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MOTORNET: Saab Drop-Top An Eye Opener

Saab Drop-Top Proves To Be An Eye Opener

SCOOP MOTORNET with Karl Ferguson
Images by Neil Mackenzie -

I have to confess to a certain scepticism when it comes to convertibles, and by extension, to the types of people who drive them. Call me old fashioned, but they rarely strike me as serious and in some regards, could even be dismissed as being frivolous. The vehicles that is, not the people, though sometimes the same could be said of both I guess...

Not surprisingly then, the lime yellow (think fluoro Kermit green) of Saab's new 9-3 convertible did little to ease my apprehensions. How very un-Saab like, I thought. Where was the gun-metal grey that I so favoured of this traditional yet stylish car maker? Had it not been for very favourable drives of Audi's latest A4 cabriolet and VW's Beetle, I might well have passed on the opportunity. Thankfully, I didn't, as the drive proved rewarding indeed.

For a start, forget everything you have heard about Saab drop tops and shake, rattle and roll. Yes, taking the roof off does cause cars to be less rigid and therefore, can lead to roller-coaster type driving experiences. Saab know this only too well, and subsequently decided the only way to fix the problem would be to design the new convertible from the ground up and in parallel with the 9-3 sedan model. The end result, says Saab, is that the new model is three times as stiff as the model it replaces. And it shows.

Putting the 9-3 through its paces, the car feels stable and taught. A tight corner or a bumpy road only confirms that this car is light years ahead of its predecessor. That's not to say that you don't know it's a convertible and occasionally the odd squeak makes its way into the cabin, but with the fully lined roof up, the gap between this car and its hard top cousin is not that big.

Plus, handling is good. The front wheel driver is predictable but hangs on resolutely in the twisty stuff. At the limit, understeer is the order of the day but easing off the gas will see the 9-3 tuck its nose in compliantly. The steering is heavy on first acquaintance, and some will find the large steering wheel less than ideal for hard driving, but it still communicates plenty of feedback to the driver. It's a far cry from the boulevard-only type cruising that one might have previously expected. Not that cruising won't instantly become a favourite pastime.

Dropping the roof is as simple as touching a button. Hold it down for 20 seconds and a bevy of hydraulics will do the rest - neatly tucking the hood away out of sight and out of mind. You can even do it on the move - previously a strict no no with convertibles. And if the yellow-peril external paint work didn't attract enough attention, having the hood down certainly will. All eyes are instantly upon you and the sudden lack of anonymity takes some getting used to. Driving along Wellington's recently anointed Riviera (Oriental Bay to the uninitiated) you're blessed with a feeling of belonging, a sense of oneness with all the other dedicated sun-worshippers. After all, without the likes of the 9-3, who would the cafe set look to for inspiration?

But interestingly enough, the 9-3 is in many respects even better away from the madding crowds. Not that showing off isn't fun, but the car makes so much sense out on the open road on a favourite piece of coastal highway, or a challenging hill climb. There's a strong sense of intimacy that just isn't found in the average hard top. And the experience is not just limited to hours of daylight. A night time drive is equally fun and with the three-stage heated seats and powerful heater, feeling the cold - at least for the front passengers - simply isn't an issue. Keeping the windows up helps limit the buffeting while a wind-deflector is an optional extra to further reduce nature's interference.

Of course, much of this is due to the intimacy of Saab's cabin. The leather-clad seats are without a doubt some of the best I have ever experienced. It would seem that regardless of body shape, they fit like a glove. Saab's large dials and unique ergonomics are right at home, and the quirky elements that make Saab’s unique - like the centrally mounted ignition - remain. The 150-watt CD audio is perfect for long road trips too. Intimacy is a word that backseat passengers are likely to be familiar with. The rear will only seat two, and while headroom (no pun intended) is generous, legroom is at a bit of a premium. The fit and finish in the cabin is generally good, but I was a bit dismayed at how 'plasticky' some of the materials feel - not that there are likely to be breakages, just not up to the standard that you might expect in this price bracket.

No such quibbles with the five speed auto transmission which does an excellent job of getting the best from the 9-3's power plant. There's also a pseudo manual for those who like to change the gears themselves, though the plus/minus indicator is on the wrong side for New Zealand drivers - clearly a carry over from European left-hand drive models.

Speaking of power, the Saab is unlikely to set any land speed records, but neither will it embarrass itself - or you. By adding steel to increase the cars rigidity, and packing in hydraulics to lift the roof, you inevitably add weight and that tends to impact on performance. The two-litre turbo-charged four produces 129kw and 265 Nm in the power department. It's certainly adequate, but for those looking for more, there's always the Aero model that, using the same engine, produces 155kw and 300Nm. Saab claim the convertible can manage 0-100km/h in eight seconds.

Given the dreadful summer we've just experienced, it would be understandable if you weren't exactly racing to your local Saab dealer to place an order. The price may be a further disincentive. A manual version 9-3 Linear model will set you back a cool $82,900 while the auto option will add a further three grand. Aero models, with extra power, bigger wheels and more ostentatious body kit, start at $94,900. Having said that, while the Saab may not be quite as dynamically advanced as its rival the Audi A4 cabriolet, at close to $13,000 less in base form, it's competitive in the pricing department.

Colour issues aside, the 9-3 is one attractive looking car and a very convincing argument for the benefits of open-top motoring. It’s even entirely possible that I may have been a little hasty in suggesting that ‘serious’ driver’s need not apply. After all, a bit of frivolity every now and again can’t be all bad can it?


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