Saturday, October 11, 2003

Saab sheds irks, keeps quirks



By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Saab 9-3 Convertable
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Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels
Scandinavian convertible

Vital Statistics

What I drove: 2004 Saab 9-3 Arc Convertible, two-door, four-seater

Base price: $39,995 (Arc); $42,500 (Aero)

Price as tested: $44,814

Options on test vehicle: Cold Weather Package (heated front seats and headlight washers), Convertible Touring Package (rain-sensing wipers, Saab Park Assist, in-dash CD changer, remote window and top operation), Sentronic 5-speed automatic transmission, OnStar.

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, front-wheel drive

Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder producing 210 horsepower and 221 lb-ft torque

Transmission: Arc: 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic

Aero: 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 105.3 inches

Length: 182.4 inches

Width: 69.3 inches

Height: 56.4 inches

Weight: 3,480-3,700 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 21/29 (manual), 19/28 (automatic)

Warranty: Basic: 4 years/50,000 miles; no-charge scheduled maintenance: 3 years/36,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 years/50,000 miles

Safety: Dual-stage front airbags, front side torso airbags, Saab Active Head Restraints (front seats), seatbelt pretensioners and load limiters, child seat anchorage system, pop-up rear roll bars, brake assist, traction control, electronic stability program

Cool: Real four-passenger room, self-adjusting seat heaters and fast-acting roof

Uncool: Rear visibility, wind roar


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The only car more optimistic than a convertible is a convertible from a country that spends half the year in snow and darkness. By this measure, Saab's 9-3 Convertible is so idealistic it's nearly delusional.

It's interesting that a Northern European automaker would become known for its convertibles. Ever since Saab introduced its first convertible - the 900 - to the United States in 1986, the Swedish automaker has become synonymous with open-air motoring. Saab's four-season, four-seat convertibles have developed a cult-like following, and they account for 20 percent of all Saab cars sold in America.

The previous Saab 9-3 Convertible had its problems. When I test drove the 2001 model, its flexible body shuddered and shook so badly that my coffee cup - held securely in the 9-3's cup holder -splattered its contents all over my lap. The manual transmission felt clunky. And I hated the fact I had to put the car in reverse to remove the ignition key. I really wanted to like the Saab. But it got on my nerves.

The new 2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible has completely redeemed itself - and made me a Saab fan. Not only is the car beautiful to behold - with its clean Scandinavian lines and killer front end - it's also lost all the kinks.

The convertible uses General Motors' Epsilon architecture and is three times stiffer than the previous ragtop. Gone are the distracting shakes and shimmies. Gone is the clunky transmission. And gone is the need to put the car in reverse to remove the ignition key.

Trim Levels

The 9-3 Convertible comes in Arc ($39,995) and Aero ($42,500) versions, both featuring a high-output turbo that extracts 210 horsepower from its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine. The Arc comes with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission, and leather and wood interior trim. The Aero adds stickier tires, two-tone leather seats, a sport steering wheel, and a choice of a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic with Sentronic manual shifter.

This is a good driving car. It feels more powerful than its 210 horsepower rating, and the engine provides a satisfying turbo squeal, with no discernable lag. The suspension is compliant but controlled, with plenty of wheel travel, and the steering is easy and precise.

Saabish-ness

The 9-3 Convertible has done away with the irks, but kept the luxuries and endearing Saab quirks.

In Saab tradition, the ignition is located in the center console (to prevent knee injuries in frontal collisions), the handbrake is "disguised" as a part of the console, and a streamlined "Butterfly" cup holder pops out of the dash panel.

The 9-3 Convertible can carry four conscious adults in reasonable comfort.

The cockpit design is clean and simple, with easy-to-manage knobs and buttons, and no pesky computer screen to interpret. A small information display screen (telling time, temperature, trip mileage, etc.) is positioned atop the dash. The heater/AC vents have extra louvers for precise directional airflow.

My test car was equipped with GM's OnStar system, a $699 option providing one year of 24-hour access to an emergency support center, automatic alert following airbag deployment and stolen vehicle tracking.

Saab went to extra lengths to give its soft-top a hard-top's interior. The roof has built-in rain gutters so rain doesn't drip all over passengers when the doors are opened. The headliner is seamlessly fitted.

When the car is in park, it's hard to tell you're in a soft-top. Put the car in motion, though, and the ragtop betrays itself. There's so much wind roar, I kept checking to see if I'd left the rear windows down. The three-layer canopy has a glass rear window, but it's a dinky one, so visibility is poor.

One-button operation

Operating the top is a one-finger endeavor - press a button and the top goes down in 20 seconds.

What's really cool is that you can raise and lower the roof while traveling up to 18 miles per hour.

Put the roof down, and the automatic climate control kicks into manual mode, enabling the driver and front passenger to select from 11 different heat settings.

When the roof is raised, trunk space expands from 8.3 cubic feet to 12.4 cubes - making the 9-3 convertible's trunk the biggest in its class.

Swedish Safety

Saab says the 9-3 Convertible meets the same crash-test performance targets as the new 9-3 Sport Sedan, which just earned top ratings (and a "Best Buy" ranking) in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal offset crash test.

By combining sporty characteristics, killer looks and roomy practicality, Saab has created a winner of a four-seasons convertible.

The 9-3 Convertible is neither self-indulgent nor silly.

And with first-year sales estimated at only 9,500 cars, chances are if you drive one, you won't see yourself coming the other way.

Contact Carol Traeger at ctrigger@aol.com.



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