Car reviews - Saab - 9-3 - S convertible
Price, interior ambience, easy to live with
Room for improvement
Ride/handling below class average, very tight back seat
30 Mar 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
SAAB loves its 9-3 convertible, with good reason. Not only does it represent a high proportion of overall 9-3 sales, it is also by far the biggest-selling convertible in Australia.
More than any other model in Saab's range, it defines the company's position in the marketplace. It has achieved a degree of street credibility other car-makers with convertibles would very much like to have.
The Saab has been around since just after the launch of the new-generation 900 series in early 1994, undergoing several updates before becoming the 9-3 in 1998.
It replaced the previous 900 series convertible with a design that benefitted from the fact the new 900 range was planned from the outset to include a topless version.
So it lost much of the body shake that characterised the previous car, although it did retain some of the scuttle shake unavoidable in a four-seat convertible.
Early problems with the electrically-operated convertible roof saw it replaced with a hydraulic version in later 900 models, well before the arrival of the 9-3.
The 9-3 convertible gets a larger rear window (made of glass, which is much better than the plastic used in some opposition convertibles - the BMW 3-series for example), along with an improved latching system requiring just one central handle to be operated, rather than the twin latches used in the previous model.
In early 1999 it also got the low-pressure turbocharged engine as standard powerplant.
So the 9-3 convertible drives pretty much the same as 9-3 five and three-door models - a smooth, punchy engine and what could only be described as stodgy handling characteristics.
The 2.0-litre turbo engine is one of the car's greatest strengths. It produces 113kW at 5500rpm and 219Nm of torque at 3600rpm. It is generally unaffected by turbo lag but the heavier convertible is still a little reluctant to move away briskly, although it will respond satisfactorily to some encouragement from the driver.
The performance is noticeably improved over the previous normally aspirated 2.3-litre car and is made even more pleasant by the turbo engine's smoothness.
Either the standard five-speed manual gearbox or the optional three-mode automatic prove good companions for the convertible but as it is not really a driver's car, most would do well to simply specify the automatic.
All Saab 9-3s handle with supreme safety but that does not mean they feel lively and responsive to the driver.
The convertible turns in well enough but the driver needs to be committed to applying plenty of steering lock so the car can follow its chosen course. Once committed, there is little that will induce a 9-3 to move off line.
The 9-3 convertible is a cruiser, not a sports car.
Ride quality was improved with the 9-3's relatively extensive rework of the MacPherson strut front suspension but is still not class leading.
The more flexible convertible body tends to magnify the harshness to which the 9-3 chassis is still prone. It may not suffer the crash-through that afflicted the 900 convertible but it still induces some gritting of teeth when large road disturbances are encountered.
The interior ambience of the Saab is one of its biggest strengths. The instrument panel 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 front seats, which include the active head restraints now common to all Saabs, are basically the same as the bigger 9-5 model and 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 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 prestige class although the roof needs constant care to avoid the squeaks and rattles that are part and parcel of convertible ownership.
The convertible is available in base S form which means it gets an LPT turbo engine, leather seats, alloy wheels, air-conditioning, trip computer, single-disc CD player and all the Saab safety equipment including twin front airbags, side airbags, active head restraints and anti-lock brakes.
The SE model gets the stronger 136kW turbo engine along with wood grain on the instrument panel, a CD stacker in the boot, climate control air-conditioning and a different set of alloy wheels.
The Saab 9-3 convertible remains the best proposition in the segment.
It is nowhere near as expensive as a BMW 3 Series convertible (still based on the previous model) but offers most of what four-passenger soft-top buyers are looking for. And it is bigger than a Peugeot or Golf.
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