EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

It’s like a gigantic tease. In the midst of frigid winter weather, an automaker introduces its new premium-priced convertible.

But Saab has always done things differently. After all, what other company mounts the ignition switch in the center console? What other company has produced only front-wheel-drive automobiles?

With this kind of rationale, it might be easier to understand why Saab would provide journalists in the Northeast with its newest convertible in the middle of December.

Regardless, the new Saab 9-3 Convertible competes very well against not only the Volvo C70, BMW 3-Series and Audi’s A4 convertibles, but easily undercuts the Mercedes-Benz CLK Cabriolet.

Saab has its own unique view of Swedish automaking, along with a big assist from parent company General Motors.

A new 9-3 was introduced for 2003, using the new GM Epsilon platform that is shared with the Opel Vectra and the new Chevrolet Malibu. Styling was updated as well, with the 9-3 abandoning its hatchback body for a more traditional notchback shape.

While longtime Saab loyalists cringed, they needn’t worry. The new 9-3 looks and performs more like a baby Saab 9-5. The new car’s sporty stance and fine detailing make it a real head-turner. This carries over to the new convertible, which loses some of the hunchback look of the previous convertible.

Unlike the sedan, which is built in Sweden, the 9-3 is built in a new dedicated production facility by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria. This is typical of European manufacturers, that farm out their premium production work to firms like Magna Steyr, which also builds the BMW X3 sport-utility and the G-Class SUV for Mercedes-Benz.

Saab parts company with its competition when it comes to how the car is powered. The 9-3 is powered by Saab’s new 2-liter turbo-charged in-line four-cylinder. Good for 210 horsepower, the car mates to either a five-speed manual or automatic in Arc trim, six-speed manual or five-speed automatic in Aero trim.

While that might be enough to turn off most mainstream luxury car buyers, keep in mind that Saab has been working with turbo fours for the best part of three decades. They have been able to hone its performance to equal that of larger engines, without sacrificing the fuel economy that a four-cylinder provides.

Turbo lag is not an issue with power coming on sure and strong. The front-wheel-drive clings through corners confidently and securely. Torque-steer only rears its ugly head when pouring on the power at an inappropriate moment. You’ll never miss two cylinders.

Ride comfort is good, with a solid, firm ride one expects of a European car. But power and performance are available in the competition as well. What makes the Saab special?

Perhaps it is the air-conditioned glove box. While that might not be enough to convince you to plunk down some hard-earned cash, consider the fine points of the car.

The car’s instrument panel has a cockpit design akin to that of Saab aircraft. Everything is extremely easy to use and operate, with the exception of the overly fussy radio controls.

Interior design is euro-modern and fresh. The car’s exterior color is carried over to the interior door sills, a nice touch. Also refreshing is the lack of a navigation system, which is too distracting anyway. Instead, Saab employs the Night Panel, which kills all interior lighting except the speedometer at night. This helps prevent distractions. Other items light up on a need-to-know basis.

And, the long Swedish winter gloom must have influenced Saab’s designers when it comes to the convertible top. The headliner is trimmed in a light-colored fabric, which prevents the gloomy feel that most convertibles have with the top up.

The top is weather tight and fits perfectly and does an exceptional job of sealing out noise. It doesn’t leak, despite torrential ra and a bit of snow.

Lowering the top couldn’t be easier. Just press the dash-mounted button. You don’t have to unlatch anything. In addition, the key fob allows you to lower the top from up to 20 feet away. With the top down, the trunk is large enough to hold grocery bags and a briefcase. With the top raised, two sets of clubs will fit in the trunk with ease.

While this time of year isn’t exactly prime convertible weather, Saabs are great four season propositions. This car is as pleasurable to use with the top up as it is down.

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