"We are very committed to the Saab brand."
Those exact words were uttered by none other than GM product czar Robert Lutz during the 9-3 convertible's introduction. General Motors has held a 50-percent stake in Saab since 1990 and a 100-percent stake since 1999, and the division has struggled to increase total sales figures and improve market share leaving many to question the long-term prognosis of this Swedish brand. But according to Lutz's statement, and backed up by a string of new models scheduled to debut in the next 18 months, it seems Saab isn't going anywhere except maybe into the mainstream.
Brand loyalists noted with some dismay that the 9-3 sedan, redesigned for the 2003 model year, traded in Saab's traditional hatchback design for a conventional fixed rear window and trunk. But as the traditionalists moan, Saab increased its January-through-July 2003 sales by 19 percent, recording the best sales numbers in the company's 47-year history. Now comes the drop-top version of the all-new 9-3, and like the sedan from which it springs, this model melds conventional (and some progressive) design elements without wholly losing its Saab-ness.
For instance, the top mechanism is fully automatic and takes less than 20 seconds to retract under a hard tonneau cover. The cover itself neither flips forward nor swings back. Instead, it rises nearly straight up, looking somewhat like a cat preparing to strike. Once into this elevated position there is ample room for the soft top to slide under the cover and disappear. With the top down the 9-3 convertible could arguably be the best-looking ragtop in its segment (think BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Volvo C70 and Mercedes CLK). Like the previous model, the new convertible has a distinctive, upswept profile that gives it a notably "wedgelike" shape. But unlike the last-generation 9-3 convertible, this one manages to have a high trunk without obstructing rear visibility, as the 2002 model did in our last Luxury Convertible Comparison Test.
One of the 9-3's new, trick features is the "CargoSET" automatic trunk expansion system. Most convertibles have a specific (and often limited) amount of trunk space, while a few offer expanded trunk room when the top is up but accessing this additional space requires manually shifting or sliding a shelf or cover inside the trunk. With CargoSET, Saab has created an automatic trunk expansion system that uses a flexible storage well. With the top down, there is 8.3 cubic feet of storage space inside the trunk, but raise the top and this number expands to 12.4 cubic feet automatically. Both numbers are by far the largest in this class.
Safety, another Swedish hallmark, is addressed in the new convertible by the standard 9-3 items ABS, stability control, front passenger "smart" airbags, two-stage head/torso side airbags, active head restraints as well as some new items unique to the ragtop. One of these is the "DynaCage" rollover protection system that combines seatbelt pre-tensioning with pop-up rear roll bars (they deploy when a rollover is determined to be imminent) and strengthened A-pillars. To improve their effectiveness, as well as the car's styling, the front seatbelts are fully integrated into the front seats. This keeps them in their optimum position for passenger protection and comfort, regardless of seat position. It also removes the need for a B-pillar mounting system, which further removes the need for even small B-pillars, thus adding to the car's clean styling when the top is down.
It was good knowing all of those safety systems were in place as we headed into the canyons to evaluate the car's driving dynamics. The 9-3 convertible comes in two trim levels, Arc and Aero, both of which include the high-pressure turbo, 210-horsepower version of Saab's 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder engine. We're glad to see that Saab isn't bothering with the weaker 175-horsepower engine for its premium convertible. However, we should note that the previous 9-3 could be had in Viggen form, and that version had a 230-horsepower engine. While most competitors in this segment utilize six-cylinder (or five-cylinder, in the case of Volvo) powertrains, Saab remains loyal to the turbocharged, four-cylinder philosophy. The result is a vehicle that feels wholly capable in terms of acceleration, though low-end torque (especially in models equipped with the five-speed automatic) betrays the engine's turbo nature.
Though engine power was not an issue, positive upshifts from said automatic were. As with every version of the latest 9-3 we've driven over the past year, this one refused to shift up with the level of alacrity we prefer. Downshifts were never an issue, coming quickly when the transmission was left in fully automatic mode, or when using the manual mode operated via the shifter or buttons on the steering wheel. We doubt the upshifting issue would be a deal-breaker for most customers, as it's more subtle than overt, but enthusiasts will notice it. For those individuals, we would recommend either the available five-speed manual transmission (on Arc models) or the six-speed manual (on Aero models).
Enthusiasts will also notice how buttoned down this open car feels when it's hustled along twisting mountain roads. Saab claims the 2004 model is three times as stiff as the previous convertible. Does that mean this one is super stiff, or was the previous version just really flexy? Judging by the car's secure feel over bumps, we're inclined to believe the latter. Steering feel is excellent, as is braking confidence due to the easily modulated pedal. As with any front-drive car you don't have the option of steering with the gas pedal, but the "ReAxs" four-link independent rear suspension design, which allows for passive rear-wheel steering, gives the 9-3 more aggressive turn-in (and reduced front-end plow) than you might expect. When driven aggressively on high-speed sweepers, the car felt stable and composed at a level that should surpass the needs of the target audience.
Inside the 9-3, you'll find the standard-issue Saab traits. These include a console-mounted ignition switch, relatively stark design themes (though you can get a "light room" package that uses beige instead of gray for major interior components) and a "Night Panel" gauge cluster setting that illuminates only primary instrumentation to reduce driver distraction at night. We also liked the soft, bright-colored headliner that gives the convertible an upscale, fixed-roof feel when the top is up.
Also, like the sedan, the convertible features the Saab Information Display (SID) in the center of the dash, just below the windshield. A secondary display window resides in the conventional center stack location, but this window doesn't display everything shown in the SID (such as the current radio station memory slot). This forces the driver to look at both displays, depending on what information he wants to get, and we found this distracting.
The same could be said of the radio and climate controls that use a total of 13 buttons. Other than radio volume and the main "Profiler" system's control dial, everything is operated via similarly sized and closely spaced buttons. The automatic climate control does feature dual-zone functionality, but this is one area where Saab should consider a more conventional approach. There are, however, redundant audio controls on the steering wheel, and the windows are all one-touch up and down. Overall interior materials quality is adequate, but Audi and BMW have nothing to fear here.
Like the trunk, interior space is excellent for two people. The front seats in the Aero model get extra side bolstering, and there is plenty of head- and legroom regardless of trim. Rear-passenger accommodations are a different story. While the 9-3 is badged as a four-seater, don't even think of putting full-size adults back there. This is a shame because the actual rear seat itself was supportive and HVAC vents in the back of the center console help keep this area warm or cold, as needed. But legroom is basically nonexistent, and shoulder room isn't much better (perhaps this explains how Saab could make the trunk so big).
Premium convertible sales are up over 50 percent since 1998 and Saab wants a piece of this action. The company hopes to get 9,500 annual sales when the convertible appears in showrooms on October 1. The 9-3 sedan has enjoyed brisk sales since its introduction last year and this is without heavy use of incentives. The 9-3 convertible will start at $40,670 (including destination charge) for the Arc trim and $43,175 for the Aero model, but neither price includes the $1,250 automatic transmission. The Arc does come with automatic climate control, a CD player and leather-faced power seats (with two-position memory for the driver seat). Step up to the Aero and the wheel size jumps from 16 to 17 inches, an exterior body kit and sport exhaust system is added, and the sound system wattage increases from 150 to 300 watts (both systems include a CD player, but neither has an in-dash changer).
Just as the 9-3 sedan was a leap forward for Saab in the entry-luxury segment, this newest convertible puts the company right in the thick of current entry-luxury drop tops. Minor gripes about the climate controls and rear-seat accommodations are more than offset by the innovative folding top, secure handling, massive trunk and attractive styling. Buyers in this segment will want to give the 9-3 convertible careful consideration before making a final decision on which open car gets the nod.