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Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Aero convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space, on-road competence, build quality
Room for improvement
Choppy low-speed ride, average performance of 1.6-litre version

21 Jun 2001

By TIM BRITTEN 09,06/2000

THE Saab 9-3 Aero convertible balances neatly between the base 9-3S and the thundering 165kW Viggen.

Its new low-friction, 2.0-litre engine is keenly responsive but stops short of the torque-steering antics of the bigger 2.3-litre turbo used in the Viggen convertible.

The suspension is toned down a little, too, providing sharper-edged handling than the base version but avoiding the no-compromise, bolted-down feel of the Viggen.

The result is a nicely rounded sporting convertible that makes its performance statement discreetly but is still capable of a fast blast when the driver feels inspired.

The Aero convertible has a higher power output than any of its direct rivals, which may make it a popular choice with performance enthusiasts also seeking prestige and exclusivity.

At its heart is a turbocharged, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine based on the powerplant introduced in the 9-5 in 1999.

Unlike the 2.0-litre 9-5's engine, which features a low-pressure turbocharger, the Aero uses a full-pressure blower that boosts power to an impressive 151kW at 5500rpm and torque to 280Nm from 2200rpm to 4600rpm.

The Saab engine is undoubtedly one of the smoothest four-cylinder powerplants on the market. Exploring the upper reaches of the rev band results in a sporting thrum being emitted by the chrome tailpipe but there is no trace of harshness.

A surge of acceleration is on tap from 2200rpm, the point where maximum torque is developed, but slip below this figure in the higher gears and the engine goes off the boil dramatically.

What this means is you cannot dawdle around town in top gear if you want sufficient reserves of acceleration to take advantage of gaps in traffic.

Third gear in the Saab keeps the engine in the optimum rev range around town while fourth is ideal for 80km/h zones.

Given the need to use the gearbox reasonably frequently, it is just as well the five-speed transmission is reasonably slick and user-friendly. The clutch is also well weighted and progressive.

Refinement levels are impressive with road and wind noise kept well suppressed, even in the convertible.

Although the Aero's suspension has been uprated to match its sporting aspirations, it still feels more oriented towards ride comfort.

Pushing the car through corners reveals slightly disappointing levels of body roll and understeer is always evident.

Hooking into tight corners results in the nose pushing wide and the body leaning over to a greater degree than expected in a performance-oriented car.

The power-assisted rack and pinion steering is well weighted but a lack of feedback compromises the level of driver involvement.

With up to 151kW driving the front wheels, torque steer is also not too far away should you choose to bury the right foot in first or second gear.

The interior ambience of the Saab is one of its biggest strengths. The instrument panel, wood-grained in the Aero, remains one of the simplest but most efficient among today's offerings. Controls are arranged to be easily found and operated, and the instruments are clear and simple. The only real black mark is the one-way-only steering column adjustment.

The leather-trimmed, power adjusted front seats include the active head restraints now common to all Saabs and are basically the same as the bigger 9-5 model. They are comfortable and generally supportive, except under strong lateral loads where they allow passengers to move around a little.

The two-passenger rear compartment, which offers a fold-down rear seat for access to the small boot, is tight and cosy rather than spacious and the rear legroom problem that besets 9-3 sedans is even more noticeable. The boot, smaller by far than the hatchback 9-3s but not bad for a convertible, can be made larger by clipping up the vinyl bag that contains the roof when folded down. Sensors prevent the roof folding down if the boot bag is not open.

Operating the convertible roof is simple and quick enough to allow for a quick reconfiguration during a stop at the traffic lights. Just twist and pull the central handle between the sun visors, depress the console-mounted switch and wait a few moments while the roof goes through a wondrous series of folds and tucks before exposing passengers to the universe.

Raising the roof is just as easy and just as quick so Saab's convertible owners are unlikely to be caught out by sudden storms.

The quality of the Saab is up to scratch in the luxury class although the roof needs constant care to avoid the squeaks and rattles that are part and parcel of convertible ownership.

Rear visibility is not one of the car's fortes and the high rump means reverse parking requires a bit of guess work on the part of the driver. But the convertible at least gets a proper glass rear window, complete with demister.

There is little lacking in the Aero's standard equipment list, which includes dual front and side airbags, automatic climate control, a six-stack CD player, cruise control, trip computer, remote central locking, power windows and mirrors, heated front seats, leather steering wheel and leather upholstery.

An anti-lock braking system with electronic brake force distribution is also standard.

Externally, the car is distinguishable from its lesser siblings by its front and rear spoilers, side skirts, rear bumper extension and 6.5x16-inch alloy wheels.

The more flexible convertible body and the tighter Aero suspension tend to magnify the stiffness to which the 9-3 suspension is still prone, but considering this is a questionable area even in the base 9-3 convertible, the Aero is really quite comfortable for a vehicle with sporting aspirations.

If you want a Saab convertible with all the fruit, and you also want a strong measure of accelerative performance, the Aero version is definitely the way to go. It is difficult to understand why Saab persists with the almost as expensive but less punchy SE version.

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