EXPERT REVIEW

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif.

It rained in California. It rained so much it washed away hills, flooded farmland and buckled the roof of a drugstore in Los Angeles 90 miles south of her

The rain fell most of March and spilled into the first days of April. It was so wet for so long that even the locals stopped making excuses. There was no “Sorry you couldn’t be here for better weather,” or “This is unusual,” or “It will clear up.”

It did not clear up, not even for the introduction here of Saab Automobile USA’s 2006 9-3 Aero convertible and a special “20 Years Edition” of the Swedish automaker’s first soft-top car.

“It’s a good thing our convertible is built for all-weather use,” said Jay Spenchian, general manager of Saab USA. He was right about that.

We drove 200 miles along highways and back roads through downpours and fog alternating between the Aero 9-3 and the super-spiffed 20 Years Edition model.

There were obstacles aplenty. But slippery roads were the least of them.

The rain in California pounded with a vengeance that toppled bits of hillsides onto adjacent highways, creating what naturalists might call organic slalom courses. Accompanying the roadway mud and gravel were dips and craters, many of them hidden by standing water, all of them capable of turning a friendly drive into a funeral procession.

In short, it was not the most pleasant milieu for convertibles. For many of us, there were no wind-in-the-hair, fun-in-the-sun moments. But a few adventurous souls among the journalists and Saab people on hand chanced lowering the tops of their cars during flash dances of sunshine.

It was easy enough.

All models of the Saab 9-3 convertible — the base 2.0T, upscale Aero and the 20 Years Edition — come with a fully automatic roof as standard equipment. It is a triple-insulated soft-top that rises or lowers at the push of a single button, and does that work even if the car is moving at a factory-suggested limit of 12 miles per hour. There are no levers or latches to frustrate fumblers. The top sinks beneath its tonneau cover, or rises from its slumber and reattaches itself to the windshield’s frame without fuss or bother.

I got the impression — confirmed in subsequent conversation with Spenchian, who lowered the roof of his car while moving at 15 miles per hour — that there was a bit of a game involved in the open-air bravado. The idea was to keep the top down until a cloudburst and then to raise the roof before the car’s interior got soaked.

But Mother Nature does not suffer pranksters gladly. Some people and seats got wet. Oh, well. The 9-3 convertibles moved sprightly along the rain-weary roads.

They are my kind of sports cars — nimble, fast and punchy enough in Aero and 20 Years Edition modes with a turbocharged 250-horsepower V-6, and firm enough in their footing to inspire driver confidence.

Automotive journalists are picky sorts fond of talking about things such as “on-center feel,” the tendency of a steering wheel to return to its center position when slightly deflected.

Good on-center feel, according to the editors of the Road & Track Illustrated Automotive Dictionary (an educational resource highly recommended by this column), “helps the driver instinctively keep a car on course as the car encounters influences such as crosswinds, road undulations and varying road surfaces.”

I’ll buy that.

And I rather suspect that a consumer who has the peculiar fortune of test-driving a Saab 9-3 convertible in the rain over debris-strewn roads will wind up buying that one too — because the 9-3 convertible had on-center feel to spare.

There’s no need to worry. The sun will come out and the top will come down . . . tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow, even in California.

Nuts & Bolts 2006 Saab 9-3 Convertibles

Complaints: Some of my peers complained that the steering feel in the Aero and 20 Years Edition 9-3 cars was “too light.” One said that meant the Saabs “did not feel tight like a BMW or a Porsche.”

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent in all three categories. The Saabs will please most buyers seeking a fun car with good road manners.

Head-turning quotient: The 9-3 convertibles are pretty in the way that cars were meant to be pretty — as elegant, seductive, kinetic escape sculptures.

Body style/layout: The Saab 9-3 is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive, premium compact convertible with a commodious trunk.

Engines/transmissions: The tested 2006 Aero and 20 Years Edition 9-3 come with a standard turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6 engine that develops 250 horsepower at 5,500 revolutions per minute and 258 foot-pounds of torque at 1,800 rpm. A six-speed manual transmission is standard. A six-speed automatic that also can be shifted manually is optional. The base 2.0T gets a turbocharged 210-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and a standard five-speed manual transmission, with the option of a five-speed automatic that also can be shifted manually.

Capacities: Seating for four people. Trunk volume is 12.4 cubic feet with the convertible top up and 8.3 cubic feet with the top down. The fuel tank holds 16.4 gallons of required premium unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: City and highway mileage of the tested Aero and 20 Years Edition models with automatic transmissions averaged 23 miles per gallon.

Safety: The 9-3 convertibles come with dual front air bags also designed to protect heads, side air bags, traction and stability control, and four-wheel antilock brakes.

Price: The 2006 Saab Aero 9-3 starts at $41,900. Dealer’s invoice price on that car is $39,512. Price as tested is $47,115. That includes $4,495 in options, most of which come as standard equipment in the 20 Years Edition, including nocturne blue metallic body paint and blue convertible top, navigation system, six-speed automatic transmission. Price includes $720 destination charge. Dealer’s price as tested is $44,400. The 20 years Edition, of which 400 copies will be available, is priced at $44,615, including the destination charge. But expect dealers to charge premiums on that one.

Compare: You will be happy with the Aero. Compare with BMW 3-Series convertible, Audi A4 convertible and Volvo C70 convertible.

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