Michael Mauer and his design team have been at it again. Saab's latest concept car, sure to please the faithful, is a glass-roofed five-door...um, uh ("Can't call it a hatch at this price point," said one anonymous corporate suit), as Mauer put it, "teaser for the [9-3] wagon."

"No, not 'wagon'; the 'whatever'-the more versatile version of the 9-3," he continued. "This car represents the crossover point between hatchback and wagon."

The well-loved Saab hatchback first made an appearance in 1974 with the introduction of the versatile but awkwardly named three-door 99 Combi Coupe, called the Wagonback in the U.S. So, let's take this opportunity to wish the marketing folks "good luck" as they try and sort out a name for this car. Unlike the iconic 9X and last year's 9-3X, which provided it so many design cues, the Sport-Hatch is nearly ready for production. So close, in fact, that Mauer admitted, "For the concept car, you make some changes that disguise, just a little bit, the production version."

"If you take today's 9-3 and the 9X concept car, you can see the steps in between we'd like to take," added Mauer. "I think we have nice, strong character in the [Sport-Hatch] grille and air intake. In comparison with the current 9-3, we have a little more shape, a little more 3-D feeling and character. What you see on the front of this car are some ideas that might make their way into a 9-3 facelift or model-year change. The tail end is pretty much what you will see in production." When asked about the car's stout look, Mauer replied, "One thing is very clear. A Saab should always look robust and solid."

The exterior of the 9-3 Sport-Hatch continues the now familiar Saab themes of a high, rising waistline and the stretched teardrop shape of the side windows. With the B- and C-pillars hidden under the dark green glazing, the monolithic, tapering shape of the windows and the "hockey-stick" line (across the bottom of the glazing and sharply up and forward at the D-pillar) help create a sense of forward movement while taking the eye away from the less tapered roofline. A lone sheetmetal feature line, starting at the headlight and ending at the top of the rear window, follows and reinforces the "hockey-stick" line, helping to keep a "sporty, dynamic look while maintaining useful volume."

Senior designer Taras Czornyj said, "We wanted the car to assume a very clean and muscular character. It was important to execute this sporty look free from any traditional wagon motifs. We have tried to move the center of gravity forward away from the rear area." A short rear overhang and taillights "bent to mimic the residual 'bustle' or 'notchback' line of a hatchback" also help blur conventional wagon lines. Five flush-mounted fixing points do away with a wagon's traditional fixed roof bars and allow a number of flexible roof-mounted storage solutions.

Carrying over the uncluttered Scandinavian design themes from the exterior, the Sport-Hatch replaces the 9-3's interior trim with a smoke-tinted, transparent material. This composite, currently being developed and tested, smoothly covers the center stack. Four large buttons, along with two smaller fan buttons, are all that's necessary to control separate passenger and driver climate controls and the various infotainment functions hidden behind the clear zone. The top of the center stack uses touch-screen control for audio, navigation and other functions. Said Lars Falk, head of interior design, "In overall design terms, the central translucent 'clear zone' brings a part of the exterior inside the car and unites the front and rear areas. It also allows us to provide information in an attractive way without lots of visible buttons and fixed cut-outs for screens." Of course, the powerful 9-3 fiber-optic electronic platform also supports front and rear TV and DVD screens and Bluetooth connectivity with e-mail, Internet and WAP access.

Comfortably settled in a leather-trimmed Recaro seat, the driver faces three deeply set circular portholes in the "clear zone" surface. A variety of information, in addition to traditional gauge functions, can be called up. For example, the speedometer is replaced with the view from the rear-facing camera when the driver shifts to reverse. The wheel has buttons for manual shifts as well as audio and phone controls. A "mini-mouse" on top of the shift lever can also control the center stack main display and all its assorted functions.

With sales of the new 9-3 sedan up more than double over a year ago, the team at Pixbo knew better than to mess with the successful ReAxs chassis design, though front and rear tracks have been widened 56- and 60mm, respectively. But more power is always welcome, and the all-aluminum 2.0-liter engine now puts out 250 bhp thanks to direct injection, Continuously Variable Cam Phasers and a new twin-scroll turbocharger that more effectively harnesses exhaust pulse energy. The twin-cam runs 1.2 bar of boost and is coupled to a "smart" Sentronic +2 five-speed automatic. The driver can shift manually from either the steering wheel buttons or the shift lever or choose a full, adaptive automatic mode. Two intermediate gears-2.5 and 3.5-are automatically engaged on kick-down.

The glass roof itself "...is something that is feasible, it could come," said Mauer. Like the 20-in. wheels wrapped with 245/40VR20 Michelin Pilot Sports, at best expect the roof to be an available option. The delicate, body-colored door handles and multi-layered headlight interior (though not the overall shape) will probably change, and the power hatch probably won't see production at all. Four-wheel drive remains a down-the-road possibility.

Expect most of the differences between the Sport-Hatch concept and the production version to be in the interior. There is discussion about the two separate rear seats as opposed to a more traditional three-person rear seat, and it is unlikely the rear cargo area's glass bottom will make it to production. The space underneath, however, seems like a great place to store wet or dirty gear; let's hope that stays. It also remains to be seen if the "clear zone" material and hidden-display technology can pass developmental and fiscal muster. All in all, Mauer asserts the concept car is about 80% production ready.

Lastly, the starter button lies in the traditional center console position just behind the shift lever, though it's now activated by a transponder in the "key" that also controls the passive keyless-entry system.

With only a clay model and a few short weeks to go before the Sport-Hatch's planned debut at the Frankfurt Auto Show, Michael Mauer had to make a decision. "The prototype shop [in Trollhattan] said, 'Give it to us, we can make it.' I had some concerns. With my former company, we tried the same thing, and after a couple of months we sent it to Italy." But without the twin luxuries of time and money, the new Director of GME(urope) Advanced Design placed his faith in the home team.

Of course, it helped that Saab had recently opened a newly remodeled office building in nearby Pixbo. Fully half of the new space is given over to the Saab Advanced Design Center, including a gymnasium-size studio reserved for Saab-only projects and a smaller studio also used for GME projects. Ringed by second-floor design office windows (or balconies), designers can watch as their creations take shape on the studio floors below.

Saab uses a program called Alias in its design efforts. In one darkened room, the team can watch as life-size 3-D images float in front of their eyes, and they can even conference-call the display with other GM design centers around the world. Once satisfied with the computer models, the mathematical data is fed to one of several large Zeiss CNC milling machines on the studio floor. After a metal-and-foam-framed mock-up of the car is coated in several inches of clay, their articulated arms spend the next several hours slowly carving the new shape. Designers then finish the mock-up by hand-scraping the final contours. Should he be unhappy with a shape, a designer can add clay and rework the shape either by hand or computer (the milling machines can also be used to measure a new contour and feed the data back into Alias).

Back in the prototype shop, the 3-D data from Alias was used to build simple tooling for the Sport-Hatch-specific parts. A 9-3-sedan prototype was used as a donor chassis. "We did a lot of preparation with the math data," said Mauer. "But still, the parts had to be produced, fit, painted and assembled. It's very impressive that this was built in-house." -TM

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