Just the thing to brighten a January rainy daySaab’s new 9-3 Convertible frocked in dusk-defying lime-yellow metallic paint. Isn’t it interesting the way convertibles, like boat shows, inaugurate their duly appointed rounds in the depths of winter, when longings for springtime achieve hallucinatory dimensions?
Like a black-headed salamander, the convertible sat motionless in my soggy driveway during an incessant downpour. Figments of open-air exhilaration danced like post-holiday sugarplums in my head. Why even wait for the showers to subside? This thorough renovation of Saab’s popular four-seater cabriolet would make sport enough of any downpour even with its hat on.
Like its hardtop sibling, the 9-3 sedan whose makeover occurred in 2003, Saab’s 2004 9-3 Convertible struts about on General Motors’ stiff and sophisticated Epsilon platform. The structural integrity of this architecture translates into nimble, resolute handling upon backroads and solid, quiet cruising over freeways. It is becoming GM’s platform of choice for the resurrection of sporting appeal among a number of GM compacts around the world, ranging from Opel and Vauxhall in Europe and the U.K. to Chevrolet’s Malibu here in the States. (It remains to be seen, of course, whether Malibu’s star brightens in the comparison or whether the 9-3’s star dims.)
For a convertible, this extra stiffness is most welcome. Without the superstructure of a roof, a convertible’s tub-like cockpit is prey to all sorts of Newtonian vagaries, what with centrifugal forces pushing and pulling mercilessly in different directions while the actions and reactions of four-wheel independent suspension play counterpoint.
It was, in other words, worth test-driving Saab’s vaunted new droptop even in the rain in order to take the measure of its tip-to-stern overhaul for 2004. I was not in the least prepared, therefore, to encounter the steady flow, with a clepsydra’s drip-second precision, of rainwater into the cabin. For all of the 9-3’s many changes and refinements, innovations and improvements, someone forgot to make double-caulkin’ sure that the convertible roof fastened properly to the top of the windscreen.
In fairness, it must be said that I isolated the problem to a section of misapplied weather-stripping at the forward corner of the retracting roof where it meets the passenger-side A-pillar. With a tweak here and some caulk there, perhaps, the seep might be stopped; and I’m certain this was an unrepresentative case of spontaneous irrigation. That my giddy first impressions were dampened, however, I cannot deny.
For what the hand of fate distributes, in all its impartiality, it always seems to compensate. This at least is the only explanation I can put forth for the January anomaly of a clearing blue sky and balmy air on the very next day after my Saab’s internal self-laving. So with reinvigorated glee, I hopped into the 9-3, popped the top and shagged my lime-yellow bootie all over town.
I had, in short, a blast. In its elementthat is, in the sunshine of a 70-degree daySaab’s 9-3 convertible is sporty to drive, jaunty to flaunt and comfy enough for sharing the experience with three passengers. One-touch control of the retracting roof initiates a 20-second sequence wherein the ragtop either origami-folds tidily under a sheetmetal boot or re-deploys back out from there.
If jaded “cabriolistas,” as convertible fanciers ought to be designated, have had their fill of auto-action rooftops, Saab has at least one innovation they will not have seen before. Dubbed CargoSET, this “self-expanding trunk” makes sure that the 9-3’s 12.4-cu. ft. trunk is the largest in the cabrio class. It’s all a matter of having a trunk and eating it, too. When the roof retracts, the trunk automatically resizes to make room for it; and if CargoSET detects an impediment during the process, a fail-safe prevents shattering all the Waterford crystal.
Other convertible-dependent cleverness is to be found within the automatic climate-control system. With the roof overhead, the 9-3’s HVAC is thermostatically controlled for set-and-forget comfort at both driver and passenger positions. Pop the top, though, and you’ll note that your 72-degree settings have been reduced to mere single digits. It’s not a case of creeping Celsification; instead, it’s just a re-calibration of the climate controls to indicate fan settings, so that you’re not unintentionally shouldering a responsibility to bring the universe to a uniformly absolute temperature.
Elsewhere about the new 9-3 cockpit are gentle updatesrather than a complete makeoverof what is a favorite auto interior among enthusiasts. The jet-fighter format remains; everything even remotely necessary for quick, safe control is in reach of the driver, as if arranged along equal radius lengths of an invisible sphere centered upon the torso. The dashboard’s black-out mode at nighttime remains a favorite and unique feature; all dials and gauges “go to sleep” at the flick of a switch, awakening only if they’re needed to alert the driver about some condition or other.
As for the Saab Information Display (SID) that coordinates disparate audio, telephone and data functions, it’s a bit beastly to manipulate at first. Master it, though, and you will have created a portfolio of different settings “profiles” that suit different drivers or even different moods of a single driver.
Saab’s convertible exploits H.O.T.high-output turbochargingto extract 210 horsepower from a mere 2.0-liter inline-four. Infamous torque-steer is largely gone; noticeable turbo lag somewhat remains.
Combined with agile handling, the powerplant is adequate to the task of sport-touring and extrovert hot-dogging about town. At 3,560 portly pounds, however, the 9-3 reaches its cornering limits early and even shudders a bit when pummeling potholes and speed bumps.
As a fair-weather friend, Saab’s 9-3 convertible succeeds with a nifty combination of charm and spunk. When it rains, there is at least one Saab I am aware of that also weeps.