EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

Drop the top of Saab’s 9-3 Aero convertible, tip into the turbo V-6 and you’ve got a 250-horsepower hair dryer. With all that power on tap, however, your hair will look like you’ve grabbed an electric light socket.

The Aero convertible is one of three Saabs that are equipped with this engine. The other two are the 9-3 Aero Sport Sedan and SportCombi station wagon.

The convertible is a most pleasing platform from which to sample this all-aluminum V-6. The test car was equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission, although a six-speed manual is also offered. The automatic with a manual-shift option works so well that I can’t imagine choosing the stick shift unless you have a serious hankerin’ for changing your own gears. The transmission can also be shifted with buttons on the steering wheel.

Saab claims its new V-6 turbo is the fastest-accelerating car to carry its badge. The 2.8-liter engine architecture is shared with General Motors. GM owns Saab, and Saab is recognized within GM as an expert in turbocharging.

This all-aluminum powerplant has a twin-scroll turbocharger, dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and variable intake cam timing. While that technical jargon may delight enthusiasts, the average buyer wants to know only how the engine performs when he steps on the gas, and this one supplies a reassuring push from just past idle to maximum revs.

Early Saabs had a fair amount of turbo lag, meaning that there was a bit of a delay between mashing the throttle and getting some action. That’s no longer the case. The 2.8’s linear power band is due in large measure to the engine’s electronic management system that controls ignition timing, turbo boost, fuel injection and throttle setting. The system also works with the transmission to modulate torque based on driving conditions such as available traction, ensuring smooth acceleration in a wide range of conditions.

The engine is rated at 17 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway by the Environmental Protection Agency.

For those who want the same car with less power and a lesser price, the base convertible has 210 horsepower and starts at $36,500 instead of $41,900.

The 9-3 convertible maintains a strong resemblance to previous Saabs while looking fresh. Its wedge profile is handsome and energetic. The power top is completely automatic and slides down at the push of a button. When down, it is stored under a hard cover.

Convertibles are often less rigid than sedans, but the 9-3 is pretty tight. I could feel only the slightest wiggle through the steering wheel on bumpy pavement.

Saab interiors, particularly the instrument panels, are designed to resemble an aircraft cockpit, and the one in the 9-3 follows suit. The main gauge package is designed to be simple and easy to read. The center stack contained a host of small buttons for operating the climate control and audio systems.

The leather-wrapped steering wheel had sections of plastic where the driver’s hands would touch. This is an unusual treatment, but it looked nice and felt good to the touch. Steering-wheel controls for audio and telephone are handy as well as safe.

Saab aficionados will be happy that the ignition key is still located in the console by the gearshift, but that location seemed awkward to me.

A single cup holder pivots out from the dash, and it was not as substantial or convenient as the one located in the console. It is easy for the driver to reach, however.

The test car’s two-tone leather seats were quite comfortable. The back is barely large enough for two adults, and legroom is on the snug side.

Price

The test car had a base price of $41,900. Options included metallic paint, automatic transmission, blue top, heated seats and headlamp washers, and a navigation system. The sticker price was $47,665.

Warranty

Four years or 50,000 miles.

Engine: 2.8-liter, 250-hp V-6

Transmission: Automatic

Front-wheel drive

Wheelbase: 105.3

Curb weight: 3,700 lbs.

Base price: $41,900

As driven: $47,665

MPG rating: 17 city, 28 hwy.

At A Glance

Point: The 9-3 convertible is fun and fast. The V-6 turbo has plenty of muscle, but it’s easy to drive moderately, too. The power top is a breeze to use.

Counterpoint: If you want convertible zest with less power, choose the base model with a 210-horsepower engine. The test car’s price puts the Saab in contention with top luxury convertibles from Germany and Japan.

To contact Tom Strongman, send e-mail to tom@tomstrongman.com.

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