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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Inlet manifold, thermostat and EGR valve replacement
Instead of messing with replacement flaps, we obtained a non-flap manifold on eBay having found out that the actual GM part number is 55565592 and not what is stamped on the manifold itself. The number PA 66 GF 35 means nothing and was present on both old and new manifolds.
The replacement cost £65 and came from a 2014 Vauxhall Insignia. It was in superb condition and looked almost new. Being the factory non-swirl flap version, it has the casting lugs for the swirl flaps that are undrilled.
We could have bought a new inlet manifold for not much more but what we didn’t want to find it didn’t fit. We compared the original manifold and throttle body to the replacement (using online images) and confirmed that the ports were the same as was the throttle body mounting flange.
The swirl flap motor bolts on in two places, both onto the middle lower two inlet manifold studs and also into a couple of threaded lugs cast into the manifold. The Vauxhall manifold doesn’t have these lugs but we don’t care – the motor will be plugged-in and operating to keep the ECU happy.
As there are no flaps to operate now, we threadlocked the manifold studs so that it won’t vibrate loose. The steel sleeves in the manifold are longer on some original swirl flap manifolds in order to locate the motor bracket so we will swap those over.
The other advantage of not using those lower bolts – impossible to access with the manifold fitted – is that the manifold should be a lot easier to fit. By lowering the motor into the engine bay and connecting it first, the manifold can follow it after – and the motor secured only by the two manifold studs.
Finally, we replaced the coolant thermostat and troublesome EGR valve. Our car puffed out a bit of smoke occasionally as if the DPF was trying to regenerate; we hope a new thermostat will help. A new EGR valve after 152,000 miles is a good idea too.
On reassembly and fire-up, the engine management light was glowing and we found fault code P40450, which relates to the EGR valve. This was cleared and hasn’t come back.
In most respects the Saab, Fiat and GM 1.9- and 2.0-litre diesel cambelt change is a fairly simple one: cambelt cover off, offside engine mounting out, auxiliary belt off and finally the lower alloy cover to expose everything.
Even then, the job is tricky – the lower belt cover will not come off unless the auxiliary belt tensioner is fully retracted and locked in place with a suitable pin. We used a small Allen key.
Do not try to do this job without a locking toolkit. Also, while the belt must be fitted with the direction arrows pointing forwards (so running clockwise), don’t get too hung-up on getting the white lines on some belts lined-up with the timing marks – it really doesn’t matter. Our belt didn’t have them, some do. Always ensure the cam and crank pulleys are in position before slipping the old belt off.
As ever, patience is the key and a few tips you won’t find in the manuals. We find it helps to press a bit of paper towel or similar into the gap between the cambelt and the lower timing cover when fitted to the crank sprocket.
This presses the belt into the sprocket teeth and keeps it in position whilst you feed the belt around the rest of the sprockets. It took us at least three goes to get the belt timing correct – the diesel pump isn’t ‘timed’ and can go on any way.
All-in-all, the cambelt change is not a horrendous job but it is slightly frustrating. For instance, the 13mm bolt and captive nut for the belt tensioner really doesn’t look like it’s up to the job.
Be aware that there are few belt run diagrams for the timing belt or the auxiliary belt, so it pays to take plenty of photos and draw a detailed belt rub diagram for each.
Sump to oil pump O-ring replacement
Tackling the sump removal job to renew the infamous sump to oil pump O-ring is an involved process best left to the pros – even on a ramp, it can be a long and frustrating job. There are, of course, various YouTube guides that make the job seem easy – but do not underestimate it.
The TTiD Saab engine is in fact a 1910cc version of the Vauxhall/Opel CDTi engine as found in the 2.0 diesel Astra and Insignia – easily spotted by its plastic inlet manifold. This Fiat-designed unit (FPT is cast on the unit – Fiat Power Train) in its original form was first used in 1997 in the Alfa 156 JTD and was the worlds’ first common-rail diesel.
Found in the Vauxhall Vectra C, Saab TiD and Alfa 156, GT and 159 as well as various Fiats, it had a very effective oil pick-up. A strainer on a pick-up tube was bolted to the oil pump and it dangled down into the sump. It never gave a moments trouble and that’s a red light for a car manufacturer to improve it.
Starting in 2008 with the revised ‘Multijet II’ engine, GM and Fiat deleted the bolt on strainer pipe and just mated the sump directly to the oil pump with a rubber O-ring seal in between. The sump was recast with the oil pick-up built-in. So far so bad, but to add insult to injury, these geniuses put the O-ring seal above the level of the oil. The O-ring goes hard with age and engine heat and as they’re above the oil level in the sump, the pump draws in air, the oil light comes on and within a few seconds, the crank is reduced to scrap.
Look on eBay and see how many of these cars are now advertised as spares or repair requiring a new engine. A fairly common swap is with the vastly cheaper 1.9-litre unit from a Vauxhall Vectra: the old 1.9 can be fitted with the manifolds, loom, sensors and ancillaries from a dead 2.0 CDTi and it’ll run like a charm.
Our 9-3 hadn’t yet displayed a low oil pressure warning but it was just a matter of time. On a Vauxhall Insignia this job isn’t too horrific but on the Saab 9-3 with its Vectra C subframe, it’s much harder – the result of fitting a later engine into an older car. Because the Vectra rarely needed its sump removed, it wasn’t a problem.
O-ring replacement: the process
Before you begin the process it’s important to pull the dipstick up. That’s because it’s entirely possible for it to get trapped when refitting the sump – imagine having to do this job twice! While you’re up there, disconnect the battery negative terminal as we’ll be working on the starter motor.
The front exhaust downpipe has to come off first, but this is pretty easy – we had removed it recently in order to adjust the fit and prevent the annoying exhaust to body knocking on start-up. There is a triangular joint gasket here but no probe wiring that needs disconnecting.
At the front, the downpipe joins the exhaust manifold with three more studs and nuts that are easy to remove. There’s also the stainless steel support bracket as seen here but you shouldn’t have to remove that. Clean any penetrating fluid before refitting or it’ll stink on start-up.
This (above) is the turbo oil return pipe that goes from the turbo down into the sump. It’s secured by a pair of easily accessible 5mm Allen bolts. There is a gasket here so make sure that you refit it on reassembly to avoid an annoying leak. Our gasket was the reusable metal type.
You can remove the two lower air-conditioning compressor bracket 16mm bolts before or after the turbo oil drain back pipe. It’s not dowelled to the sump and you don’t have to remove the bracket or the crank pulley despite what the manuals might say. The bolts are 50Nm.
Next, remove the E18 Torx bolts that secure the driveshaft centre support to the sump. They are torqued to 20Nm on reassembly with a dab of threadlock. With the support unbolted from the sump, the driveshaft flexes – almost enough – to allow sump removal. Sadly not quite though.
On the back of the sump you will find the breather catch tank drain back pipe. While you are in there, disconnect the crank sensor as well as the oil level sensor that is fitted to the back off the sump – simple connectors.
This bracket (above) now needs to be removed in order to access the two 10mm bolts that secure the flywheel side cover to the gearbox. Like the annoying inlet manifold swap, this is one of those jobs where there seems to be a never-ending series of small things to disconnect.
Now remove the E18 Torx bolts (40Nm) that secure the gearbox bellhousing to the alloy sump. Our gearbox is the F40 unit as opposed to the troublesome M32 fitted to many lower powered Vauxhalls and Saabs. The ‘notorious’ rear sump bolts are easy to remove.
Next, drain the oil. The sump plug undoes and as it comes out it exposes a drain hole in the side of the hollow bolt. This allows the oil to drain out slowly. This oil is only 1000 miles old so it was drained into a clean container to be used again sometime – we can’t waste it.
We mentioned notorious sump bolts: on some cars – mainly those with the M32 gearbox – you just cannot access the rear sump bolts behind the flywheel. On the F40 box they are easily removed with a T40 Torx driver. On some you have to drill two holes in the bellhousing! The rest of the sump bolts are very easy to access and they are a mixture of T45 bolts on the sides and more T40’s at the crankshaft pulley end. One good thing about our engine is that despite its 12 years and 152,000 miles, it’s remarkably clean and dry with very few oil leaks.
With the bolts removed, the sump will now need clouting to break the seal between sump and block. There is no paper gasket on these, just very tough black factory applied sealer. On Astra H and Insignia cars, the subframe is wider with more room to manoeuvre the sump.
But try as we might, the sump just will not come out one with the 9-3 with its Vectra C front subframe. The problem is that there is a long oil drain back pipe – it goes to the bottom of the sump and prevents the sump from being wiggled out. If it weren’t for that, we think it might be possible to remove the sump without removing the driveshaft – that would save some time. But, we cracked on to remove the shaft and started by removing this E18 Torx bolt and 17mm securing clamp nut from the lower balljoint.
With the nut and bolt removed, the iron hub is spread slightly with a long thin cold chisel to relinquish its grip on the balljoint. The lower wishbone is then pulled down to release the balljoint from the hub and the inner driveshaft carefully ‘sprung’ from the gearbox. It may leak oil.
There’s no need to remove the road wheel but if you’re brave enough to tackle this job on axle stands then it’s worth removing it. There are various different driveshaft nut sizes on GM and Fiat/Saab cars and this one was a 32mm. It’s torqued up to 230Nm on reassembly.
Of course, the CV joint was seized solid into the drive flange – the driveshaft was not coming out today. So, we needed to make room for the inner end so we could wangle the sump past it. This rear engine steady bracket needs to come off – start by removing these 16mm bolts.
Now remove or just slacken this centre bolt (above) that joins the front and rear parts of the mounting – they are all torqued to 55Nm. The rusty looking vertical nuts bolts to the left of the mounting also need to be removed and then the complete engine steady assembly comes off.
On some gearboxes, there will be oil loss when the inner driveshaft comes out, so catch it. You may want to change the gearbox oil with the car in bits.
Because the oil drain back pipe from the oil separator into the sump is so long, we need to unbolt it from the back of the block. There are two 10mm bolts that are virtually impossible to photograph and they secure the separator to the block – remove them and pull the unit away.
We wanted to get a bit more wiggle room to get the end of the sump past the subframe so we wanted to unbolt the driver’s side engine mounting from the chassis leg and lift that side of the engine. Start by unplugging and removing the air filter box with the MAF.
The engine mounting is very easy to disconnect – just undo and remove these three 16mm bolts as seen here (above). The engine won’t drop down – what you can do is lift the engine and place a block of wood between mount and chassis – three inches seemed to be about right.
With the car is up in the air, the was engine raised slightly with a tall stand under the air con compressor bracket. But no matter what was tried, the sump would not come out. Again, it was the oil separator pipe that was too long to pull out of the sump.
The oil separator pipe runs behind the starter motor and it will just not pull up and through the gap between the starter and the block. So there is no option now but to remove three fiddly bolts (above) and pull the starter off to give more clearance. With the plastic pipe able to be pulled from the sump, it can be wiggled out. It’s a tight fit and a real nightmare to refit due to lack of clearance in there.
Here is the sump as removed (above). It’s remarkably clean inside and has obviously had plenty of oil changes. You can see in the lower left corner of the sump the oil pick-up that’s bolted into the sump with two 10mm bolts. The oil feed hole corresponds with the one in the oil pump.
The new oil seal was £14.77 from our local Vauxhall main dealer. They sell a lot of these apparently with quite a few going to taxi operators who, stung by engine failures, are dropping Insignia sumps for a bit of preventative maintenance. The part number is 55589549.
Our old oil seal wasn’t in bad condition and it still had a bit of flexibility left although it wasn’t as supple as the new one. It is a press-fit into the oil pump with no sealer required. You can also see how incredibly clean the inside of the block is as well – we expected black death here.
The new seal is fitted as shown (above) with the red fitting cap. You press the seal into the pump firmly until fully located, and then the red cap just flicks off. Here, the block to sump mating face has already been cleaned of old gasket sealer and just requires a wipe off before sump fitting.
The sump was cleaned inside and out with brake cleaner and the gasket face cleaned thoroughly. A neat bead of Elring sealer was applied and the sump refitted – that’s a very tricky job on the 9-3 so be really careful. Now, you just need reassemble it all – a solid day’s work!