June 25, 2007
In sport and in business, making a powerful statement is sometimes what separates the amateurs from the professionals. Whether nailing a perfect mogul run or securing a lucrative deal, success is measured not so much by how you play the game but if you win or lose.
On the Winter Olympic Games stage, such a statement is immediately recognized; but in the complex world of global business, the eventual outcome can take months, even years to be determined.
Take for example the case of Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, better known as Saab.
Many auto industry observers were baffled by General Motor’s 1990 deal to acquire 51 per cent of the Swedish automaker, and baffled further when the Detroit-based company bought the remaining outstanding shares in Saab a decade later. Turns out that once-suspect deal might be one of the better ones GM has made in the 21st Century to date.
In 2006, Saab achieved its best-ever global sales figure — 133,167 cars — with the 9-3 model setting volume sales records in Canada, Spain and Belgium.
With Bimmers as common as Hondas in most Canadian urban centres these days, executives looking to make a motoring statement may well consider this Swedish alternative: Saabs are exciting, technically advanced performance cars that can hold their own with the German and Japanese luxury brands that currently dominate the executive luxury segment.
One of the most exciting new Saabs is the 9-3 Aero Convertible. Powered by a turbocharged 2.8-litre V6 engine mated to a six-speed manual or automatic gearbox, the front-wheel drive two-door droptop offers a refined driving experience in terms of performance and comfort. All Aero models come with the aforementioned turbo V6, while other 9-3 models feature a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-banger.
For 2007, the Aero Convertible gets a number of updates, including a restyled interior that features a new instrument panel design, trim and chrome details. Also, XM Satellite Radio is now standard.
The refreshed cabin is a testimony to Saab’s and Sweden’s obsession with ergonomics. Just as some of the best furniture in the world comes from this Nordic country, so too does some of the best car cabins, ergonomically speaking. The front bucket seats are firm, deeply bolstered and very comfortable – just the ticket in a convertible grand tourer — and the rear seats, though tight in legroom if front passengers are over six-foot tall, offer good sightlines and protection from the wind.
Gone (thankfully) is the large centre information console, replaced instead by a cleaner climate-audio control array and a new main dash highlighted by larger instrument gauges brushed in chrome. The sport steering wheel is among the most comfortable I’ve gripped in some time. And don’t fear Saab-o-philes — the quirky between-the-seats location of the key ignition remains.
One of the neater features of the Aero is Saab’s so-called “Night Panel.” With the push of a button all but the speedometer lights are switched off for minimal night-time distraction. It does take some getting used to driving in an unusually dark cabin, but once you’re accustomed to it, the dimmer surroundings really do help you concentrate on the road.
Like all luxury convertibles, the Aero has a laundry list of standard creature comfort features, from eight-way heated power seats to a cooled glovebox, and from a 10-speaker six-disc CD sound system to one-touch power windows.
The Achilles heel of many two-door, four-passenger convertibles is wicked blind spots when the top is up, but the Aero’s retractable roof is not too view-inhibiting. Likewise, the steeply raked windshield and four large side-windows create a wind-free cabin with the top down, something that also can’t be said for some of the luxury convertible competition.
As much as the Aero Convertible’s cabin is a treat for the senses, it is what is happening under the wedge-shaped exterior that really impresses. Performance is a hallmark of this category, and the Aero’s 250 horsepower turbo V6 certainly keeps it in the race. However, the turbocharger has a definite lag to it — a rarity it seems these days — but once it gets cranked up it really puts the Aero in motion. At highway speeds and in third gear pulling an ideal 3,500 r.p.m., the aluminum engine is just a push of the accelerator from where it’s real nature truly lies. Still, unlike many performance convertibles, the Aero has decidedly mellow driving characteristics at lower r.p.m.s.
What impressed me most about the Aero was its suspension, a complex system that offers the best of both worlds. At cruising speeds it is downright civilized, the four-link independent rear suspension working in perfect unison with the front McPherson struts to create a comfortable ride. Hammer it, though, and the stiffness of the chassis is readily apparent, allowing confident cornering and high-speed runs.
That being said, I did find a couple of shortcomings. First and foremost was a thirsty engine, particularly when pushed hard. And second, another Achilles heel of this category, was a woeful lack of trunk space. Even with the roof up, at best two sets of golf clubs could be wedged into the trunk; with the roof down, one set – maybe.
2008 marks the nine-year anniversary of the 9-3, and Saab has fully redesigned the model for the occasion. In addition to a completely new look — though still faithful to Saab’s ‘clamshell’ design preference — the new 2008 Aero will be available as an all-wheel drive model, a first for a 9-3.
Early reports indicate the all-new 2008 model is the best 9-3 to date, which considering the quality of design and production of the 2007 model is quite an accomplishment. I’ll reserve judgment until I drive one. All I can say is the ‘08 model must really be something if it improves on this already excellent convertible.
Pricing 2007 Saab 9-3 Aero convertible
Base price $56,635
Options $ 1,400 (Metallic Paint: $650; Sand Top Colour: $750)
Freight $ 1,230
A/C tax $ 100
Price as tested $59,365
Manufacturer’s web site