network. While the website is quite Spartan in its design and functionality (one could get Henry Ford vibes as the only colors to choose from are black and silver…), it does the job. During the ordering process, a delivery partner can be selected as well including one of the 20-odd NEVS partners across the country, but also the factory delivery center in Trollhättan. While the concept of factory delivery isn’t new (SAAB facilitated International Diplomatic Sales (IDS) in the past for example), NEVS designed it to provide an additional touch as it would include a “VIP treatment” including a factory tour and a visit to the SAAB museum.
When I got my delivery confirmation I was somewhat disappointed to learn that it wasn’t going to be in the new Delivery Center- I had to head over to the main gate instead. Despite the change of venue, when my daughter Marit and I arrived at Saabvägen 5 in the early morning, our expectations were very high. We were welcomed by a friendly member of staff who took us to the main assembly hall, the very same place where I had been before when everything was still in regular operation but also the same location where the finished 9-3N’s actually had rolled off the production line. The facility looked truly impeccable. I had noticed the same in the press and body shop during my previous visit, but this hall was even more clean and shiny looking. While there was obviously no actual production going on, there were a number of people working in adjacent offices and several workers crossed the hall during our visit.
The next thing that really caught my eye was my car. I recognized the license plate immediately and the sight of this new 9-3 in its full glory got my heart rate up even further- what a stunning view! The front and rear lights had been turned on and while the hall was somewhat dimmed, rays of sunshine were touching the jet black roof of my new SAAB.
We were then welcomed by another two NEVS representatives who took us through a personal tour around the car, highlighting both the familiar and the new features. And just when I thought things couldn’t become any better, I was handed the warranty and service booklet with the words “this booklet is made especially for you, Michèl” and found it inscribed with a personal message from Mattias Bergman and Frank Smit, President and Director Vehicle Programs at NEVS respectively.
The car was then driven outside and it was time for me to take the wheel myself for the first time. It was a wonderful experience to smell the new car scent, to hear the engine humming, see the dashboard lights come on and to smoothly glide off to leave the SAAB premises and to head over to the final destination for the day: ANA Trollhättan to have them put the finishing Hirsh Edition touches on.
The trip back to Stockholm the following day was extremely pleasant. What a fun car this is to drive! Smooth, fast, quiet, great road handling (including stiffer suspension) and a surprising fuel economy (oh, did I forget to mention the characteristic design?)- to me this is the best SAAB 9-3 built to date.
All (or nearly all) of the available 9-3N’s have been sold now, which is –given the relatively slow initial sales- a great achievement. I’m sure the fact that significantly dropped price (most channel partners advertised at SEK 209,900 vs. the earlier SEK 289,000 price tag / EUR 21K vs. EUR 29K), but I am convinced that the proven quality of the car combined with the increasing collector’s value has played a role.
For me personally I guess it’s a combination of all these factors and I am confident that it won’t be my last new SAAB but until then I’m looking forward to many delightful kilometers behind the wheel of the 9-3!