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Posted by James Howe on 4th May 2021

Is a more modern Saab 9-3 just a posh Vauxhall – and are they a good ownership proposition for the DIY enthusiast? We find out, in association with Teng Tools

Our newest project car is a 2008 Saab 9-3 TTiD SportWagon in black, bought for £1000 plus fees (a grand total of £1224) at auction with a full history and 152,000 miles on the clock.

The car is set to be rejuvenated at the hands of our colleagues from Car Mechanics magazine: you can follow the progress each month here, or in more exacting detail in print.

It may not be a bona fide classic car yet, but we reckon the facelifted 9-3 in estate form is a handsome and practical proposition with plenty of quirky Saab touches to keep it interesting – and potentially earmark it as a future modern-classic in years to come.

This generation 9-3 arrived in 2003 and was the second GM car to use the all new Epsilon platform, which underpinned the 2001 Vauxhall Vectra C. Before this came the original 9-3, itself a rebadged facelift of the Cavalier-based Saab 900, launched in 1993.

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WJ08 OUE is a two-owner 9-3 Aero Sportwagon with a six-speed manual gearbox. It was first registered on April 30 2008 by Astley Saab in Yeovil, who sold the car to its one private owner in 2009.

Since then, OUE has covered 151,915 miles with regular servicing, a lot of which was done at Saab in the earlier days. A cambelt change was carried out in 2016 at 107,000 miles – but did they change the water pump as well? Most garages would know to do this, but at the very least we need to remove the top belt cover and have a look. We plan to change the belt anyway – without an invoice you can never be too careful.

Condition wise, it’s basically an twelve-year-old £1200 diesel estate with 150,000 miles; that means small scratches, marks, wear on the drivers seat bolster and a few mechanical bits that need attention.

Starting from cold, there is a definite shake from the engine that results in the exhaust hitting the underside somewhere – a bad injector, failed engine mount, or perhaps exhaust hanger broken? We’ll soon find out.

Engine bay

Saab 9-3: what can go wrong?

The Saab 9-3 is a fairly robust old thing, and being an older GM-based design means it’s quite well-known. The TiD engine is reckoned to be more reliable than the later 2.0 CDTi engine used in the Vauxhall Insignia. The M32 gearbox is well-known for bearings failing; how ours has survived with 180bhp and a load of torque remains to be seen.

The TiD engine is also famous for EGR problems, as well as swirl flaps in the intake manifold clogging up as a result. EGR faults manifest themselves with assorted symptoms – black smoke, engine management lights, low power at lower revs – although a lot of these can be due to other problems such as a split intercooler, faulty MAF our MAP (manifold pressure) sensor or even a duff injector or two.

Officially, the cambelt needs changing every 90,000 miles, and most TiD cars have a DPF that will need a weekly run to keep working. Also, the inlet manifold will eventually clog up and need to be removed and cleaned out – we’ll be doing this on ours, as well as checking the swirl flap operation.

Broken front coils springs are another common 9-3 issue and you’ll hear a weird noise from the front end as well as the car feeling odd to drive. Strut top mounts and bearings can also dry out and cause similar groaning noises.

Inside the car, the famous floor-mounted ignition switch can play-up. This is actually a module, and as soon as a warning comes up on the dash it’s worth getting fixed ASAP. If left too long, you may find the car won’t start anymore. A bad battery can also cause problems here – the joy of ageing modern cars!

The clutch pedal helper spring can break resulting in a pedal that won’t come back up, and a faulty door lock is fairly common – you’ll need to replace the lock unit in the door with either a new or good used one, noting that the design changed in 2005.

Finally, rust – and yes they do. This is generally cosmetic around the rear arches and the rear sill edges due to mud trapped behind the arch liner, but we’ve seen some early ones with rot in the front wing just ahead of the arch itself. Nothing that can’t be fixed on the cheap with a budget car but it’s worth cleaning the arches regularly and maybe removing the front arch liners and brushing some anti-rust wax in there.

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Part 2: Swirl flap issues

It was probably the moment when the realisation hit that the inlet manifold could not be removed without taking the cylinder-head off – or hours more dismantling – that we remembered how difficult working on cars can be. It’s particularly true when cars are designed in such a way that repair is impossible without lots of  dismantling.

The 1.9-litre GM diesel engine isn’t a bad one but many suffer from swirl flap failures as the engine gets older. Our 9-3 puffs out a bit of smoke occasionally, as it might if a flap was acting independently of the others, so we ordered a set of four blanks with screws and set to.

The TTiD engine combines the old 1.9-litre diesel capacity with 2.0 CDTi (Vauxhall Insignia) engine bits – including the later-type all-plastic manifold with swirl flaps – and, unfortunately, that awful oil pick-up O-ring that has finished off many a 2.0-litre CDTi Vauxhall.

Saab 1.9 diesel

Unlike the Saab TiD (just a Astra/Vectra engine), the TTiD is the old 1.9 unit (therefore avoiding the 2.0 oil pick-up O-ring dramas), but with later 2.0 CDTi ancillaries. Finding parts can be difficult.

It’s also obvious that the cylinder head is fitted with the manifold and lowered onto the block during the manufacturing process: there’s no way to get the manifold off with the head fitted. This is because the number-four swirl flap actuator rod fouls the alloy side casting where the EGR pipe bolts on.

In the end, the manifold was removed by brutally cutting the lower swirl flap actuating rod off in situ with an air saw, then grinding 3mm from the alloy block protrusion so that the manifold would just squeak past.

This was not the end of the trouble: the eBay-sourced blanking plate kit was near enough useless. The plates fitted – albeit very tightly – after the old flaps had been removed, and this itself was very hard work.

Swirl flap

Number one swirl flap had started to break-up and these are the steel ones, not plastic. The £25 eBay blanking plate kit just wasn’t up to scratch because the screws wouldn’t bite enough. We stopped here and considered the options.

Two of the screws broke off: bad news as you just cannot drill an old steel screw from a plastic manifold. The plastic pivots for the flap shafts are incredibly tight and hard to remove, while the new blanking plate screw holes in the manifold were too short to afford any meaningful grip. Drilling these deeper and trying to fit some proper screws meant that the screw ends were digging into the rubber manifold gaskets.

GM did make a 2.0-litre CDTi on certain Vauxhall Insignia,  Astra and Zafira models without swirl flaps, and one of those manifolds was probably is probably the best idea. It would fit straight on, avoiding the block-fouling problems, and with the actuator motor still bolted on and connected up, there would be no EML.

Of course, a manifold will cost anything from £50 second-hand to £150 new on eBay – it’s just such a nicer solution than fitting blanks that may just leak or even blow out under boost.

Swirl flap

Here is the swirl flap steel shaft and the plastic bearing that is such a tight fit in the manifold – they are hard to get out intact without marking the plastic manifold itself.

The other option, of course, is to fit a new manifold with flaps. This would mean removing all the manifold studs, lowering the manifold into position and then somehow refitting the studs, probably with a tight-fitting nut (squeezed slightly in the vice) and some thread-lock on the cylinder head end – but we’d be back to square one.

One flap on our car had already started to break up so we caught it in time, but the whole experience does make us question modern diesel engines and the ‘improvements’ manufacturers make to replace a good strong diesel engine with one that is marginal: BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen and GM have all done it. Still, it’s nice to have a challenge in the workshop from time to time!

Words: Andrew Everett