By Kevin Miller
From reading my review of the Saab Turbo X, you may recall that I am a Saab fanatic. I remember when I saw my first Saab convertible- I was in middle school, in the late 1980s, and the vehicle was at once so yuppie, stylish, pretentious and unobtainable that I knew I someday had to have one. In the twenty years that have passed since, I have driven a handful of Saab convertibles on test-drives and overnight trials, but I have yet to own one. When I learned I would be reviewing a 9-3 Aero convertible for a week, I was elated. Perhaps I built it up so much in my mind, that the car was bound to let me down in real life. Or perhaps it would live up to every expectation. Only a week spent with the car would be able to determine which of those is the case.
My test vehicle was a 2008 9-3 Aero convertible, in Snow Silver Metallic with a Sand ragtop (which didn’t match the silver exterior very well in my opinion). Standard equipment on the Aero includes the 2.8L 6-Cylinder, turbocharged with 255hp, a 300 W, 10-speaker audio system with AM/FM/XM stereo with in dash 6-disc CD changer and AUX input, lowered, sport-tuned chassis, dual exhaust with bright-finish tailpipes, swiveling Xenon headlamps, front and rear fog lamps, leather-trimmed Aero sport steering wheel, and 17-inch, 5-spoke low-split alloy wheels.
The vehicle I tested had the optional 6-speed, manually-shiftable Sentronic automatic transmission. The transmission has both a manual-shifting mode and a Sport mode. In manual mode, gears can be shifted using steering-wheel-mounted “paddles” or by using (+) and (-) gates on the transmission’s gear selector. The Sport mode affected the transmission’s shifting algorithm by holding low gears longer and perhaps dropping them more quickly. Neither the automatic shifting nor the Sport mode, however, impressed me too much. The transmission may as well have been a steering-column-mounted shifter for all the good the manumatic gate and “paddles” on the steering wheel did. Yes, they shifted the transmission’s gears, but not with any particular haste. Using Sport mode made the throttle response very direct, to the point of causing the car to buck by abrupt throttle application at lower speeds. Imprecise (or perhaps indecisive) shifts when cold were another demerit for the Sentronic. The transmission really detracted from the joy of driving the 9-3.
During my week with the Aero convertible I learned that with 255 HP delivered through the front wheels, a heavy right foot when setting off from a stop will easily produce wheelspin (and intervention of the traction control) on dry pavement. Flooring the accelerator when underway can cause weight to transfer to the rear of the car, leaving the front wheels skittering over expansion joints or pavement irregularities, as well as inducing some torque steer. I didn’t have a chance to try drive the 9-3 on wet pavement, but these results surely would have been amplified. That said, when traveling at freeway speed, use of the right pedal just brings speed, and does so quickly.
I reset the 9-3’s trip computer when I got the car, and I spent my first 40 miles driving around town. After those 40 miles, fuel consumption showed 13.4 MPG. The next 175 miles were spent on the interstate between 65 and 75 MPH, and the trip computer’s average improved to 25.3 MPG. The car’s EPA rating is 15/24 MPG. At the end of my week and about 680 miles, the trip computer was registering around 23 MPG average on premium unleaded fuel.
The 9-3 convertible’s chassis was admirably rigid. Having driven both previous generations of Saab convertibles, I cannot stress how big the improvement is. The first-generation 900 convertible feels literally like a car with its roof sawn off. The second-generation convertible (900/9-3) was a significant improvement, but the rearview mirror always framed the back window’s movement with the top raised. In this 9-3 convertible, only the slightest vibration was present even over choppy pavement.
The stereo in the 9-3 Aero is a 300 W, ten speaker unit, with XM, AM/FM, 6-disc in-dash CD changer, and an AUX input. Unfortunately, the Aux Input jack is located such that it interferes with the folding of the dash-mounted cup holder if a cable is plugged in to the stereo (that cup holder is also susceptible to being bumped by a passenger’s left knee). The Aux Input interference is a result of the head unit being a GM parts-bin unit, which was introduced in the 9-3 range’s 2007 interior freshening. A friend’s Buick Enclave has the same head unit, and it is found throughout GM’s model range. The display screen on the head unit uses green LEDs behind a plastic window, rather than the green LCD-type display used in the instrument panel. While the LCD remains visible in direct sunlight, the head unit’s LED display becomes totally illegible in sunlight, which is a ridiculous design flaw in a convertible. A more thoughtful stereo integration would have placed the Aux Input jack elsewhere and used a display with a display visible in direct sunlight.
The Aero comes standard with remote-top opening (that feature is optional on the base 9-3 convertible), which is performed by holding down the unlock button on the key fob. The top can also be operated by holding a button on the dash. There are no manual header latches to deal with on the 9-3’s top, and the interior of the top has a nice headliner, which was a light color in my test car, making the 9-3’s interior appear light and airy when the roof was closed. The top also provided a nice amount of headroom when raised. As the top opens and closes, the cargo barrier in the trunk is automatically adjusted to decrease or increase the trunk size in the generously-sized trunk.
The top did a very good job quieting the car, especially below 65 MPH. At speeds above 65, wind noise became pretty loud with the top raised. Even with the top lowered, it was easy for front seat occupants to converse at speeds below 60 MPH, though it was difficult to hear for a phone conversation or to hear back-seat passengers.
Unfortunately, my convertible had a rattle in the dashboard. It was a minor rather than major rattle, but it was in there, somewhere around the radio or climate control panel, though I was never able to isolate it, even though I had about 3 hours of top-up driving in each direction between Seattle and Portland to listen to it, grow irritated by it, and obsess over it. Yes, the rattle in the dash drove me crazy. Fortunately, it was seldom noticeable over the wind- and road noise when the top was open.
Although I did not experience any rain during my test, I have a concern about the weather-proof-ness of the top. Sitting in the driver’s seat and looking over my right shoulder, toward the bottom of the right-hand “C-pillar” with the top raised, I could clearly see daylight between the vehicle body and the raised convertible top; probably 1 or 2 mm of gap exists. It made me wonder whether there was any possibility of water leaking into the car on a rainy day, whether parked or underway.
Our family of three took the 9-3 convertible on a weekend trip from Seattle to Portland. The first half-hour of packing for that trip was spent trying to get my three-year old daughter’s car seat in the back of the car. The 9-3 convertible does have upper tether and lower anchors for LATCH equipped car seats, but the headrest must be removed in the seating position where you want to use the LATCH. Because the upper tether is only about 2 inches rearward of the car seat’s final location, and that tether attachment point is under the convertible’s pop-up rollover protection bar, it was extremely difficult to get the seat properly cinched. Our Graco ComfortSport seat wouldn’t properly tighten because the non-adjustable portion of the upper tether is about 4 inches long. We had to pull our Britax Marathon out of my wife’s car to fit in the Saab, and it really did take almost 20 minutes to get the upper tether situated. It certainly was not an easy thing to merely pop the car seat in.
With the seat in place, however, our daughter had adequate legroom (she loved riding with the top open and the wind in her hair), which is more than could be said for any adult who would have to sit in the Saab’s back seat. Legroom behind me, a 6-foot 4-inch driver, was nonexistent. Perhaps 2 inches of space remained between the back of my seat and the bottom cushion of the back seat. I couldn’t even shove a shoe to the floor behind my seat without folding the driver’s seat forward.
Trunk space in the convertible is adequate for overnight bags for two adults and a preschooler (with the top lowered), and we even managed to fit in a stroller we were returning to some friends. By packing the car with the top lowered, we were able to ensure that all of our luggage would fit and that we would be able to motor around Portland with the roof open. Midweek after returning from our trip, I needed to transport a large equipment case. Although the trunk’s dimensions with the top raised were big enough for the case, the trunk’s opening was too small to fit the case inside. I ended up dropping the top and securing the case in the back seat with the seatbelt.
During the week I had the 9-3 Aero convertible for evaluation, Saab released details about their 9-X Air concept, a concept convertible which may portend the next-generation Saab convertible. Among the press information were some interesting facts about the current 9-3 convertible: No robots are used in the General Assembly area at the Magna Steyr plant in Austria, where the 9-3 Convertible is built. The skilled, 750-strong workforce carries out their tasks entirely by hand. Also, seven hydraulic cylinders are used to execute 4 different movements in the operation of the soft-top, which contains 181 moving parts. Perhaps the fact that the build process is not automated contributes to the vehicle’s high price.
MSRP of the 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero convertible I tested is $46385, with options that add up quickly. Metallic paint is $550, Cold Weather Package (heated front seats, headlamp washers) is $550, Sand colored convertible top is $600 (Black is standard), Touring Package (rear park assist, inside auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, universal home remote and three-position memory for driver’s seat and mirrors) is $ 895, and Sentronic automatic transmission is $1350, for a total MSRP of $50,330. Ouch.
Of course, since Saab is a GM brand, the car is available this month with GM Employee Pricing, as well as a cash rebate. The Employee Pricing MSRP is $43020.72, which is a discount of $3364.28, plus $3500 cash rebate, for a total discount of $6864.28, making the drive-away price a more palatable $43465. I could see the 9-3 Aero convertible as a $43,000 car. But I just can’t see spending $50k on it.
Besides all of the money GM is piling on the hood, another way to reduce the car’s price is to buy the 9-3 2.0T convertible instead. With 210 HP and 221 lb-ft of torque from a turbocharged four-cylinder compared to the Aero’s 255 HP/258 lf-ft, it isn’t that far behind in performance figures, and it achieves 17/27 MPG fuel economy rating. With a base MSRP of $40700, an equivalently-equipped 2.0T convertible has an MSRP of $47,090 (yes, for a four-cylinder front-wheel drive convertible), or $40663 after $6427of Employee Pricing and Incentive discounts.
In that price range, there is some serious machinery available. Comparable European, front-wheel drive, four-passenger droptops are available from Audi, Volvo, and Volkswagen. BMW offers the rear-wheel drive 1-series and 3-series convertibles. Of those, only the Audi and the BMW 1-series have fabric roofs, the others have retractable hardtop systems. While so much in vehicle choice comes down to personal preference, price certainly plays a role, and the price for the 9-3 Aero convertible seems pretty high. The Saab becomes a great deal with GM’s current incentives, but at MSRP it seems a bit overpriced and outgunned in its segment.
With all of that being said, the 9-3 convertible is a solid car that handles nicely with minimal chassis flex or cowl-shake. Like other Saabs, it has comfortable seats and crisp handling. With the top up, it is quiet and has excellent headroom and visibility. Having spent a wonderfully sunny week with the convertible I’ve always wanted, the car lived up to my expectations. I determined that I would probably opt for the four-cylinder engine, and I’d absolutely choose a manual transmission instead of the unimpressive Sentronic automatic. But even as equipped, I found the Aero fun to drive. I found myself looking for excuses to run errands, and I did find myself taking the long way home on multiple occasions.
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