Originally published in November, 2003 - By John LeBlanc
It’s hard to ignore the seasonal signs of hibernation. Available daylight has become precious. Lawn furniture is overdue for storage, and you’ve probably already had to scrape frost from your windshield. I’m also reminded of the ritual of “putting away the ragtop for the winter.” Preparing a convertible car for hibernation, and driving a winter beater in the interim, only made the warm days of spring seem that much more distant.
To remove the separation anxiety convertible owners have traditionally suffered during a long Canadian winter, several automakers have recently launched all-weather, four-seat convertibles. These machines have multilayered tops that are tauter and quieter than any previous ragtops. You don’t need to count on increased global warming to enjoy them year-round. New entries in the premium four-seat convertible market for 2004 included Audi’s A4 Cabriolet 3.0 ($61,700) and Mercedes-Benz’s CLK320 Cabriolet ($73,800). Recently joining this class is Saab’s 9-3 Convertible ($58,000), based on the 9-3 sedan that was launched in 2003.
From the windshield back, Saab has virtually built a whole new car. With the touch of one button, the powered top can easily be stowed under a folding, hard canopy. Despite the more chamfered leading edge that has been worked into the trunk lid area, the car is still recognizable as a 9-3. The Canadian company Magna Steyr builds these Swedish-branded convertibles in Austria. Thanks in part to the sedan’s donated platform, the new 9-3 Convertible is considerably superior to the last version in chassis integrity. Saab claims a nearly 200 per cent improvement. Nonetheless, in the car I was in, the steering wheel and rearview mirror shook over mildly potholed roads, giving away that the Saab was notably less rigid than a CLK Cabriolet.
You’ve probably heard Saab’s boast that its car’s ergonomics and instrumentation are “inspired” by the fighter jets the parent company historically made, but frankly, the controls are just hard to figure out. The 9-3 had driving information scattered all over its interior. The Saab Information Display (SID) was found in the centre of the dash beneath the windshield and provided information such as tire pressure warnings. A secondary display in the centre stack was for radio and climate settings. A third window in the instrument binnacle in front of the driver held further trip computer data. Too distracting, I would think, even for a fighter pilot.
Some 9-3 Convertible exclusives would make long-term ownership a pleasure. Like the ability to drop the top with the key fob, or the separate climate-control settings that automatically kick in when you’re in alfresco mode. Hit one of the window buttons, and voilà, all four windows drop for true fresh-air motoring.
Overall interior materials quality is similar to the hardtop 9-3: adequate for this class, and not to the standards of what’s found in the not-that-much-more expensive Audi and Mercedes-Benz convertibles. For those who ride in the rear, the back seat is well cushioned, even if legroom is tight for anyone over six feet tall. This is a regression from the last 9-3 ragtop; the CLK now leads in this area of comfort. For the driver, the 9-3's tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and the exceptionally supportive front seats that come with the Aero package ($3,000) made it easy to find a comfortable driving position.
Comfortable, top-down cruising is a major part of a modern convertible’s portfolio; here the Saab certainly succeeds. Even at highway speeds, it’s quite easy to listen to the audio system or talk to your passengers. At the detriment of losing the rear passenger space, there is an optional windbreaker that does an effective job of keeping expensive hairdos from unraveling.
“Comfortable” will also describe its on-road performance. Despite a curb weight that’s 222 kilograms less than an Audi A4, the Saab’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is 10 horsepower shy of the Audi’s V-6 engine and can’t match its low-end torque. My car had the five-speed automatic with optional steering wheel paddles that were very effective in keeping the driver’s spinning hands on the steering wheel while switching cogs. Other manufacturers who provide manumatic transmissions take note.
When accelerating in turns, it felt like Saab has engineered out any trace of front-wheel-drive torque steer. Guiding the last generation’s 230-h.p. Viggen model down the path one had chosen was akin to wrestling a bear. Combined with the passive rear-wheel steering, the quick steering allowed the Saab to pirouette through tighter corners in a manner that reminded me of a well-sorted hot-hatch, not a cruisin’ convertible.
The lightweight Saab surely holds its own compared to the heavier Audi, and is more confidence-inspiring than the Mercedes when you’re exploring its handling limits. Overall, these were not dissimilar to the characteristics I found in a base 9-3 sedan I drove last year: nice handler, shame about the engine.
Like the other convertibles in the class of 2004, you can drive a 9-3 Convertible through a Canadian winter with the top up with the same comfort you would experience in a cosy, tin-top coupe. Arguably just as stylish, the Saab 9-3 Convertible is less expensive than its contemporaries. Unfortunately, if you account for the four-cylinder engine, less-than-Rock-of-Gibraltar chassis and inferior interior appointments, that price advantage disappears faster than a setting November sun.
Nonetheless, the Saab’s all-year capabilities, enthusiastic handling traits and svelte exterior styling may be enough to sway your decision to buy this very modern convertible.
2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible
Type: Convertible, front-wheel-drive
Price as tested: $64,100 plus $1,050 freight (base: $58,000)
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder, dual overhead camshafts; 210 h.p. at 5,300 r.p.m., 221 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,500 r.p.m.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic with manual shift feature
Suspension: MacPherson struts (front), independent four-arm multilink (rear)
Brakes: Disc/disc with antilock, electronic force distribution, emergency brake assist and cornering brake control
Tires: 225/45R17Wheelbase: 2,674.62 mm (105.3 in)
Curb weight: 1,678 kg (3,700 lb.)
Notable standard features: Climate control, leather seats, power front seats, traction control, side air bags
Options: Aero package (body kit, two-tone leather seating surfaces, sport chassis, tire pressure indicator, Onstar, five-speed automatic steering wheel shift paddles: $3,000); Touring Package (xenon lights, Homelink, six-CD changer, rain-sensor wipers: $2,500), Nocturnal Blue paint ($600)Consumer Reports predicted reliability: AverageFuel consumption, L/100 km (m.p.g.): City: 12.5 (23), Hwy. 7.8 (36)Fuel type: Premium (recommended)Warranty, yrs./km: 4/80,000