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Review and photos by Laurance Yap
A couple of years ago, the British magazine Top Gear named the old Saab 9-3 convertible the “Ultimate car for Ladies Who Lunch”. As someone who takes a great deal of pleasure in the midday meal, as well as someone who counted himself as an admirer of the old 9-3, I was kind of incensed by this declaration, because as a guy, I found a lot to like about the old car, not least that it was a perfectly pleasant car to drive out for a bite or two.
Still, you could see where the TG people were coming from. Saab convertibles have always been perfectly suited for a leisurely, upscale lifestyle, thanks to their distinctive good looks, effortless turbocharged performance, interiors roomy enough for you and three of your lunch buddies, all served up with a big helping of luxury, thanks to the best armchairs in the business and dashboards whose ergonomics have always been second-to-none.
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Lovely as it was, the old 9-3 wasn’t lacking for faults, however. Its engines may have been powerful, but it was burdened by a heavy body, one whose flexing and wobbling over rough roads discouraged you from deploying all those horses. The interior was starting to feel dated – the materials used no longer up to scratch – and the power top, while admirably sealed against wind noise when up, wasn’t very elegant. Not only did it seem to take ages to lower, but you couldn’t do so in tight confines, as the whole thing would rotate through its axis, banging itself on the ceiling of your garage if you ever thought of dropping the top before heading out.
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The ability to now do this, thanks to a Z-style top that accordions itself like a Porsche 911’s or a Mercedes CLK’s, was the first thing I noticed about my $60,000 2004 9-3 Arc as I got ready to head out on the first convertible day of the year. Not only does it lever itself into the trunk with space to spare in my garage, but the tonneau cover slides back rather than flips up, and it takes up far less space when folded. More good news: while both the CLK and 3-series BMW allow you to expand trunk space by collapsing the box into which their tops fit when folded, the 9-3 does so automatically, and can sense if your luggage intrudes before crushing it.
Unlike its predecessors, this car has clearly been designed as a convertible, something which manifests itself in numerous little details. Flip the conveniently-located paddle switch on the dashboard, and the climate control goes from automatic (what temperature do you want, ma’am?) to a 1-10 heat scale. The stereo cranks itself up and the speed-sensitive volume control becomes more aggressive. With sunny skies, but temperatures hovering around 5 degrees C last week, I appreciated the excellent wind and noise management with the windows up (which enabled normal-voice conversations) as well as the powerful heated seats. Top-down sound quality from the 6-disc CD changer was excellent, as well.
To say that the new 9-3 is light-years better to drive than the old one is a bit of an understatement. Even rolling on a base suspension with 16-inch alloys and all-season Pirelli tires, the new car hustled along bumpy back roads eagerly, its five-speed automatic transmission (a manual is available) quick to grab the right gear and responsive to the occasional manual input from its tiptronic-style shifter. Power from the turbocharged four-cylinder engine (170 horsepower in lower trim levels, 210 in the faster versions) is more than adequate, though there is some initial turbo lag when you’re trying to scoot away from stoplights. There’s still some wobble and flex in the body, but it’s well up to class standards – about on the level of the BMW – and the steering is a delight: accurate, well-weighted, and with just the right amount of feel. Demerits? The brakes, though quite powerful, are connected to a soft, kind of loose-feeling pedal, and the ride, which is generally pretty smooth, got jittery over certain bad surfaces in downtown Toronto.
As good as it looks scything through downtown traffic – especially in the eye-searing $1200 Lime Yellow paint which covered my test car – with the roof down, the 9-3’s at its best on its way out of town on some two-lane road, loping along at a spirited but not aggressive pace, its spacious interior packed with friends, its trunk (perhaps) laden with picnic baskets. The cabin really is superb: the back seats have enough space for two to wiggle around, including a bonus set of adjustable headrests, and the fronts, with their integrated seatbelts, searing heat, and enough power adjustments for anyone to find a comfortable driving position, are just superb. Quality is a distinct step up from the old 9-3 as well, with high-quality smooth-finish plastics and, on Arc and Aero models, wood or aluminum trim that has a novel matt finish.
Not that it’s perfect in here by any means. The dashboard, while it retains the traditional wraparound Saab look, has way too many buttons and knobs and switches and displays on it, some of them haphazardly arranged, some of them poorly labelled, some of them even redundant. For instance: what’s the point of having one display for the radio frequency near the base of the windshield and one on the console? Why are there two “customize” buttons, one under the left-hand multifunction controller (for the high-up display) and another for the climate system? Why can’t you use one of those knobs to tune the radio, rather than pushing on a couple of buttons? Saab’s ignition switch is still between the seats as always – the story goes that it won’t damage your knees in a front-end collision – but there’s not much left of the ergonomic genius the company once traded on, because even the “Night Panel” switch, which dims everything but the speedometer, is hard to find.
There will be critics, no doubt, who will bemoan the fact that the 9-3 now shares its Epsilon platform with more plebeian conveyances such as the Vauxhall Vectra, Chevrolet Malibu, and the upcoming Pontiac G6. But if anything the GM influence has been quite positive in the 9-3, manifesting itself in places such as the incredible amount of customization features available through the on-board computer –
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everything from how many flashes you want from the lights when you lock the car to available OnStar communications – and the general level of thoroughness of the car’s execution, something which can only come from big-time investment.
Whatever. I suspect that Ladies Who Lunch – and guys that do, as well – won’t much care what platform the 9-3 rolls on so long as it looks good, drives pleasantly, and has enough room and practicality to help them justify it as a rational purchase. For a cold climate like ours, that’s actually a persuasive argument, thanks to the triple-layer droptop, big trunk, ample storage and four-cylinder fuel economy. It may have only been about 5 degrees above zero last week, but I spent most of it motoring around with the top down, in perfect comfort. That’s one thing that’s still most definitely Saab-ish about this new 9-3: the Swedes, a people even more snowbound than we are, know better than almost anyone how important it is to make every sunny day count.
|Base price||$56,500 (Arc, manual)|
|Options||Automatic transmission ($1,500), metalic paint with colour matching tonneau ($1,220), OnStar ($1000)|
|Price as tested||$60,150|
|Layout||front engine, front wheel drive|
|Engine||2.0L I-4 high output turbo|
|Horsepower||210 @ 5,500 rpm|
|Torque||221 lb-ft @ 2,500|
|Transmission||5-speed Sentronic automatic (5-speed manual std)|
|Tires||215/55 R16 all-season radial|
|Curb weight||1,678 kg (3,700 lbs)|
|Cargo volume ((cu ft/L))||12.4 / 351 (with top up), 8.3 / 235 with top down|
|Fuel consumption||City: 12.6 L/100 km (22 mpg)|
|Highway: 7.7 L/100 km (37 mpg)|
|Warranty||4 years/80,000 km|