Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - Aero convertible
Extra body stiffness over predecessor, styling, roof mechanism, active and passive safety, steering response, brakes, cabin quietness, luggage space, storage space, equipement, price
Room for improvement
Extra weight over sedan, reduced performance over sedan, increased turbo lag over sedan, handbrake action
17 Sep 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
SAAB’s convertible is inextricably linked with the Swedish company’s image as a prestige car-maker.
Other Saabs in the limited local range may be suffering some sort of identity crisis, but the convertible is well entrenched in the minds of those with a hankering for reasonably affordable European soft-tops.
Even with its recognised limitations, the previous convertible was by far the most aspirational Saab. In fact, at times it accounted for more than one third of the company’s total local sales.
But a new model has been a long time coming and, along with expectations of a much-improved vehicle in terms of dynamics and apparent torsional strength, there’s also been a desperate hope at Saab that a new convertible would help maintain a flickering of interest in the whole 9-3 range.
Certainly the latest convertible is the most stylish iteration yet of the new 9-3 launched here in late 2002.
It retains most of the distinctive themes of the previous convertible – high sides, high rump, slit-eyed glass areas – but modernised enough to give a better sense of proportion.
And, most importantly, it banishes into history all of the previous model’s foibles.
The last 9-3 convertible was well known for the sense of disassociation between body parts imparted by slightly bumpy roads. Saab engineers had designed the dash area so most of the inevitable body flex that occurs with a large, open-topped vehicle focussed exactly where it was most noticeable – right at the steering wheel.
The sensation was quite strange: rather than a general shuddering in all directions, only lateral movement could be felt – the steering wheel seemed to vibrate from right to left, rather than up and down.
To be fair, no open-top four-seater comes to mind that doesn’t suffer some body shake. The Saab was structurally sound but conveyed the feeling it wasn’t, especially.
The new model suffers none of that. As you would imagine with an all-new body, the convertible Saab takes advantage of the latest techniques and understandings of how to make open-top cars more rigid. It achieves thoroughly competitive structural integrity with other prestige convertibles.
Torsionally, it is nearly three times the strength of the previous convertible (it has a deflection figure of 11,500Nm per degree). This is achieved through measures such as a large, closed metal casing between the rear wheel housings, larger side sills (32mm higher and 8mm wider, and with a 25 per cent larger cross-section than the sedan) incorporating an internal, full-length plate.
The convertible also gets the usual beefed-up A-pillars and a (magnesium) windshield header rail. Saab claims the structure is able to withstand approximately 3.5 tonnes, or 2.2 times the weight of the car.
In all, Saab says around 50 per cent of the convertible’s 383 structural body parts are unique and that 60 per cent of its body weight comprises high or ultra-high strength steel.
The new soft-top uses six braces, instead of five, and opens or closes in what Saab claims is a class-leading 20 seconds. To save weight, the whole soft-top frame is made from magnesium and there’s a self-retracting well in the boot that moves up and out of the way when the roof is up to allow extra storage space.
The roof folds and contorts in a different way to the previous model. The panel that conceals the stowed-away soft-top works in two stages. Unlike the previous soft-top, it is not hinged at the rear and lifts horizontally before being moved rearwards, parallel to the top of the boot.
Saab says that pulling the whole thing down tight, instead of hinging and latching it closed, contributes to improved reliability and better weather sealing.
Importantly, Saab says the convertible meets the same crash performance targets as the sedan. It uses pop-up rear rollbars like those pioneered by Mercedes-Benz, as well as the tougher body structure to do this. Front seat side airbags and Saab’s active head restraints help too.
With a Cd figure of 0.34, the aerodynamics are pretty good for a convertible, while a lot of work has gone into minimising the "ballooning" that once afflicted soft-top cars travelling at speed.
Probably the only significant disadvantage of all this is that, despite the use of magnesium, it adds weight.
The automatic 9-3 Aero convertible – the subject of this test - tips the scales at 1670kg, which is approaching 200kg more than an Aero sedan.
The result is a noticeable drop in performance levels, plus more obvious turbo lag when attempting a fast blast off the line. The bottom line for the Aero convertible is that despite the all-new, all-alloy engine’s impressive statistics on power (155kW at 5300rpm) and torque (300Nm from 2500 to 4000rpm) the displacement of just two litres always mitigates against it.
In auto form it’s certainly no slingshot, with a factory-official 0-100km/h time of 9.5 seconds. The six-speed manual Aero is better, but still not a class leader with its zero to 100km/h time of 8.0 seconds.
The weight also dips into fuel consumption, previously a strong point with turbo Saabs but nothing really special these days with the company talking about premium unleaded average figures of 9.9 litres per 100km - which is not quite as good as arch-rival Audi’s four-cylinder turbo A4 Cabriolet.
But the Saab’s torsional strength and the all-independent suspension system at least give it similar handling dynamics to the Aero sedan. The ride errs on the firmish side, but the quality of steering response and general levels of grip continue to demonstrate that the company has put well behind it the dodgy dynamics of the previous 9-3 – even if the steering is perhaps a little slower and less precise than the A4 Cabriolet.
On-road security is assured by the suspension’s capabilities, plus things like the standard electronic stability control, traction control and cornering brake control that raise levels of safety. The brakes are more serious than other 9-3s too, with bigger, ventilated discs at both front and rear.
And the Saab interior, while it is a fine showcase of all the Swedish design elements and is all very nicely put together at the Valmet automotive plant in Uusikaupunki, Finland, still somehow lacks the class of the Audi. Maybe this reflects the price differences which favour the Saab by up to $15,000 at the top level.
Living with the Aero convertible, as you’d imagine, is not all that difficult. Because the roof goes up in 20 seconds there’s rarely a worry about being caught out in sudden downpours and the on-highway experience is not that much different to a 9-3 sedan.
The light-coloured roof lining imbues a feeling of space and there’s a general air of silence that shows how far convertible design has come.
The rear seat is tighter of course than the sedan, but is at least bigger than the too squeezy previous model. And the powered front seats slide forward automatically at twice normal speed to allow relatively easy access. The boot will hold 352 litres with the roof up, which is quite useful even if it drops to 235 litres roof-down.
The good and not-so-good elements continue with the convertible too. There’s the night-panel instrumentation to minimise driver distraction after dark by focussing most illumination onto just the basic instrument – the speedo – and the too integrated handbrake that tends to catch the fingers if the driver is not careful.
Heated front seats, two-way adjustable steering column, auto-dimming rear-view mirror and numerous mini storage areas satisfy the need to locate things like sunglasses, mobile phones and other small bits of paraphernalia.
But despite the discreet bodykit comprising a rear spoiler, side sills, front and rear bumper and big-bore exhaust – as well as dedicated 17-inch alloy wheels – the Saab is not really a sports convertible. It just looks like one.
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