The 2004 Saab 9-3 "all-weather'' convertible is part of Saab's new product offensive and promises to help this often-faltering automaker maintain strong sales momentum created mostly by the fairly new 9-3 sedan.
Higher sales would make Saab-owner General Motors happier than it has been with this Swedish car producer. The 2004 9-3 convertible shares the new GM platform used by the sleek 9-3 sedan, along with that sedan's drivetrain. Sharing GM-related components will save small Saab millions of dollars and result in better cars.
Saab sales were up a startling 81.6 percent in October and totaled 40,808 cars for the first 10 months this year, compared with 32,290 in the same year-ago period.
Saab's rugged hard-top models long have been popular in New England states, which have Swedish-style winter driving conditions. Saab convertibles have been considered chic in specific areas of the country, such as San Francisco; they've been bought by folks who want a different type of European convertible.
The new Saab convertible arrives nowhere near convertible season here, but it's better designed for year-round use. It has a snugger, more thickly padded power top, which quickly goes down and up at the touch of a button (no unlatching needed). It's deftly hidden by a hard tonneau cover, and there are even rain gutters to prevent water dripping onto the seats when doors are opened.
A $1,195 option package contains a feature that allows the top and windows to be lowered when an owner holds down a key fob unlock button. An automatic climate-control system adjusts to heat levels in top-down mode. You can talk to friends without shouting with the top down at highway speeds.
"We'd also like the more mainstream convertible to do much better in the trendy Los Angeles area, where the 9-3 sedan has done well -- and in the Chicago area, which never has been a hot spot for us,'' said Saab Cars USA spokesman Colin Price.
The new convertible would be a sharp top-down cruiser in either area, thanks to such things as a steeply raked windshield and sleeker body. The body has the same dimensions and front end sheet metal of the racy 9-3 sport sedan's, but differs otherwise. It almost looks as if it were an auto show concept car designed without a top.
Saab hasn't forgotten safety; the convertible has rear-seat roll hoops, which deploy in milliseconds if there's a chance of a rollover. Also standard are head-and-thorax front side air bags. Traction and stability-control systems help keep the car steady in dicey situations, and there's a brake assist feature for surer emergency stops.
Saab has been selling ultrasafe cars in America since the mid-1950s. But more mainstream designs that leave room for distinctive (some say "quirky'') Saab features, such as a console-mounted ignition switch between the seats, seems to be doing the trick for this automaker.
The new 9-3 convertible replaces an aged model that looked good but had marginal rigidity. That resulted in shakes and rattles, not to mention strictly average ride and handling. The new convertible has a body structure Saab says is three times stiffer. Whatever the stiffness, the new model has few shakes. Its steering is linear and it handles adroitly, while providing a smooth ride.
The front-drive setup puts it at a handling disadvantage with rear-drive rivals, although that's no handicap in normal driving, and "passive'' rear-wheel steering enhances roadability. Stopping power is good, with reassuring brake pedal feel.
The 9-3 convertible easily seats two tall occupants up front and two shorter ones in the rear, although there's little room to spare back there. The cockpit is nicely designed, although radio and sound-system controls are small and the raised top hinders rear visibility. The wooden part of the wood-and-leather trimmed steering wheel can be slippery when you're cranking the wheel for a turn.
The trunk is nicely shaped and fairly large for a convertible.
The 9-3 convertible comes as the well-equipped $39,995 Arc version and as the $42,500 Aero, which adds items such as a sport suspension and larger tires.
Both have a turbocharged and intercooled 2-liter four-cylinder engine that provides 210 horsepower and has only slight turbo lag. Its small for a car that weighs 3,480 to 3,550 pounds, but Saab is a master at extracting lots of power from small turbo engines. Acceleration is good from a standing start, and the 65-75 mph passing time is swift.
A larger, available V-6 would be nice, and Saab says it's considering such an engine for the convertible a few years down the road.
Estimated fuel economy is 19-21 mpg in the city and 28-30 on the highway, with the higher numbers gotten with a manual gearbox.
The Arc is offered with a five-speed manual gearbox or five-speed automatic transmission, while the Aero can be had with the automatic or a six-speed manual gearbox. The automatic costs $1,250 for the Arc and $1,350 for the Aero, which has steering wheel controls for manual shifting.
A $1,150 Touring Package has the automatic top/window-lowering feature, rain-sensing wipers, CD changer and rear park assist to prevent you from crunching an unseen child's bike. A $500 Cold Weather package has heated seats and headlight washers -- perfect for Chicago.
Most convertibles essentially are supposed to be pleasant top-down beach cruisers, so it's nice to find that a car such as the new Saab soft top can be a decent all-season auto.
2004 SAAB 9-3 CONVERTIBLE
Major redesign. Fast. Unique character.
Poor rear visibility. Small radio and climate controls. Resale value a question mark.