The tough, idiosyncratic Swedish Saab is the most unusual member of the General Motors auto family -- no other GM car could get away with an ignition switch between the front seats.
But never mind -- the sporty Saab convertible has been trendy since introduced in January 1986. And the latest Saab 9-3 Aero soft top is one of the most highly regarded convertibles on the market -- although not one of the best-selling soft tops.
2006 SAAB 9-3 AERO CONVERTIBLE
LIKES: Fast. Decent rear room. Nice handling. Smooth ride.
DISLIKES: Long, heavy doors. Audio and climate controls.
Nobody has explained exactly why Saab convertibles are trendy, but they always have had a singular charm. No other soft tops from any country have been exactly like them.
Some Saabs have been more unique than others since the Swedish automaker began selling cars here in the 1950s, after it began making autos in the late 1940s following years of being a respected aircraft producer.
The 900 hatchback was the first Saab to begin to approach mainstream status when introduced in 1979, and the later 9-3 sedan and station wagon have been accepted as near-mainstream models in this country.
Saab long has been an upscale car in Europe, which is largely why GM bought half of Saab in 1990 and the rest in 2000. GM fairly recently has attempted to expand Saab volume and make it profitable by introducing models that share Saab components with those from Subaru and mid-size GM SUVs such as the Chevrolet TrailBlazer.
For the most part, though, GM has left Saab alone. No Saabs ever really have become mainstream vehicles here, but the convertible has continued its winning ways year after year. Saab has produced nearly 250,000 convertibles since 1986 and plans to continue building them.
At $41,900, the 9-3 Aero convertible isn't particularly expensive for a fast, stylish European convertible with comfortable space for four adults. For instance, the lowest-priced BMW 3-Series convertible lists at $39,600, has tight rear seat room and is based on a 1999 design.
The front-drive 9-3 Aero convertible is loaded with comfort and convenience equipment, ranging from leather upholstery to all the power accessories you'd expect.
Lowering the top is simple as working a switch. It goes down and disappears from view under a hard rear cover in 18 seconds and goes up in 22 seconds -- not including the four seconds needed to lower or raise the side windows. Wind buffeting is average in the front for a top-down convertible at 65 mph.
The 9-3 Aero convertible's 12.4-cubic-foot trunk is among the largest of any soft-top model, but shrinks to 8.3 cubic feet when the top is down. The trunk opening is rather high but has a plastic lip to prevent scratching luggage, and its lid pops up well out of the way on hydraulic struts to prevent head-banging. The lid's interior lining is a nice touch, as is the large inside pull-down handle.
Safety features include front side air bags to protect the torso and head and a rollover bar designed to pop up in an impending tip. There also are standard anti-lock brakes and an electronic stability control system. Saab's active front head restraints protect against whiplash in rear-end collisions.
The 9-3 Aero convertible has an advanced turbocharged, dual-overhead-camshaft V-6, jointly developed by GM and Saab. This 2.8-liter engine kicks out 250 horsepower and an impressive 250 pound-feet of torque. It whisks the 9-3 Aero soft top from 0-60 mph in a brisk 6.6 seconds. Power delivery is smooth, as if the car has a larger, non-turbocharged six-cylinder.
The engine works with a standard short-throw 6-speed manual gearbox hooked to a light, long-throw clutch or a $1,350 six-speed automatic with a manual-shift feature. You can loaf in sixth gear at speeds as low as 20 mph without the drivetrain bucking and asking for a lower gear.
Fuel economy with the manual is an estimated 18 mpg in the city and an impressive 28 on highways. Figures with the automatic are nearly the same: 17 and 28. Premium-grade gasoline is recommended.
The rigidly built, 3,480-pound 9-3 Aero convertible provides responsive steering, superb handling with the standard sport suspension and a smooth ride. Stopping distances are short, with an easily modulated brake pedal.
The ignition switch is, of course, on the console between the front seats and takes getting used to for those who don't drive a Saab on a daily basis.
The generally no-nonsense but upscale interior has an aircraft-style instrument panel that contains gauges that can be quickly read. Climate and sound system controls can be easily used -- except for one quirk: climate and audio readouts are in a dashboard screen separate from controls for those systems and thus call for a driver to look in two places to do one task.
Visibility to the rear is mediocre, but large outside rearview mirrors help here.
Power front seats provide good side support in curves, although reaching front seatbelts to fasten them calls for awkward moves. The glovebox is large, and doors have storage compartments.
However, the long, heavy doors are inconvenient in tight parking spots, and extra effort is required to get in or out of the back seats if occupants aren't on the slim side.
The hood glides up on a hydraulic strut to reveal a large plastic engine cover that says "Saab V-6 Turbo'' and easily reached fluid filler areas.
Owners of this car should be careful when pulling up to low concrete barriers in front of, say, 7-Eleven parking spaces because the racy looking plastic bodywork beneath the front bumpers is very low and looks as if it could be easily damaged.
The 9-3 Aero convertible is handsome and entertaining -- and for those who don't want just another mainstream soft top car.