- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

A buyer need not be a Saab loyalist to pony up the 40 large and change required to put the showroom in the rearview mirror of the 9-3 ARC convertible. Saab has developed a cult following of sorts over the decades, but the 9-3 ARC soft top is quite capable of attracting buyers outside the Saab owner base.

While boasting more horsepower, other entry-luxury drop tops retail for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars more. Sure at $42,000 the 242-horsepower Volvo C70 2.3, the $44,600 225-horsepower BMW 330Ci and the $51,400 215-horsepower Mercedes-Benz CLK320 all have more prestigious pedigrees, as well as more horsepower, but the Saab has the distinction of being both quirky and unique.

Despite its position as the near-luxury import division of traditionally mainstream General Motors, Saab remains the antithesis of mainstream. Additionally, it sells in less volume than others in its segment. You certainly won’t see yourself coming and going in the 9-3 ARC convertible. Bottom line: It’s a competent and value-packed entry that sets its owners apart from the entry-luxury pack.

The ARC is the midpriced trim level in a 9-3 lineup that includes the entry-level Linear and the sporty, pricier Aero. All three use a version of a turbocharged 2.0-liter in-line four-cylinder engine. In the Linear the low-pressure turbo makes 175 horsepower while in the ARC and Aero the high-pressure version is good for 210 horsepower.

A five-speed manual transmission delivering power to the front wheels is standard in Linear and ARC versions, while the Aero has a six-speed manual. The optional five-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission will set buyers back an additional $1,350. The manual works smoothly and is more fun to drive, but the automatic neither impedes nor improves performance. Fuel economy, however, is a different story. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the manual tranny-equipped ARC at 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway, while the automatic earns a 19-mpg city rating and 27 on the highway.

It wouldn’t be fair to characterize the low-pressure turbo engine as anemic, but it certainly doesn’t pack the punch of the high-pressure turbo. The 2.0-liter found in the ARC feels more potent than its 210-horsepower number promises. It sprints off the line with boundless enthusiasm. Cruising effortlessly at speed, it still has plenty of grunt in reserve for highway passing.

Hefty disc brakes supervised by an antilock system on all four wheels bring the 9-3 to a controlled stop. Brake assist and an anti-skid system are standard on all 9-3 trim levels.

Although tuned to give the 9-3 a comfortable ride, the fully independent suspension is sufficiently stiff to provide concise handling. Its cornering is remarkably predictable for a front-wheel-drive car.

The chassis is taut, contributing to both noise dampening and overall handling. Providing plenty of feedback, the steering is precise and tracks accurately on center.

Requiring the push of a single button, operating the power top takes about 20 seconds. It glides back and stows beneath a hard boot for a beautifully finished look. When raised, it fits snuggly with a multilayer design that manages to filter out most external noise.

The 9-3 cabin is roomy enough. It provides about as much front and rear legroom as the 330Ci with a trunk that’s about 40 percent larger. All of the controls are conveniently placed for the driver. The center stack is a busy array of buttons and knobs, but operating the core systems doesn’t require studying the owner’s manual. Also, there is a “Profiler” program that permits settings to be saved and recalled with the push of a button.

Beefy side bolsters help keep front occupants upright in seats that are both comfortable and supportive. The ignition, of course, is between the front seats.

Smooth, quiet and aggressive, the 9-3 ARC convertible experience is directed more at the enthusiast than the pampered. Don’t be fooled by the leather seating, high-tech accessories and other luxury affectations, this is a car engineered to be driven to the max.

It has plenty of safety gear such as seat-mounted side-impact front air bags, automatic rollover protection and front-seat active head restraints to help keep occupants out of harm’s way, but the focus is on pleasing the driver.

While the Linear is well equipped with such features as air conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant controls for the CD player-equipped audio system, heated outboard power mirrors and cruise control, the ARC ups the standard content ante. In addition to the high-pressure turbo, ARC offers leather seating, an eight-way power driver’s seat, an upgraded sound system with 13 speakers and automatic climate control.

Moving up to the ARC from the Linear adds $3,000 to the bottom line. With destination charges the Linear’s base price is $37,820, while the ARC costs $40,820.

A $1,695 Driver’s Package option adds such accoutrements as wood grain on the steering wheel/shift knob, rain-sensing wipers, rear-park assist and a six-disc CD changer.

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