Sensible, Swedish and fun

The Mail & Guardian takes a look at vehicles launched recently in South Africa.

Saab 9-3

When you think about Saab, two words spring to mind: sensible and Swedish. If you’ve ever interacted with Swedes, you’ll know they are mostly placid people and the vehicles they create reflect this sometimes staid yet functional outlook on life. Although Saab has an aeronautical heritage, you wouldn’t really know it except for the interior of some vehicles which still look like cockpits.

When General Motors South Africa told motoring journos that we would be on a racetrack for half the day for the new Saab 9-3 launch, we were understandably bemused. Surely a Saab would display its best characteristics on a long-distance drive instead of a racing circuit?

Nevertheless, we grudgingly pulled protective balaclavas over our heads and put on our helmets on one of the hottest days we’ve had in Gauteng recently.

We thought we weren’t terribly interested in flooring it in a Saab, but that was until the first journo got into a Saab 9-3 turbo-charged 2,8-litre sedan and screeched around the cones and down the main straight in what looked to be a very fast time. By the time we all had a chance to go around the track and compare our times, we were in agreement that the sedan, the convertible and even the sportcombi (station wagon) were quite composed, despite the fact that the brakes were smoking and we were all out of breath.

Yet, despite being a helluva lot of fun, the 9-3 is still a sensible vehicle at heart and that’s what I like about this rather underrated car.

General Motors has hit the right design notes as the 9-3 range is easy on the eye and the interior is quite comfortable. All the engines in the range are turbo-charged — from the 1,9-litre diesel to the 2,8-litre petrol range-topper, which produces a respectable 184kW of power and 350Nm of torque.

Safety equipment includes six airbags, except for the convertible, which has four airbags and an anti-roll bar, and all vehicles benefit from the usual alphabet soup of safety features, including ABS, ESP, EBD, traction control and a cornering brake-control system.

The range is competitively priced from R227 500 for the entry-level 2,0-litre turbo manual to R460 000 for the 2,8-litre twin turbo automatic convertible. — Sukasha Singh

Peugeot 308

When I tell people about the Peugeot 308 and focus on some of the cool new features, they look at me blankly. But when I talk about the new engines, which were developed by Peugeot and BMW, the sceptics start paying attention.

Peugeot and BMW working together on engine (and other component) production is reason enough for buyers to give this French brand a chance.

Much like the 307 it replaces, the 308 is a roomy hatchback and the stylish interior ensures that the instruments are laid out logically. The standard specification list includes rain-sensing windscreen wipers, an MP3-compatible sound system, a refrigerated glovebox, up to seven airbags and headlights with light sensors.

I drove the normally aspirated 1,6-litre which develops 88kW of power and 160Nm of torque and the turbo-charged 1,6-litre which develops 110kW of power and a healthy 240Nm of torque — and both vehicles felt surprisingly energetic.

The French are known for making comfortable vehicles and the 308 is just that. The suspension was firm but not hard and the overall ride quality was good.

Prices range from R197 900 to R211 900 for the two petrol engines. A turbo-diesel will be added to the South African range soon. — Sukasha Singh

Renault Navigator

Renault South Africa has come in for more than its fair share of criticism in South Africa, not because there was anything wrong with the products as such, but because the company often failed to meet its customer service commitments.

Recently appointed managing director Xavier Gobile is adamant things will be done right this time. He pointed out that the Megane and Scenic ranges offer five-year / 150 000km warranties and five-year/60 000km maintenance plans under the new “Renault Confiance” programme.

Renault introduced three new models recently — the Renault Megane GT, the Renault Megane Coupe Cabriolet (CC) 2.0T and the Renault Scenic Navigator.

The five-door hatchback Megane GT, which replaces the five-door Megane 2.0 Dynamique, comes with a new two-litre 120kW/270Nm turbocharged engine and slots into the model range between the 1,9 dCi Dynamique and the powerful Megane RS. Renault says the GT represents more than a simple engine upgrade and is an “entirely new, carefully focused package in which every component has been fine-tuned to provide a thoroughly satisfying result”.

The Megane GT comes with lower, stiffer suspension, sexy twin tailpipes, sporty bucket seats, an attractive body kit, 16″ alloy rims, a thick-rimmed leather-covered steering wheel, aluminium-finished pedals and various other cosmetic frills. The recommended retail price is R222 000.

The same two-litre turbo engine is under the hood of the glass-roofed Megane 2.0CC. Renault says the factory upgraded the car’s suspension to deal with the extra power, which delivers a 0-100km/h time of 8,7 seconds and a top speed of 220km/h. The Coupe-Cabriolet 2.0T retails a smidgeon under R300 000.

The car that’s probably going to do best in South Africa though is the Scenic Navigator — a sort of wannabe SUV that will appeal to ordinary folk who don’t need four-wheel-drive, but like the image.

The Navigator offers beefed-up suspension and a ride height increased by 20mm, underbody skid plates and protective bodywork rubbing strips. It’s the flagship of the Scenic range and comes with Nokia’s 6110 Navigator cellphone with GPS navigation, at R238 000. — Gavin Foster

Tata Xenon

If you’ve ever travelled around India, you will know that most of the roads aren’t in good shape. Other than the nameless yellow taxis that inhabit city centres, most of the vehicles are bakkies of some sort and a large percentage are Tatas. That Tata has built a solid reputation on the toughest of terrains is testament to its vehicles. But as choosy South Africans, we can’t ignore the fact that Tatas are pretty rough vehicles.

Tata’s latest vehicle, the Xenon bakkie, is a vast improvement on the Telcoline bakkie but, as a double-cab lifestyle bakkie, it is still quite a basic vehicle. This isn’t so bad, especially when you factor in that there’s a proper 4×4 in the range and that the pricing is as competitive as we’ve come to expect from Tata with the 4×2 option costing R169 995 and the 4×4 going for R194 995.

At the launch in the Free State, we drove only the 4x4s on a short stretch of tar and then through a rather challenging 4×4 trail. The Xenon I was driving was easy to settle into though the steering wheel was offset by about 25 degrees. Once off the tar this didn’t matter much, but it was disconcerting.

Selecting low or high range was as simple as turning a dial on the dashboard and, once done, there was little it couldn’t do. It rained the day before and normally slippery rocks were even more challenging, but the Xenon reacted the way any proper 4×4 would and we conquered all the obstacles.

Tata’s Xenon, powered by a 3,0-litre diesel engine, has a comfortable interior with a neat layout incorporating standard features such as power steering, air con and an MP3-compatible CD player. And it’s easy on the eye, except for the hideous hubcaps. — Sukasha Singh

Cadillac STS

General Motors South Africa has added the quintessential big Cadillac to its range, though it has no plans to introduce the fantastically huge flagship Escalade SUV to right-hand drive markets.

The V8 STS features bold styling inside and out, with a slightly chunky exterior and a plush Eurocentric interior with real wood inserts.

The STS will compete with the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 and the Chrysler 300C, and it’s certainly big enough to slug it out with these heavyweights. The 4,6-litre V8 engine produces 239kW of power and 425Nm of torque and takes from 0-100km/h in 6,2s.

The STS gets up to speed easily and the road-holding is good, but the steering felt a little vague and I was slightly reticent about pushing it to its limit.

Included in the list of driver aids are regulars such as ABS with brake assist and panic brake assist, which can boost the brake pressure in an emergency, and not-so-regular features such as magnetic ride control which employs sensors to provide continuous control of the vehicle’s suspension.

In theory, this means that you’ll experience a soft, comfortable ride at all times and when you feel like throwing the STS around a twisty section, the suspension will automatically become tougher to prevent body roll and aid manoeuverability. Another noteworthy feature is a visible entrapment release in the boot which allows the boot to be opened from the inside.

The long standard equipment list includes six airbags, keyless entry, cruise control, heated electric front seats, dual zone climate control and a crystal-clear Bose sound system.

At R494 000 the STS offers great value for money as it’s spacious, composed and comfortable, but I’m not so sure that it can put up a good enough fight when thrown into the ring with some of the more expensive Teutons in this bracket. — Sukasha Singh

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