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First Oz drive: New 9-3 a quantum leap

Platform to success: The new convertible uses GM’s state-of-the-art Epsilon platform.

Saab’s new 9-3 convertible is a good drive as well as good pose value

7 Nov 2003

THE importance of the new generation 9-3 convertible to Saab in Australia simply cannot be underestimated.

The old model, right now fading out of showrooms as the new model is ushered in, accounted for something like 37 per cent of the smaller Swede’s local sales.

That’s the highest share of any Saab market anywhere in the world, translating to about 1000 sales here in 2004.

Doesn’t sound like a lot does it? But Saab survives at the margins, with a product range too narrow to gain mass acceptance the way the big prestige and luxury players do.

It’s a problem that’s reflected worldwide and acknowledged by the company’s headquarters. With funding support from parent General Motors – required after a big loss in 2002 - it has set out to rapidly bolster its product line-up. A Subaru Impreza-based small car called the 9-2X and a big four-wheel drive based on the Chevrolet Trailblazer truck called the 9-7X, are first up.

Both are aimed at the lucrative US market and are shaping up as no-shows here. That means there might not be another new Saab bodyshape offered in Australia until the 9-3 Sport-Hatch (wagon) is launched in late 2005.

Which brings us back to the 9-3 convertible.

In a market that is growing here as more rivals – such as the Audi A4 Cabriolet 1.8T – enter the fight, the latest Saab needed to be a quantum change. And it is.

Certainly it deserves to be described as all-new, unlike the original 9-3 when it made the transition from the 900 nomenclature back in 1998.

Where that car was dogged by its fundamental design source being ancient Opel/Vauxhall underpinnings, the new convertible uses GM’s state-of-the-art Epsilon platform, the very same design that goes under the 9-3 sedan launched here late in 2002.

That means the convertible grows significantly in all vital measurements - width up 51mm, wheelbase up 70mm, track front by 64mm and track rear by 56mm.

But perhaps the most telling figure is the improvement in torsional rigidity. Saab claims this car is 300 per cent (yes, 300!) better off, which tells you how loose the old convertible was.


A neat touch is how the rear cover moves back horizontally – rather than flipping up - to allow the roof to be stored away

The 9-3 convertible also shares with the sedan the same fundamental MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, rack and pinion steering and transverse-mounted turbo 2.0-litre engine driving the front wheels.

The body that drapes over the chassis is only a few millimetres longer than the old car, indicating the designers have managed to push the wheels out into the corners far more. There are still visual links too, notably in the grille.

Other familiar cues are the four-seat capacity and the cloth roof, now triple skinned and automatically capable of opening or closing in 20 seconds – including via the remote control while outside the car, or while travelling at up to 30km/h.

A neat touch is how the rear cover moves back horizontally – rather than flipping up - to allow the roof to be stored away. No reason to do it other than it’s different and looks good, Saab says.

Two models are being offered by Saab, the Linear and the Aero. The former is on sale now, the latter by March next year.

The pricing start point has taken a $5000 hike, with the five-speed manual Linear set at $72,900. Add $2500 for the five-speed Sentronic automatic. There’s also a variant called the Linear Luxury Pack, which adds $4000 to the base price.

The close-ratio six-speed manual Aero will be $89,900, with the auto topping the range at $92,400.

The fundamental distinction between Linear and Aero comes in performance. Engine outputs are the key to it, the Linear’s softer tune delivering 129kW at 5500rpm and 265Nm between 2500rpm and 4000rpm. Interestingly, this figure is well above the 9-3 sedan Linear, actually coinciding with the Arc’s tune.

The Aero lines up against its sedan counterpart exactly, delivering 155kW at 5300rpm and 300Nm between 2500rpm and 4000rpm from its higher-pressure engine.

The Linear comes standard with 16-inch wheels, the Aero gets 17s, Pirelli PZERO Rosso tyres and a sportier suspension package which lowers the car 10mm. The Aero also gets bigger brakes but neither has discs as big as the equivalent sedan (in terms of engine power), an interesting decision considering the drop-tops are up to 195kg heavier.

The weight also has an impact on performance claims, with both cars 0.5 seconds slower to 100km/h in manual form than their sedan equivalents – Linear gets there in 9.0 seconds and the Aero in 7.5 seconds. Naturally, fuel consumption is also a little worse.

Some of that weight can be put down to the body reinforcing necessary for dynamic and safety reasons in a topless car. There’s strengthening of the A-pillars and sills, pop-up rear roll bars, fully integrated front seatbelts and reactive head restraints in the front seats, and front and side airbags. Saab is forecasting a five-star Euro NCAP result for the car.

No shortage of acronyms either – MBA (brake assist), ESP (stability control), EBD (brakeforce distribution), CBC (cornering brake control) and TCS (traction control) are all standard.

Baseline equipment levels include leather upholstery, heated seats, dual zone climate control, trip computer, cruise control, single CD audio system and front foglights.

The Luxury Pack adds dual electric front seats, six disc in-dash CD changer, park assist and alarm.

And Aero? It gets different leather in a two-tone including the sports steering wheel, matt chrome interior trim highlights, a more aggressive bodykit with sill covers, bumper apron and visible sports exhaust and premium audio system.

A couple of things to note. There’s no satellite navigation available as yet in Australia because Saab’s partner Navtech will not have completed local mapping for up to two years. Also, metallic paint is a $1200-$1500 option. If you don’t want to pay the extra, there are just two choices left in the pallette – red and black.

Has to be said though, Saab is not alone among luxury makers in pulling this stunt. BMW charges $1600 for metallic paint for 3 Series, while Benz heads beyond $2000 for some models.

PRICING:
Saab 9-3 Linear convertible $72,900
Saab 9-3 Linear convertible (a) $75,400
Saab 9-3 Linear convertible Luxury Pack $76,900
Saab 9-3 Linear convertible Luxury Pack (a) $79,400
Saab 9-3 Aero convertible $89,900
Saab 9-3 Aero convertible (a) $92,400

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

IT SHOULD come as no surprise for you to learn that the new generation 9-3 does feel to be a significant driving improvement over its predecessor – even if our short drive in Melbourne’s Dandenongs was not conducive to hard and fast conclusions.

Gone is much of the old car’s looseness that was a combination of chassis flex, torque steer, bump steer, rack rattle and wheelspin. It is replaced by a degree of poise and even enjoyment unfamiliar to convertible owners of yore.

With only the Linear to sample, power delivery was a little flat low-down, but quickly swelled smoothly and quietly into tangible passing power once the torque curve kicked into its strongest band.

We only had the chance to sample the auto gearbox, which proved a willing accomplice to the engine, avoiding unnecessary changes and responding quite well when in sequential manual mode.

The Aisin AW-built auto has a little mechanical/electrical trick that actually turns it into a seven-speed at certain speed ranges when kicking down from fifth gear, dropping into 2.5, a gear between second and third, or 3.5. Personally, I couldn’t tell when it was happening.

There’s still a niggle of steering wheel kickback in bumpy corners, but now it’s enjoyable rather than overwhelming.

Top up, the 9-3 is impressively quiet and serene inside. Top down with the windows up it is still quite good, although we didn’t sample the wind-blocker that covers the rear seating space. Speaking of which, Saab claims a significant improvement in rear seat space, but like most convertibles of this type it still seemed pretty tight to us.

This is really a two-up car with the rear seat better used for extra luggage. Not that the boot is unusable, with 235 litres of space top down and 352 litres with the top up, courtesy of the clever CargoSET concertina storage well.

Being a Saab, the cockpit is a friendly place to be – big, luxurious seats with plenty of adjustability immense, readable dials functional centre console and height and reach adjustable steering wheel.

That comfort and user-friendliness was the old car’s best point. But now Saab has a convertible model that can trade on a lot more than that.

It seems entirely competent on the road as well as having the required pose value for the well-to-do suburbs. In essence, a much better all-round package.

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