- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

Complex in its personalities, the Saab 9-3 convertible can play a variety of roles. This sheetmetal “Sybil” is as well suited for a leisurely cruise along the beach or as a cocoon for safely carpooling the kids to school as it is fiercely attacking country twisties or making an impression at the country club. Its turbocharged engines provide plenty of power on demand while consuming fuel grudgingly. Its quirky styling falls far short of being bizarre, but is different enough to insure being noticed.

Finally, you can purchase a 9-3 convertible with the confidence that yours will probably be the only one on your block, providing a degree of exclusivity. And isn’t that exactly what you want when you lay down $37,220 for the entry-level 9-3 2.0T or $42,620 for the top-end Aero convertible?

During its 57-year history of building cars, Saab has introduced a number of innovations. They include resilient bumpers, automatic headlight washers, electrically heated seats, the air filter and asbestos-free brake pads, to name a few. Most notable among Saab “firsts” is the turbocharger. Originally developed for the 1976 Saab 99 — a precursor to today’s 9-3 — to address the energy crisis of the 1970s, the turbocharger became a hallmark of the Swedish brand. No carmaker has more experience with it.

Both convertible trim levels are basically defined by their turbocharged powerplants and available transmissions. A 210-horsepower 2-liter four motivates the 9-3 2.0T. A lively four-banger, it feels like there ismore at play here than its 210 ponies.

Acceleration is determined and effortless. Even at speed, it has plenty left in reserve to sprint around slower traffic. The Aero has an all-new 250-horsepower 2.8-liter V6 turbo propelling the front wheels. Forty more horsepower and the additional torque (37 lb.-ft.) provide it with a discernable edge in the fun-to-drive department over the 2.0T.

Five-speed gearboxes shuffle engine production to the 2.0T’s rubber. A five-speed manual is standard, but agreeing to pay an additional $1,350, replaces it with a driver-shiftable five-speed automatic. Either a six-speed manual or the optional (also a $1,350 premium) six-speed automatic can be bolted to the Aero’s V6. According to the Environmental Protection Agency the choice of engine has more impact on fuel economy that the choice of transmissions, but the differences are minimal in any event. No surprise that the most fuel stingy is the 2.0T with manual trannsmission, receiving a rating of 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on thehighway. At 17 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway, the automatic-equipped Aero is the least efficient among 9-3 drop tops.

Saab evidently chained its engineers to their desks in the quest for eliminating torque steer. This is the natural tendency for a front driver to pull in one direction or the other under hard acceleration. Torque steer is nearly a non-issue for the 9-3. With the intention of providing a more rear-wheel-drive-like experience, the 9-3’s rear suspension is a multi-link setup featuring a subtle rear-wheel steering system. The result is remarkably predictable and stable cornering. Connecting the suspension to the tarmac are tarmac are 16-inch alloy wheels and rubber on the 2.0T and 17-inch ones on the Aero.

Antilock four-wheel disc brakes anchor all four corners. Traction control, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and stability control are standard on all 9-3 models. Seat-mounted side-impact airbags are also standard on all 9-3s; however, the convertible replaces the standard air curtain airbags in the sedan and wagon with a pop-up rollover protection system. Active head restraints for the front seats are also included in the base price.

While the sedan is configured for five, the convertible accommodates four. Legroom in the rear seat is tight. Up front, occupants are treated to well-bolstered seats with plenty of support. Intimate in nature, the 9-3’s cabin is sporty, yet comfortable. Gauges are large and clear.

A conglomeration of buttons and knobs fill the center stack from the top of the dashboard to the center console. It’s a dizzying array requiring practice to operate with any degree of safety while under steam. Trip information is displayed on a screen incorporated within the forest of buttons. This screen also includes navigational information if the optional $1,995 DVD-based navigation system is added.

The convertible top is fully automatic and requires about half a minute to raise or lower. The more affordable 2.0T has such upscale features as leather seating, automatic climate control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio controls. Moving up to the Aero provides more sculpted front seats, chrome surrounds and an upgraded audio system as well as a firmer suspension.

A fun-in-the-sun car for optimizing weekend cruising, a safe family hauler, a sporty hard charger for blasting through the switchbacks or elegant transportation to that special function, the 9-3 convertible provides it all in one distinctive package.

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