Mike Hudson, News Editor
Saab is controversial.
Whether talking to loyalists who are angry about the "Saabaru" 9-2X or the Trailblazer-based 9-7X, or critics who think the whole brand should be scrapped given GM's current financial woes — there's plenty of angst surrounding the marque.
Drop the top of a 2006 Saab 9-3 Aero convertible and the controversy ends. Through the ups and downs of the automaker's recent past stood the convertible, first the 900 then the 9-3. While GM slashes prices on virtually every one of its products, the Saab 9-3 convertible keeps winning conquest buyers, capturing the imagination of people who wouldn't otherwise walk into a Saab dealership.
This year Saab marks the 20th anniversary of its ragtop by bestowing the 9-3 Aero convertible with a few minor refreshments and a new, more powerful turbo V6.
Special anniversary edition To mark the occasion, GM is putting out a small number of a special 20th-anniversary-edition 9-3 Aero convertible, distinguished by its limited-edition Electric Blue Metallic paint and commemorative markings. It has a sticker price of $44,615.
A 2006 9-3 Aero with the new V6 is also available, starting at $41,900. The base 9-3 convertible starts at $36,500, but comes with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder.
Power to the people The star of the show is the Aero's new 2.8-liter turbocharged V6, which delivers 250 horsepower and a maximum of 258 pound-feet of torque to the convertible's front wheels. According to Saab, this little beauty gets you up to 60 in less than 7 seconds (zero to 62 mph is measured at 6.9 seconds) but still delivers up to 28 miles per gallon on the highway. A similar engine is available in the 9-3 sedan and SportCombi wagon, powering what Saab claims are the quickest production cars it has ever made.
The low-end availability of torque shines on the convertible, getting you jumping on any grade, including the gorgeous but trying hills of Santa Barbara, California, the site of our test-drive. Saab claims 90 percent of maximum torque is achieved at 1,500 rpm, a low number for most engines out there made somewhat more impressive given the need for the turbo to kick in virtually lag-free to achieve this mark.
There's still a six-speed manual transmission that comes standard, but our sample was fitted with the optional six-speed automatic, complete with manual sport-shifting mode. With six gears to choose from, the car was always present with power when you needed it as the hill creeps steeper, the curve ends or the merge lane narrows. Performance was predictably smooth and quiet as well.
The complete experience While there isn't much new on the 2006 convertible, handling, appearance, entertainment and comfort all remain just as strong or stronger than in previous models. And considering how much pressure Saab is under to remove cost from its products, that's actually a high compliment.
What makes the Saab such an enjoyable vehicle is the ease of its use. The suspension, consisting of a front MacPherson/back independent four-link, is buttery smooth — maybe even a bit softer than performance drivers might like, but no doubt comforting to the novice.
The chassis is stiff. There's power to spare. The styling is simple and inoffensive. While you could find a faster, more luxurious or better-looking ride, the Saab offers a generous helping in all major categories, making it a smart choice for those looking to break away from the pack.
Perhaps most impressive is the ride in the rear-passenger seats. Typically, automakers toss a couple seats behind the front row as little more than a joke to either lower your insurance rate or create some space for your golf bag. In the Saab, however, these spaces are big enough to be usable seats where passengers can comfortably enjoy the panoramic views of the highway in relative comfort.
Another surprise is the performance and design of the automatic soft top, which feels more like a hardtop when raised. The inside gives the appearance of a normal sedan cabin and dampens out virtually all expected road or car noise — a significant advantage over other soft tops.
Disappearing character? One of the perks of the convertible, which is assembled in Austria, is that it remains a quirky Saab for reasons beyond the ignition on the floor or the grid-style air vents. It's got a wacky cupholder that pops out of the front dash. Its interior design is still decidedly minimalist, as the Swedes often prefer.
But just as we alluded to before, the day is coming where GM will go too far. The little things are already starting to disappear as the GM-supplied stereos, key fobs and the GM badge itself work their way into the mix.
For the time being, however, the Saab 9-3 convertible remains a profit center and a fun one at that. So after 20 years, it remains a unique product unlike any other. And these days, that's high praise.
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