by Richard Russell
Copenhagen, Denmark – There is something about a convertible that brings a smile to your face and a positive outlook to your day. Saab is hoping the new 2004 9-3 convertible will have the same effect on the lineup.
On the heels of the 9-5 and the more recent new 9-3 Sports Sedan, Sweden’s – and GM’s – smallest car company plans several new models in the struggle to maintain a footprint in the world market. The 9-3 convertible will arrive very late this year, likely in the last week of December. While a questionable release date for a convertible here, it works nicely in the warmer southern climates where the bulk of sales are expected. The convertible will be followed within months by a new and smaller model dubbed 9-2, based on a Subaru all-wheel-drive platform – but heavily revised to meet Saab standards. Although officials here denied any decision has been reached, they talked freely about the need for and likelihood of an SUV – which dealers have been demanding for several years.
The 9-3 convertible, like its sedan sibling, is based on GM’s Epsilon platform and marks the end of the Saab hatchback. While this will disappoint Saab-ists, the company says there are too few of them to matter, as North Americans continue to ignore hatchbacks. Sales of the 9-5 and 9-3 models skyrocketed – comparatively – when the new sedan versions replaced the older hatchbacks. Saab did insist on keeping one tradition though – the ignition key is still located on the floor, in the centre console.
The convertible and its sedan sibling were designed side-by-side, allowing engineers to incorporate, from the outset, all the good structural stuff needed to make a topless car solid instead of having to rely on added bracing after the fact. The 9-3 convertible is three times stiffer than the previous 9-3 soft-top – a fact that was quickly evident over some extremely nasty cobblestone streets and back roads here.
Convertibles have come a long way since the days they were referred to as ragtops. Saab has 20 years experience with convertibles and the 9-3 is pretty much the current state-of-the-art four-season convertible with a completely automatic top incorporating a glass back light with electric defrost. There are no levers to wrestle, no need to do chin-ups to pull it free from or draw it tight to the windshield header. Simply hold the dash-mounted switch and the entire operation is complete in 20 seconds, including hiding the lowered unit beneath a solid colour-coordinated tonneau cover aft of the rear seats. The trunk space is even modified according to whether the top is raised or lowered. The seat belts are incorporated into the seats preventing them from flopping around in the breeze and making access to the rear seat far easier as you don’t have to duck under or around the belts.
The top is a hydraulically powered triple layer affair, with an extra cross-brace for added rigidity at speed. It also incorporates a rain gutter to prevent water from dripping unto the seats when the doors are opened. Weight was saved by the use of magnesium for the frame, braces and front header. When up, the top imparts a coupe-like look and is as tight as the proverbial drum proving solid and virtually resistant to ballooning at speeds up to 150 km/hr or so we encountered on a two day trek across a variety of roads in Denmark and Sweden.
The interior of the top is light coloured, a first, giving the impression of being in a hard top vehicle. A full day drive with the top down proved the designers paid attention to wind management allowing occupants – at least those in the front seats – to carry on a normal conversation, at any sane speed, with the wind-blocker in place. The automatic climate control system even switches automatically to offer 11 manual heat settings when the top is lowered.
The 9-3 convertible will be built on a dedicated new production line near Graz, Austria at the Magna Steyr Fahrzeugtechnik facility.
The 9-3 convertible, in a switch from recent Saab practice, will come in two models only to simplify the model line – the Arc as the luxury-touring version and the Aero, the sportier derivative. Both will come with Saab’s new 210-horsepower turbocharged four, a variation of GM’s Ecotec unit – but sharing only the bare block with other divisions. The head, valvetrain and all other internals are specific to Saab. The Arc gets a five-speed manual and the Aero a six-speed gearbox. In both cases a five-speed automatic with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifting is available. All 9-3 convertibles will come with a significant list of standard equipment including electronic stability control, electronic brake force distribution, cornering brake control, traction control and a massive air-conditioned glove box!
Available options will include Xenon lights, rain-sensing wipers, park assist, a 13-speaker sound system, remote window and top operation, tire pressure monitors and a telephone keypad in the instrument panel. Pricing hasn’t been finalized this far ahead of availability, but Saab officials confidently predict it will be very close to current levels – which would put it at about $54,000 for the Arc and $56,500 for the Aero. A fully dressed version with all the options and automatic transmission might hit the $60K mark.
This is a Swedish vehicle so safety is a given. The 9-3 convertible comes with Saab’s Active Head Restraint system which provides additional head and neck protection in a rear-end collision. It has fail-safe rear brake lights – if the outer bulb fails, the system switches to an inner bulb until the other is replaced. The windshield washers operate at 3.5 bar – twice the usual pressure for more effective cleaning. They are linked to a massive five-litre reservoir. The speedometer is a highly visible large round gauge – nothing unusual there. But look closely, the scale is compressed above 130 km/h to make the used portion larger. Also standard is a roll-over protection system that deploys a pair of roll-hoops from behind the rear seat head restraints in the event of a roll. Front and side torso bags are standard and the car passed the same crash and rollover safety tests as the sedan.
Saab says the key competitors in the entry luxury convertible segment for this vehicle are the Audi A-4 cabrio, BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-class and Volvo C70. The 9-3 boasts competitive advantages in many areas including standard horsepower, passenger room, cargo space and front shoulder room. In the first year of availability Saab expects to capture 25% of the segment, up considerably from its current 10% level but commensurate with the position it enjoyed last year.