Versus the competiton:
Easy to see advantages of 9-3 convertible
The Saab 9-3 convertible performs two tasks most drop tops don’t–it holds four adults and it allows the driver to see out the back and along the sides with the top up.
If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that most convertibles hold only two adults or two adults and a couple kids, and nearly all come with soft tops wrapped so far around the sides that vision is obscured, if not obliterated.
General Motors owns Saab, and for ’04 the convertible shares a front-wheel-drive Epsilon platform with the 9-3 sedan as well as the Chevrolet Malibu and upcoming Pontiac G6 replacement for the Grand Am.
That means the convertible is now 3 inches longer and 2 inches wider for better road manners as well as to accommodate four adults.
The top can power up or down in about 20 seconds, meaning you should be able to perform the task at the red light before it turns green–or at least before sprinkles become a deluge.
The top is well insulated and thickly lined so you don’t suffer wind noise when it’s up. The 9-3 chassis is sufficiently beefed up so you don’t suffer squeaks or rattles when the top is up, even if all the windows are open.
Windows are important to this car. The soft top wraps around the sides, but not so much that Saab wasn’t able to incorporate large side windows in back that afford ample side vision. You don’t have to creep slowly out of the parking spot to see what’s coming. Only body shops will be disappointed with the windows.
The convertible is offered in two versions with silly names, the Arc that starts at $39,995 and the Aero, which is new for 2004 and starts at $42,500.
The top-of-the-line Aero comes with sports suspension and 17-inch radial tires for optimum handling. The Arc, the model we tested, comes with a softer-sprung suspension and 16-inch radials as standard.
For $1,000, you can add the sport wheel package to Arc, which gives you the 17-inch radials though not the sports suspension.
Even without it, the Arc has crisp, predictable handling with minimal road harshness. The reason is that Arc and Aero feature passive rear-wheel-steering. The rear wheels steer in the opposite direction of the front wheels by just a few degrees to make for quicker turns and more precise cornering. And the rear wheels toe in when braking to keep the car in a straight line. The 9-3 is the only Epsilon-based car with passive rear-wheel-steering, though it eventually will makes its way onto others.
Of course, it also helps that electronic stability control, traction control and four-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard.
The convertible is powered by a 2-liter, 16-valve 4-cylinder that delivers 210 horsepower and produces 221 foot-pounds of torque with its high-output turbocharger. A 5-speed manual is standard, a 5-speed automatic with Sentronic clutchless tap shifting option al.
The turbo 4-cylinder is very energetic, though you’ll experience some turbo lag when taking off from the light. After that momentary lag, the 4-cylinder acts like a V-6 in terms of passing and/or merging power.
Some insist the car needs a V-6, but not Saab.
“It’s not the number of cylinders that count as it is the horsepower and torque that the engine delivers. With 210 h.p. and 221 foot-pounds of torque, the 4 offers more than sufficient power for most buyers while being more fuel efficient [19 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway] than a V-6,” insists Saab spokesman Kevin Smith.
For safety, the convertible features pop-up roll bars behind the rear seats. Sensors detect body pitch and roll and when that movement indicates a rollover is imminent, the bars automatically pop up to offer added protection whether the top is up or down.
At the same time front and rear seat belts provide added tension along the torso to keep you in place.
Another noteworthy feature comes with the optional touring package. Special remote key fobs allow you to lower the top while approaching the car to dissipate the heat before you get in.
As you near the car, press the fob and the doors unlock. Keep pressing the fob and the windows go down and the top retracts. Oddly, federal safety regulations prevent the fob from being used to raise the top when you are out of the car.
Other nice touches include placing the safety belts in the front seats rather than along the pillar or wall so they aren’t in the way when getting in the rear seat.
And to make it even easier to get in back, there’s an aluminum lever on the top of the front seats. Pull the lever and the seat back lowers and the seat motors forward at twice the speed as in the old 9-3 convertible.
As noted, two adults easily fit in the back, though it helps that the seat back has a pronounced rearward tilt to pull your legs back toward you and allow for needed knee room. Without the tilt, knee room would be tight.
The convertible also comes with front- and side-impact air bags that offer upper torso and head protection.
Also worth noting, are the wide, soft, supportive seats for long-distance driving comfort; stowage pockets in the front doors; and a plastic clip along the windshield on the driver’s side to hold a parking pass.
The 9-3 Arc includes such goodies as air conditioning and power seats/windows/locks/mirrors as standard.
The test vehicle added the 5-speed automatic transmission at $1,250; touring package with rain-sensing wipers, rear parking assist, six-disc CD changer and remote fob at $1,195; sport-wheel package with the 17-inch radials at $1,000; and Xenon headlights at $550.
Saab expects to sell 9,000 to 10,000 convertibles annually, about the same as in the past. And it hopes to see sales make a comeback.
In the first six months of this year, Saab sales slipped 21 percent, to 19,430 units. Saab insists folks were waiting for the convertible as evidenced by the fact the 9-3 sedan has $3,000 incentives, the convertible none.
Saab also says consumers were waiting for its new 9-2X all-wheel-drive hatchback that arrived in June.
One criticism of the Saab lineup has been that it offers only the 9-3 and 9-5 sedans. Responding to the criticism and taking advantage of being owned by GM, Saab added the 9-2X in Linear and Aero versions, with the Linear derived from the Subaru Legacy and the Aero derived from the Subaru WRX. GM owns a 10 percent equity stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, parent of Subaru.
Late in the first quarter of next year, Saab will add a 9-7 sport-utility vehicle derived from GM’s midsize Chevrolet TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy SUVs.
Saab says, however, that the 9-7 will be more similar to the Buick Rainier, with softer tuned shocks and springs for more carlike ride on the roads, yet with full -time all-wheel-drive for some off-road capabilities.
And Saab recently announced it will add a seven-passenger crossover that will be shared with Subaru and built at Subaru’s Lafayette, Ind., plant at an unspecified date, probably within three years.
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2004 Saab 9-3 Arc convertible
Wheelbase: 105.3 inches
Length: 182.4 inches
Engine: 2-liter, 210-h.p., turbocharged 4-cylinder
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 19 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway
Base price: $39,995
Price as tested: $43,990. Includes $1,250 for automatic transmission; $1,195 for touring package with rain-sensing wipers, remote window/power top fob, six-disc CD changer and rear park assist; $1,000 for sport-wheel package with 17-inch radials; and $550 for Xenon headlights. Add $695 for freight.
Pluses: A convertible that seats four adults and provides sedan-like rear and side vi ion. Quiet top that goes up or down in 20 seconds. Ample power with the turbo 4-cylinder. Neat remote fob to power down the top from outside the car.
Minuses: Hefty price for the car–and the options.