Lifestyle

Sexy Swede


Saab's most popular drop-top maintains the charms and quirks that have made it an enthusiasts' choice for 20 years

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Lately it's been difficult for Saab to get a fair shake from the motoring press. The chorus of complaints seems to suggest that the Swedish auto maker's U.S. parent, General Motors (GM), is steadily eroding away all of the brand's quirky 'Saabness.' Critics point to the retiring 9-2X, snarkily dubbed the "Saabaru" for its shared DNA with Subaru's Impreza/WRX, and the newer Chevrolet Trailblazer-derived 9-7X SUV(see BusinessWeek.com, 1/5/06, "Saab's SUV Strom Trooper").

But if there's one model that's impervious to such denigration, in the press or on the road, it's the 9-3 Aero Convertible.

That's partly because this year the Saab convertible is celebrating 20 years of production, solidifying its status as a long-running emblem for the brand: stylish, fun, and—yes—still quirky. It's a good thing too, because overall, the 9-3 is the most popular model in the majority of Saab dealerships. So far this year Saab has sold more than five times the number of 9-3's as the bigger, more expensive 9-5 model. For the first five months of 2006, 9,895 9-3s were sold, compared to 1,747 9-5s for the same period.

And since it is such an important vehicle for Saab, currently and historically, I'm happy to report that the $44,915 9-3 Aero Convertible version I drove was a delight. That price includes a $1,195 touring package, $550 for heated seats and headlamp washers, $550 for metallic paint, and a $720 destination charge. Note that the basic 9-3X Convertible retails for considerably less at $37,220, which is lower than competing offerings from Audi, BMW, and Volvo.

FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH.

But the extra dough for the Aero version is worth it. It gets you a lowered ride—about 10 millimeters over the base model—firmer springs, stiffer shock absorbers, two-toned leather seats, 17-in. wheels, a number of whiz-bang cabin accessories, and, best of all, an outstanding 2.8 liter turbo-charged V6 that unleashes 250 horses.

Psychologists say that 20 is the new 16, and driving this car equipped with this engine, I believe it. Though the 9-3 Convertible has more than two decades of production behind it, it feels as peppy, rambunctious, and energetic as a newly-licensed teenager.

In all honesty, at first turn of the key I was a bit disappointed at the muted response from under the Aero's hood. I'd just wrapped up reviewing the monstrous and powerful 500 horse-driven American-made Shelby GT500 , and wasn't prepared for this well-mannered Swede (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/9/06, "American Idol").

TRUE COLORS.

But where the Aero's V6 might fail to impress right out of the gate, it more than makes up for it in on the road. Simply put, this car is a natural-born sprinter. Acceleration from 0 to 60 is a very respectable 7 seconds, but the car really shines as it leaps without any hesitation between 30 and 60 mph and again between 70 and 100.

Over the course of a weekend I found myself ceasing to ask "can I get over in time" and coming to accept that, yes, pretty much, unless there was a car right next to me, I could always get over to the next lane. Merging into high-speed traffic, the Aero is confident and silky smooth. I can't help thinking it's a little like the wallflower at the dance who can really bust a move, but only after a few cups of punch.

In town, the sport-tuned suspension didn't feel as stiff as I would have imagined, or preferred for that matter, but the Aero threw itself into and out of country road curves with genuine aplomb. There's no over-roll and the handling is crisp enough at the limits, though I did manage to make the wheels chirp slightly on particularly quick turns. I was also surprised and pleased to note no turbo lag during my time in the car.

YOUNG BUCK.

Saab has always billed the 9-3 Convertible as a "four-season four-seater." Though I doubted the former claim, the car won me as all-weather-practical after I spent just a short amount of time driving in wet New York weather under its soft top. The dual climate-controls automatically become more sophisticated when the top is up, as they would be in a luxury coupe or sedan. But most astounding was the lack of road noise. At freeway speeds with the top up, the Aero is as quiet as many other regular sedans.

Inside, the Saab's cabin is a success through and through. My two-toned black-on-white leather seats were handsome and not nearly as over-the-top as most two color interiors. Forgoing the stuffy and formulaic wood-and-leather trim found in many other sports sedans, the 9-3's dash is minimally accented and has a young, sporty look — particularly the steering wheel, which is also equipped with stereo controls.

The dash gives you $44,915-worth of buttons and dials to regulate everything from the seat warmers to the CD player. Some might complain of clutter, but this is what I expect from a luxury car at this price point. All the gauges are attractive and clad in an Air Force-green glow—a nod no doubt to Saab's aviation heritage.

SOUND SURROUND.

A "night panel" mode takes down the majority of the lights excepting the speedometer, which itself is only illuminated to 90 mph, making the cabin lighting all about you and the drive. There is also a turbo needle that seemed a bit superfluous to me. (Even the manual suggests it may not be accurate under "certain barometric conditions," whatever that might mean.)

The 300-watt audio system does a great job of keeping up with wind noise when the top is down. The stereo can even be set to automatically match audio volume to road noise. An auxiliary audio-in jack is brilliantly placed next to an additional power outlet inside the center console, making listening to an iPod simple and cable-free.

The seats, meanwhile, are just plain dreamy. Indeed, a drop-top plus a crisp day plus toasty seat-warmers may be one of the most enjoyable automotive combinations. Even in the back, room is surprisingly plentiful.

ACME BRAND.

The 9-3 does feature the most ridiculous cup holder I have ever come across. Until recently, cup holders have often been an afterthought for European designers from countries where owners rarely eat or drink in their cars. (My favorite example of afterthought design: Volvo's cup holders in early-2000s V70 wagons were integrated into the center arm rest such that opening the console underneath necessarily meant spilling everything everywhere.)

The Aero's dash-mounted cup holder takes the cake. Pushing a small button makes the device flip out of the dash in nunchaku fashion and with karate-chop force. It's the automotive equivalent of a Sharper Image beard trimmer that also records voice-memos—useless and kind of stupid.

What's more, though it's positioned well, it feels flimsy and I was afraid even the smallest Evian bottle I could find would bust it. And putting it back requires an annoyingly forceful push from the driver. Needless to say, I didn't play with it much for fear of breaking it.

This Saab also maintains the manufacturer's reputation for safety. The 9-3 was a "top safety pick" for 2006 by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety, earning top scores in nearly every category. The plant in Austria where the convertible is put together has earned high quality awards from JD Power.

I wish Saab would explore a rear-wheel 9-3 either as a sedan, convertible or both. That would allow—I believe—the Swedes to finally and definitively take on BMW's sport stronghold, the 3 Series. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend the 9-3 Aero Convertible to those looking for a fun, sporty, and even quirky alternative to similar offerings from BMW, Audi, and Volvo. All in all, it more than stacks up.

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