In the past couple of months, I've had the opportunity to test several, including the new Ford Mustang, Chevy Corvette and Mini Cooper ragtops, and loved all three of them.
Recently, another favorite came my way: the Saab 9-3.
After introducing a whole-new 9-3 sport sedan model for 2003, Saab came along for 2004 with its completely redesigned 9-3 convertible, and now, for 2005, that vehicle continues in the lineup with a few minor changes and a new, lower-priced version.
An in-dash navigation system is now offered ($2,295, included on our test car), and three new exterior colors have been added (parchment silver, smoke beige and chili red metallic).
In addition, a lower-priced Linear model with a 175-horsepower, 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, has joined the lineup.
The newest model starts at $37,100 (plus $720 freight), while our test car, the midlevel Arc model begins at $40,100, and the top-of-the-line Aero version at $42,600 (both plus freight). Both of those come with a high-output turbo version of the same 2.0-liter engine, rated at 210 horsepower and 221 foot-pounds of torque.
Our Arc test model, with the new chili red metallic paint (a $525 option), got a good workout on twisty roads in the Hill Country, and as I had found a couple of years ago while driving one of these cars in the Great Smoky Mountains, this vehicle seems to be make for roads such as these.
The revised convertible joined the lineup late because Saab wanted to concentrate first on the sport sedan, the first four-door model in the 9-3 lineup after years of living only as either a hatchback or convertible.
The move to a sedan format for the 9-3 has helped bring this vehicle and Saab in general more into the mainstream; with prices beginning at about $27,000, the 9-3 immediately became one of the hottest-selling premium sedans on the market. The convertible was the logical next step, because it has always been one of the brand's marquee vehicles.
This new one, though, is far better than the model it replaced. Saab, the Swedish automaker now wholly owned by General Motors Corp., introduced the first 9-3 convertible (then called the 900) in 1986, and it has been a favorite of Saab owners since then. But it really hadn't changed much over the years. Until last year, it carried the same basic body styling all of that time, and changes were limited mostly to safety and drivetrain improvements.
Saab officials called the redesigned 9-3 ragtop the "new benchmark" convertible in the near-luxury class, where it competes against the segment-leading BMW 3-series ragtop, the Volvo C70 and the Audi A4 Cabriolet, which all are priced about the same as the 9-3.
Previous 9-3 ragtops have been popular among Saab's limited U.S. owner body, but even more so in Europe. It accounted for nearly one-third of all premium convertibles sold in 2003, and one in five Saabs sold in the United States. Since the 9-3 sedan arrived, replacing the somewhat gawky looking 9-3 hatchback, retail sales of Saabs have shown their best performance in the company's 48-year history.
Saab media literature touts the new convertible as offering "a greatly improved driving experience through incorporating the widely acclaimed chassis dynamics" of the 9-3 sport sedan. I've driven both, and found that the open-top model has almost the same solid feel as the sedan. It surprisingly lacks the shakes and shimmies that often plague cars that have had their tops cut off to create convertibles.
As its predecessor did, the 2005 9-3 convertible comes off the assembly line in Sweden initially as a hardtop 9-3, then goes to a plant near Graz, Austria, where it is transformed into a convertible. One of the biggest problems in the design of a vehicle with a removable top is ensuring that the body structure remains rigid enough when the car's hard top is cut off.
With the hard top gone, the only uninterrupted, front-to-rear support for the chassis is the floor, and in many convertibles, chopping off the top means that the car would shake and rattle on even the smallest bumps. To overcome that, Saab engineers designed the body of the new 9-3 ragtop to be almost three times stiffer than that of its predecessor.
Among the changes is an all-new suspension layout, which includes supplementary "ring of steel" reinforcements linking the front, rear and side structures, helping to compensate for the absence of a roof.
The newest ragtop is two inches wider and has a wheelbase 2.8 inches longer than the previous model. But the overall length remains the same at 182.5 inches.
The aluminum four-cylinder engines used in these cars have maintenance-free chain-driven camshafts, counter-rotating balancer shafts, dual-mass flywheels and integrated oil coolers.
Standard is a five-speed manual transmission, but a "smart" five-speed automatic transmission is optional. Even with that the driver can choose to shift if he wants to, thanks to the Saab Sentronic system, which allows the driver to change gears using either the floor shifter or thumb paddles mounted on the steering wheel.
Our test car came with the Sentronic gearbox, which costs $1,350 extra.
As for safety, engineered into the vehicle are a series of structural and occupant-protection features, Saab says, including new front seatbelts integrated into the seat frames, adaptive dual front airbags, two-stage side-impact airbags designed to offer protection for the torso and the head, and Saab's active head restraints, which push forward and lock into place to protect the occupants' necks in the case of a rear-end collision.
To protect against rollovers, Saab designed pop-up rear roll bars for the convertible in conjunction with the front seatbelt pre-tensioning system.
The power-operated soft top can be opened or closed with just the push of a button. With some convertibles - even expensive ones - the driver has to get out to operate the top. On the 9-3, the roof is hydraulically powered, with an automatic self-latching mechanism, and it opens or closes fully in just 20 seconds.
Another innovation, Saab says, is a more practical feature: raising the roof automatically raises the capacity of the trunk. The self-expanding trunk links the soft-top's rear hinge to a flexible storage well in the trunk. When the roof is in position, the well is fully retracted, opening up a rather generous (for a convertible) storage space. With the top up, the trunk has 12.4 cubic feet of space; with it down, the space is reduced to 8.3 cubic feet.
Among other standard features of the Arc model are leather seat surfaces; antilock brakes with cornering brake control; rear defogger; daytime running lights; automatic climate control with cabin air filtration; cruise control; 300-watt, 13-speaker audio system with single-disc CD player; power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote; leather steering wheel with audio controls; tilt and telescopic steering column; dual power front bucket seats; halogen projector-beam headlights; front and rear fog lights; electronic stability control; and power rack-and-pinion steering.
Options on our test car included a "driver's package" ($1,695), which added a wood and leather steering wheel, driver's seat memory, rain-sensing wipers, six-disc CD changer, rear parking assist, remote top operation, and auto-dimming rearview mirror with built-in garage/gate opener; and 17-inch wheels and all-season tires ($850).
Total sticker was $47,535, including freight and options.
EPA fuel-economy ratings for our test car with the high-output turbo engine were 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. The tank holds 16.4 gallons of gasoline.
The GM OnStar communications/navigation system is optional, but was not included on our vehicle.
G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. You may contact him at (210) 250-3236; email@example.com.
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At a Glance
2005 Saab 9-3 Convertible
The package: Midsize, two-door, four-passenger, turbocharged four-cylinder, front-drive premium convertible.
Highlights: Redesigned for 2004, the newest 9-3 ragtop is based on the new 9-3 sport sedan that was introduced in 2003. It comes with a power top and a choice of 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Styling and handling are outstanding.
Negatives: Can get pricey at higher trim levels and with options; no six-cylinder engine offered.
Engine: 2.0-liter I-4, turbocharged (two versions, light-pressure and high-pressure turbos).
Transmission: 5 or 6-speed manual, 5-speed automatic.
Power/torque: 175 hp/195 foot-pounds, 210 hp/221 foot-pounds.
Length: 182.5 inches.
Curb weight: 3,480-3,700 pounds.
Trunk volume: 12.4 cubic feet (top up), 8.3 cubic feet (top down).
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Fuel capacity/type: 16.4 gallons/unleaded regular.
EPA fuel economy: 19-23 miles per gallon city/29-34 mpg highway (depending on engine and transmission combination).
Base price range: $37,100-$42,600 plus $720 freight. Price as tested: $47,535, including freight (Arc model with automatic transmission and other options).
Major competitors: BMW 325/330 convertible, Volvo C70, Audi A4 Cabriolet.
On the Road rating: **** (four stars out of five).
Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail. Actual selling price may vary according to manufacturer and/or dealer rebates, incentives and discounts, if any.