2004 Saab 9-3 Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
August 8, 2003

COPENHAGEN — This tiny city may be laced with canals like its wild sister Amsterdam, but living in Denmark’s capital is an altogether more restrained experience. Leave the illicit substances at home please — it’s so straight-laced and anti-commercial, chain stores are considered bad form, never mind red-lit windows and the accompanying biology lessons.

It’s tough to love cars here, too. Bicycles outnumber vehicles, so look every way before turning. Excise taxes make any four-wheeler hugely expensive — imagine paying nearly $50,000 for a Ford Focus. Don’t even think about gas; if the fumes don’t get you, the $5 a gallon price will knock you out. And convertible fans will shiver: the weather isn’t always as temperate as our 65-degree sunny day.

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2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible

2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible

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Despite these ugly facts, some people still own cars here. And a lot of them own Saabs — though not yet the 2004 9-3 Convertibles, dipped in caipirinha green or jet black and fairly dripping in nose-thumbing indulgence.

You might find it odd that Copenhagen was picked for the first drive of the new 9-3 Convertible — until you hear more stories of drunk Swedes and Danes celebrating midsummer with accordion versions of “Smoke on the Water.” More obviously, you might wonder why a company based in Europe’s Great White North is maybe most famous for its convertibles — until you drive Saab’s and realize no sun culture has a monopoly on carefree, four-wheel fun.

Body designs

Saab’s had their ragtop since the mid-1980s, when U.S. execs clamoring for more models to sell had their own ragtop fashioned by ASC and sold it to Swedish brass. The convertible has been a strong draw since, and has accounted for more than 20 percent of Saab’s sales in the U.S.

This time around, the goal was to make the top-down experience as close to roofed motoring as possible. The measure of any convertible is how well it behaves like its sedan or coupe counterpart, minus maybe 30 to 40 percent of its sheetmetal. In this case, there’s mostly good news to report. The new 9-3 Convertible is based on the architecture of the 9-3 that came out last year. The sedan’s been a hit for the tiny brand — for the first time ever, Saab’s marketing surveys found people were interested in the car’s styling first, as opposed to its engineering or perceived safety. Saab developed the 9-3 chassis from GM’s Epsilon architecture with the intent of convertiblizing it from the outset. And as such, the surgical removal of the top is far from fatal. Saab claims a body three times stiffer than the previous ragtop. As we toured Copenhagen’s cobblestone streets we felt a gentle tremor common to most convertibles — more than we felt in our last Benz CLK Cabrio, but unobjectionable.

2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible

2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible

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The top mechanism is classically simple. Push a button and the top maneuvers itself under cover of tonneau. The triple-layer roof flips out in 20 seconds, and has nice touches like a built-in rain gutter that prevents rain spills in passengers’ laps and a “CargoSET” trunk expander that folds up when the top is up to create more usable trunk room. There’s also a wind blocker that smoothes out the airflow in the cabin; even without it’s among the better convertibles for managing airflow.

Two models are offered: the Arc bases at $39,990 and comes with a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic with leather and wood trim. The Aero adds stickier tires, two-tone leather seats, matte chrome trim, a sport steering wheel and a choice of six-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic with Sentronic semi-manual control.

Powertrain and driving

The powertrain choices are pretty simple: in the U.S. we’ll receive only the 210-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder. Gearboxes include a five-speed manual unit on the base Arc model, a six-speed manual standard on the Aero, and a six-speed automatic with Sentronic semi-manual mode and optional steering-wheel-mounted control buttons available on either. With either powertrain there’s a light, elastic feel under acceleration: power builds in a snap of the throttle, with enough force to generate some light torque steer but without the V-8 rumble you might expect.

The front-drive 9-3 Convertible has an all-independent suspension. MacPherson struts with lower control arms handle the road-rationalizing duties up front, and a four-link rear has “ReAxs”, a passive amount of rear-wheel steering built into their geometry. Rack-and-pinion steering on our test vehicle proved a touch wandery on Sweden’s superhighway leading back to Denmark, though the larger problem was dealing with a Euro navigation system that directed us right through IKEA’s hometown instead of our airport destination, no matter how many menus we scrolled through.

The 9-3 Convertible’s safety hardware list is pretty extensive. In addition to pop-up rollover protection (150 milliseconds), it also has anti-lock brakes with Mechanical Brake Assist and Electronic Brake-force Distribution, stability control, Cornering Brake Control and traction control standard. The structure of the body is reinforced around its perimeter and at the A-pillars. There are front and side airbags for the front passengers. The seats have Active Head Restraints built in as well, which all together gave the 9-3 Convertible a five-star rating in European crash tests.

Interior motives

2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible

2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible

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The 9-3 Convertible’s interior is nearly identical to that in the 9-3 sedan, with a tilt/telescope wheel, a clear set of gauges and twin-zone climate control. The front seats have integrated seat belts, much favored for their tighter fit, and when flipped forward the seats move forward through a total of 9.5 inches of travel to make access to the rear seat a little easier. And they’re comfy: Swedish chairs usually look better than they feel, but these are soft in all the right places.

OnStar will be offered when the Convertible arrives this fall, base-priced at just under $40,000. But for now, it won’t offer satellite radio like much of the rest of GM’s lineup. And the troublesome navigation system offered in Europe won’t be brought to the States until it’s vetted more thoroughly.

It may not be the best car to pilot across frozen wastelands of the upper Midwest in January, but with a roomy four-passenger cabin and a thick, quick-to-flip convertible top, the 9-3 is the most Miami you can import in the off-season. And for that, Scandinavia is mighty thankful.

2003 Saab 9-3 Convertible
Base Price: $39,900 (Arc); $42,500 (Aero)
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter in-line four, 210 hp/221 lb-ft, front-wheel drive
Transmission: Five-speed automatic with Sentronic or six-speed manual
Length x width x height: 182.5 x 69.0 x 56.8 in
Wheelbase: 105.3 in
Curb weight: 3480-3700 lb
EPA City/Hwy: n/a
Safety equipment: Dual-stage “smart” airbags, side curtain airbags, Saab Active Head Restraint system, ABS, Traction Control, Mechanical Brake Assist, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, seatbelt pretensioners; optional stability control
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD audio, power doors and windows, leather seats, dual-zone climate controls, auto-dimming mirrors, power driver’s seat
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles; no-charge maintenance for three years/36,000 miles

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