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SAAB'S DAY IN THE SUN

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sat, Sep 6, 2003

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

SAAB'S DAY IN THE SUN

By JOHN GRAFMAN

America loves the underdog - i.e. those that have the odds stacked against them and still persevere. Underdogs have their loyal followers, but never seem to have the exposure that the big dogs do. There is something that holds them back - be it geographical, monetary or experience. America’s favorite pastime is to build a person or company up just to see them fall to the giant-killer underdog.

Poor BMW and Audi. Sitting on top of the automotive pedestal basking in the sun has made them ripe to fall. These two European manufacturers produce some of the world's most highly regarded sporting convertibles. For many years Saab has played second fiddle to them, but all of that is about to change. The 9-3 sedan as we have mentioned before, is itself a strong competitor and the sales figures prove this out. As a starting point for the new 9-3 convertible, the outlook was positive. It is also just as possible to foul up all that’s good with a product once you start to meddle with it. Thankfully, Saab took its 9-3 and made it even better! In the grand scheme of things, Saab sells so few cars overall that it is easy to classify the company as an underdog. What Saab does have to battle the big dogs is both a dedicated team of people and the resources of another company that believes in them. Why do they get this kind of support? In the past Saab has managed to do more with less. With the advent of General Motors as their adoptive parent, the playing field has now been evened out. GM expects to see good things from their new family member in the upcoming years.

Some of the “good things” are already evident as Saab’s overall sales have grown 19% in the July year to date stats compared with ’02 and sales figures are the best in their 47-year history. Even certified pre-owned sales are up 138%. So how confident are they in the upcoming sales figures on the new 9-3 convertible? Well, all of the upcoming deliveries are going to the dealerships to insure enough stock for the public. Even the top brass has to wait for the demand and available stock to balance out before they can get theirs. As the saying goes, if the mountain won’t come to Allah, then Allah must go to the mountain. So I found myself flying off to the other side of the country, home land of Saab USA, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the most varied of weather, and some the most enticing roads you could hope to find. This gave me a chance to speak first hand with Debra Kelly-Ennis, President and COO of Saab USA, and Kevin Smith, Director of Communications. The time spent on the designated loop from Atlanta, Georgia to Ashville, North Carolina was beyond compare and insightful. Unlike Southern California, this summer jaunt had blue skies, landscape so green that it would have made Kermit the Frog jealous and torrential thundershowers of such force that they overshadowed the worst of any L.A. area winter storm. As if the preceding wasn’t foreign enough, throughout 400 or so miles the amount of time stuck in traffic whittled down to less than what would be spent trying to find parking at South Coast Plaza during the winter holiday season.

The plotted course took the invitees through some of the most forested and rural of areas plus some incredible roads just yearning for a driving enthusiast - and that’s where I come in. The twisting, rising stretches and blind corners of perfectly groomed roads of North Carolina were real world tests as to how well the pilot of the 9-3 convertible integrates with the machine. It made very little difference if the 9-3 had the manual six speed or the automatic five speed with a manual mode as I found in the base Arc and the sportier 9-3 Aero (with paddle shifters on the wheel). All the variations carved the hills with minimal effort. Shifting was accomplished quickly and without drama. Once moving at a decent clip, the roadside (for mile upon mile) was bordered with the dense trees that nearly blurred into an endless green wall. Our tires never shrieked in protest since the ReAxs rear suspension aids (passively) rear wheel toe in as needed. This results in better stick and no tire howl. In the end this means safer driving and, one would guess, better tire wear.

While on the subject of safety, those clever Swedes have a multitude of safety systems and features that produce equal crash performance figures for both the sedan and convertible. Pop-up rear seat roll bars, adaptive front airbags, two stage side airbags, and fully integrated front seat belts are a few of safety advances that are developed for survival in the event of an impact. The roadside throughout our drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains was simply beautiful, absent of any litter or debris whatsoever. The lowlands on the other hand had county mounties tucked into every nook and cranny, or so it seemed. The whole vision was far too reminiscent of “ Smokey and the Bandit”. Aside from the occasional revenue generator, the remaining travels were as picturesque as it gets with rock outcroppings, rivers, streams, waterfalls, lakes and mountains and hillsides that are as alien to the overall L.A. area as Mars. Nothing is more inspirational and fun-filled than enjoying this in the top down, wind in your hair mode. Just when the fun seemed never-ending, the skies turned dark, and ominous thunderclouds took over as we went from dry skies to absolute torrential downpour in a blink. Saving our hides as well as the 9-3’s is one of the fastest convertible top operations available. On top of actuation in twenty seconds, which is best in its segment, the fact that this is operational at speeds up to 18 MPH is outstanding. Top operation relegated to pulling off to the side of the road and stopping is a thing of the past with this Saab. This is only slightly less convenient that a sunroof but offers up a whole lot more. The fully automated, one-touch button operation is as simple as it gets.

The top operation is one quick example of the overall 9-3 convertible experiences, which is now a no-compromise vehicle. The stiff Epsilon chassis is further stiffened (nearly three times greater than the outgoing model) and the A pillars can now withstand 2.2 times the weight of the vehicle should any impact need them to. But for all other applications this means an ultra solid, flex-free body. Even on these pre-production cars, they were all but bulletproof. One minor irritation from the 9-3 sedans carries over to the convertible. Buttons for the HVAC and audio controls on the center console require a bit too much visual attention in operating, at least until a certain level of familiarity is built up. Saab does have steering wheel audio controls to simplify the lives of the drivers though, which is a great relief. Sure, like all cars (with the exception of the Bugatti Veryon and a scant couple of others) more power is desirable. But when gas prices are hovering at two-fifty per gallon, it’s the Saab owners who have the last laugh. Even though the convertible is roughly three hundred pounds heavier than the hard top, the Scandinavian four seater still has adequate power from a smooth two-liter turbo powerplant that generates 210 horsepower. We don’t expect Porsche owners to start trading in their Cabriolets for the 9-3 but don’t be surprised when they buy one as their other car.

The 9-3 can carry four adults in style and has plenty of trunk space in this genre. In fact the convertible gives up just a little less than two and a half cubic feet to the hard top (in the top up mode). With the tops well-tailored inner lining, excellent fit, color and considerably large rear glass, and sound insulation, the pleasure of driving doesn’t stop when the outside elements become formidable. The convertibles share all the practical standard and optional features of the hard top models. Driving our vibrant electric lizard green car through the east coast we encountered mixed reactions to the paint color. But no arguments were encountered at all on the design inside or out. The look is first rate, which is just what Saab hopes to hear. Their marketing survey found 42 percent of buyers thought the new exterior design was the most influential factor in considering a 9-3 sedan. It stands to reason that styling is a major factor in considering the purchase of a 9-3 convertible as well. This car is a blend of clean lines and classy, neo-conservative shape that will stay appealing for many years without being so extreme as the Audi A4, which has some naysayers calling its conservative shape boring.

The growth of Saab continues above and beyond the 9-3 and 9-5 model lines as more products are anticipated from Saab in the near future. The 9-3 hardtop and convertible are the rebirth of this company and the emergence of Saab as a manufacturer that has products that ought to be considered first rather than not when making a new purchase. Kevin Smith, who has stayed working with Saab for 17 years, has always been confident of the cars and the company. Now they have the resources and cooperation to make all those leaner times worth it. Debra Kelly-Ennis, a newcomer to the Saab family via GM’s defunct Oldsmobile, is cognizant of the direction the company must travel - and she is making it happen. A female from Dallas may not seem on the surface a likely candidate to run the American arm of a European car company. Her personality and understanding of the complexities of the Swedish automobile maker however just might give the other car companies a good run for their money. We have seen it many times before. When you have good people working with a company, good things happen. So what does this all mean to the car buying public? I can’t put it more poetically than the heroic, classic Saturday morning cartoon character himself puts it. “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!”

Information on Saab can be found at www.saab.com LA Car reviews the 9-3 hard top in our article by Bill Wright LA Car reviews the 9-3 hard top in our article by John Grafman

SPECIFICATIONS Saab 9-3 convertible Price: $ 39,995

Engine type: 2.0 liters DOHC with dual counter rotating balance shafts, 16-valve four cylinder with aluminum block and heads, water cooled turbo, intercooler

Horsepower: 210 hp @ 6,400 rpm Torque: 221 lb-ft @ 2,5000 rpm Drive configuration: Front engine/front-wheel drive Transmission type: 5-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with Saab sentronic manual selection. Optional steering wheel gearshift controls 5-speed manual 6-speed manual Front suspension: MacPherson struts, gas shock absorbers, anti-roll bar, hydroformed sub-frame Rear suspension: Independent four-link with toe link, coil springs, gas shock absorbers, anti-roll bar, sub-frame, ReAxs passive rear wheel steering system Wheels and tires: 16” x 6.5” 10-spoke alloy wheels, 215/55R all-season radial tires (Arc) 17” x 7.0” twin 5-spoke wheels, 215/50R performance radial tires (Aero) Brakes: Front: 12.28” power-assisted Rear: 11.42” power-assisted Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), Traction Control System (TCS), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and Mechanical Brake Assist (MBA) Overall length: 182.4 Overall width: 69.3 Overall height: 56.4 Curb weight (lbs.): 3,480-3,550 EPA mileage estimates Arc (Aero) City/ Highway: 21/29(30) mpg 19/28 with automatic

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