- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

MODEL: SAAB 9-3 SE
VEHICLE TYPE: two-door convertible
PRICE-AS-TESTED: $42,910
MILEAGE: 22 city, 30 highway

Underrated and misunderstood: the Saab 9-3 is a mechanical version of me, or it would be if I could sprint from the starter box to 60 miles per hour in less than seven seconds or attract women like lint to a navy blazer as the SE Convertible does. Come to think of it, I guess the 9-3 and I have very little in common after all.
Gather a group of auto writers together folks who are lucky enough to drive the best of the best out there and almost to a scribe, they will give the Saab 9-3 high marks for performance, engineering, safety and uniqueness.
It is a driver's car inspiring Sunday afternoon drives to nowhere and domestic squabbles about who is going to run out to the store for the next loaf of bread. My freezer is always stuffed with loaves of bread after a week spent with a 9-3.
Most consumers view Saab as a Snowbelt car, accounting for the majority of its sales coming from places north of the Mason-Dixon line. On the other hand, Saab's convertibles account for the majority of its sales in the Sunbelt. More is the pity because slippery roads certainly aren't required to optimize the 9-3's performance, and the convertible top is so tight and well insulated, it easily manages to hold frigid temperatures at bay.
Saab endures the lowest sales volume among mainline European imports with the exception of Porsche. Why? Its narrow product lineup must shoulder some of the blame. With only two basic models, Saab looses some ground to brands with more comprehensive product offerings.
While its top-of-the-line 9-5 is more mainstream, the better selling 9-3 has a reputation for being a bit eccentric. This isn't helped by the 9-3's rather unique exterior styling. But, that is Saab after all. Then there is price. The competition is brutal in the $35,000 to $45,000 price range where Saab lives and breathes. A gaggle of more widely accepted brands with offerings in Saab's price range slug it out in the entry-luxury segment.
Saab owners tend to enjoy the uniqueness attached to their Saabs, but we live in a cookie cutter society where look-alike cars, trucks and SUVs are the beneficiaries of a raging me too-ism. Uniqueness tends not to be appreciated or rewarded.
A body of consumers also shun the idea of an entry-luxury vehicle relying on a four-cylinder power plant. While the 9-5 has a V-6 option, all other Saab engine offerings are turbocharged fours, but what fours they are. Even the entry-level four-banger has 185 horsepower and 194 foot-pounds of peak torque.
My latest 9-3 was an SE Convertible with the high-output engine, making 205 horsepower. As for torque, this 2-liter engine produces 209 foot-pounds of peak torque at a low 2,200 revs and continues delivering it all the way to 4,800 rpm. The exhilaration of putting a foot into the throttle is indescribable. This is a four?
Acceleration is seamless with nearly no turbo lag. My test SE had the five-speed manual transmission. A bit notchy, it seemed well-suited to this powerful engine. Fuel economy is an added incentive for piloting a four-cylinder.
Saab has done a brilliant job of combining a pliant ride with spot-on handling. Ride quality is outstanding and yet, the 9-3 corners with predictable precision. An anti-lock system monitors the four-wheel disc brakes. Traction control is standard on all Saabs this year.
Given the 9-3's rather tidy exterior dimensions, one might be misled that it lacks interior space. Not so. While the 9-3's cabin is compact, it provides an amazing amount of passenger room. The seats are wonderfully contoured, minimizing fatigue on longer trips, and there will be longer trips.
Only three steps must be completed to lower or raise the top. One button automatically lowers all four windows. A light-touch grab handle must be pulled out to release the top from the windshield header. Finally, one button lowers the top, stows it in the well behind the rear seat and then hides it with a hard boot. The entire process requires less than a minute.
When raised, the top seals tightly, keeping out noise and weather. The trunk is moderate, but a low lift-over makes for easy loading. I continue to be put off by the absence of a center armrest of any sort. In a vehicle at this price point, there should be a front center armrest.
Base price of the Saab 9-3 SE Convertible is $39,995. Among its standard features: 16-inch alloy wheels, OnStar communications/ navigation system, dual front air bags, dual front head/torso side-impact air bags, active head restraints, daytime running lamps, anti-theft alarm system, power locks with keyless remote entry, headlamp wiper/washer, air conditioning, power windows, eight-way power reclining front seats, leather seating, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, six-speaker AM/FM stereo/CD or cassette player and a multifunction trip computer.
The test SE had optional paint, heated front seats and the Premium Package for a total of $2,340. Adding the $575 destination charge brought the price as tested to $42,910.


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