Sweden’s Saab went bankrupt in late 2011, after years in the red and multiple owners. But with the company went a new 9-3 in development that could’ve helped turn its fortunes around.
June 2022 marks a decade since the sale of eccentric Swedish carmaker Saab to Chinese-Japanese company NEVS was approved, seven months after the former GM subsidiary filed for bankruptcy in its home of Sweden.
At the time, industry onlookers hoped the new deal would inject life into the struggling brand, allowing it to get back on its feet and restart production of new and upcoming, in-development models.
However, it wasn’t to be; NEVS scrapped most Saab new-car development in favour of an electric version of the mid-size 9-3, and only managed to restart production of a petrol-powered model for six months from late 2013 before financial troubles forced it to cease.
NEVS lost the rights to use the Saab name in mid-2014, and the brand has laid dormant on passenger cars ever since. But three years earlier, Saab’s fortunes looked very different – and the company was working on a new model that could have turned its fortunes around.
Launched in 2002, the second-generation 9-3 sedan – the descendant of the iconic 900 Turbo – was the brand’s rival for the BMW 3 Series (and company), and was the brand’s top seller (albeit from a shrinking base).
But as the next decade approached, the need for the next-generation model became increasingly clear, if the brand – which had posted annual losses in all but three years since 1989 – was to stick around.
According to the reports that remain today, work began on a next-generation 9-3 under General Motors ownership in 2007, with computer renderings and a clay model created by GM designers in Germany and the US – albeit under the watch of Saab’s then design director Simon Padian.
Initial design and engineering work continued through and beyond 2008, with plans for turbo four-cylinder engines, hybrid assistance, and technology in line with the time.
But by 2009, Saab had been placed “under review” by long-time parent GM, and a hunt for a new owner commenced – with bids from Sweden’s Koenigsegg and an investment firm backed by former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone falling through before a deal was agreed with Dutch supercar maker Spyker.
By the time Spyker took control of Saab in early 2010, development of the new 9-3 was well-progressed, with the ‘hard points’ of the design – the positioning of the wheels, cabin, engine and other key elements – all locked in and not feasible to change.
The new team could, however, alter the way the new 9-3 looked. Spyker tasked new design director Jason Castriota (responsible for the Ferrari 599 GTB, among othes) with making the car look more “Saabish” – distancing the brand from its controversial GM-owned era, which saw Saab form close synergies with GM Europe, and later turning to rebadging Subarus for the US to fill its showrooms.
Images of what’s believed to the final iteration of the new 9-3 emerged in 2013 – nearly two years after work stopped in December 2011, after Saab declared bankruptcy – with cues from 2011’s PhoeniX concept, the then-new 9-5 sedan, and classic models such as the 900 Turbo.
By mid-2011, three body styles were planned: a five-door liftback (hatchback), two-door convertible, and a third option still unknown, a decade on. A sedan was reportedly on the cards, with the Chinese market in mind.
Underpinning the new 9-3 was to be a new platform known internally as the Phoenix, designed to be stretched and raised for use across Saab’s planned future line-up of cars and SUVs.
But despite its all-new billing, contemporary reports indicate it was a heavily modified, re-engineered version of the then-current 9-3’s ‘Epsilon I’ architecture, shared with a variety of General Motors vehicles (including Australia’s rebranded Holden Vectra).
With a longer wheelbase, wider tracks, new rear axle and “new technology”, the architecture was unique enough for Saab to call its own – and would have allowed the company to share parts across its vehicles, reducing complexity and, crucially, cost.
A deal announced in 2010 would have seen BMW’s 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine of the day fitted under the new 9-3’s bonnet, with some reports suggesting Saab tuned the mill from its 100kW base output to upwards of 150kW or 160kW – aided by start-stop tech.
The jewel in the 9-3’s crown was rumoured to have been its all-wheel-drive system. Not using mechanical connection akin to Saab’s then-current ‘XWD’ models, but using electric motors to power the rear wheels, complementing the petrol engine spinning the front tyres.
With torque vectoring on board, the system, according to designer Jason Castriota, meant the first test mules were “really exciting to drive”.
The 9-3’s mechanicals were previewed by the aforementioned PhoeniX concept, which paired a 147kW/250Nm version of the 1.6-litre engine with a six-speed manual gearbox, small battery pack and a 25kW electric motor on the rear axle, creating ‘eXWD’.
Work on the new 9-3 continued until 19 December 2011, the day Spyker-owned Saab filed for bankruptcy in Sweden. It’s believed the design and engineering teams were readying the car for a public debut at the Geneva motor show in March 2012 – though the first cars were unlikely to reach showrooms before 2014, reports indicate.
The exterior design and under-skin mechanicals were reportedly closest to showrooms, with the interior and production tooling the phases of the project left to complete.
The purchase of Saab’s assets by newly formed Chinese company NEVS gave hope the new 9-3 project could be revived – possibly with electric power – but with the new owner struggling to restart production of the old 9-3, plans to launch the new model never eventuated.
Whether the new 9-3 would have revived the Saab brand as intended will remain a mystery. But it might’ve been the first step towards the lifeline it needed.
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