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, May 27, 2006
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
By JOHN GRAFMAN
Saab is deemed an import by virtue of its Swedish origins. A land far away from our country is the birthplace of a car company, proudly stated in their advertising campaigns, founded by 16 aircraft engineers. Saabs really were everything that the domestic car companies were not. They were a very small company, and the products seemed out of step on matters big and small - from the front-wheel drive, to the ignition key that protrudes from the center console. Clearly, the Swedish company also had a much different take on what was acceptable aesthetics to the American palate. In a word, they were "different".
One would not have thought of Saab as a company fit for the competitive marketplace in the states. Like so many imports that came before and since, Saab had to brave the waters and prove itself as a company that was here for the long haul. Over time, their virtues earned respect, and the Americans adopted aspects of the Swedish company. Along the way, something funny happened: The European married a proper American company (General Motors).
I guess this begs the question as to when an import is an import, or even when a domestic manufacturer is a domestic company. Perhaps we are just a little to quick to hang labels on products (or people) rather than looking at the substantive matters.
Are all cars by virtue of their origins across the Atlantic superior? Do they know something we don't? Once a foreign company merges with a domestic corporation, does it become a shadow of its former self? The Saab 9-3 convertible for 2006 is the example we have on hand to show some of the possibilities.
While the convertible isn't new, teamed up with the 2.8-liter, 250 horsepower, turbo, V-6 is a fresh variation on this rather pleasing touring vehicle. The 9-3 is a well-balanced design with a sporting flair and enough room to accommodate four people. The rear seats might be a tight fit for those who are what is rapidly becoming the norm in this country when it comes to size. If the front seat occupants are long-legged, those in the rear won't be all too happy.
In return for an overall size that is not overly expansive, the convertible provides a certain level of nimbleness that is accented by the front-wheel drive. With newfound power, a tad bit of torque steer tugs the car off course when the pedal meets the floorboard. Although I'm not fond of this phenomenon, I prefer this to a weak kneed engine that is always a couple dozen horses short of what is needed. I can't speak with first hand knowledge as to what the buyers in Sweden believe an automobile with sporting aspirations should provide, but I do when it comes to car buyers in the US of A. Up until the recent hike in fuel prices, the single most pervasive quality would be horsepower. While other attributes matter, power is the word by which cars sales live or die by.
The improvement in the 9-3 is immediately evident. The car never struggles against its own mass. I do detect a bit of lag off the line as the real thrust doesn't come on until the turbo gets going, and then watch out. Even saddled with an auto-stick, the car doesn't disappoint. The paddle shifters on the steering wheel also execute a shift change quick and efficiently. No, this isn't race car quick, but it does a perfect job for the genre: Smoothly, and without a delay that would cause a concern.
The country club set will be fine with the behavior around town with poise, and beyond satisfactory performance. The GM product provides a suspension and chassis that can soak up speed bumps and road imperfections like a champ, yet is doesn't do this at the expense lackadaisical handling.
Our country prides itself on both assimilation and retention of its diverse cultures. While one might be quick to note the Saab products that have been far too assimilated to the extent they are in danger of being unidentifiable, the 9-3 convertible is perhaps a case study of combining the best of both worlds.
As mentioned, the around town performance is limited as street speeds work against the turbo's qualities. All of that changes on the highway. Just give the car a little working room and watch it go. As the revs climb, so does the exhilaration. A whooshing sound takes over, unlike the deep, muffled roar of a big displacement eight-cylinder motor. A rather excitable needle on the speedo starts to come alive at about seventy. Typically, most cars start to struggle more as they get up to speed. Well, this isn't a typical car by a long shot.
The car picks up momentum rapidly. The feeling is similar to when coming over a moderate grade. Gravity works in the favor of the car and the same pressure on the gas peddle produces much more appreciated results. With the revs down low, the car feels only run-of-the-mill - similar to what Clark Kent will be on the planet Krypton. Holding the peddle down long enough turns Clark into Superman unleashing unearthly power. This shouldn't be confused with power that is found in the likes of the AMG Mercedes, but neither is the price.
Even in our 20 th anniversary numbered edition, the essentials are similar to the standard models - and the details are unique to create the limited edition series. The $1,995.00 package consists of special paint, color match tonneau cover, unique 17-inch wheels, parchment leather appointed upholstery with blue accents and the Touring Package. That package offers memory seating, express window switches, remote operations, auto dimming mirror with compass and integrated garage door opener, parking assist and rain sensing wipers. Not a bad deal at all. This is not all together different than what other brands do here in the good old USA. Mazda has taken a similar, albeit lesser, route with the Miata variations for years.
The special edition does push the price into the high 40's. Fortunately, the 9-3 comes with decent appointments and design to begin with. As such, the price doesn't seem to be out of the realm of reality.
The 9-3 does retain a quickly deploying convertible that can be operated on the roll, and it neatly deploys under the hard painted tonneau cover. The rear window benefits from being glass, with a defroster element to keep it fog free (yet the tonneau casts a reflection into the glass). I find this fools the eye into thinking the glass has a hazy film to it when it's perfectly clear. The far-too-many buttons (50, including the non-functioning buttons) and similarity of shape (all black and rectangular of similar thickness) on the center console doesn't allow for easy reading.
While these might be little items, the grippie, rubbery, wave pattern on the cubbyhole in the center console is a dream for cell phones. I can't tell you how many cars launch unsuspecting phones around corners. The padding on the armrests still seems lacking in firmness. The rest of the interior remains hospitable. From the headliner of the proper fitting convertible soft top to the carper mats, the Saab 9-3 knows its place and overall it plays its part well. The Swedish-American can give any company looking to offer a respectable, sporty, four-seater, convertible a run for their money.
I think those who saw the first Saab in this country would be astonished with how the company and the 9-3 have improved with time. While this country is embroiled over the issue of those coming here from other countries, we can at least point to this Saab as a shining example of what can be achieved when the best of two come together as one.
A fun to use four-seater that's willing to drop its top at a moments notice.
Find out more at www.saabusa.com
Price: Base $41,900, as tested $47,960
Engine type: 2.8-Liter, six-cylinder, 24-valve, DOHC, high output turbo, aluminum head and block, continuously variable valve timing
Horsepower: 250@ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 258 lb.-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Drive configuration: Front engine / front-wheel drive
Transmission type: 5-speed Sentronic automatic
Suspension: Front: MacPherson struts, gas shock absorbers, anti-roll bar, hydroformed sub-frame Rear: Independent, 4-link (including toe-link), coil springs, gas shock absorbers, anti-roll bar, sub-frame, Re-Axs rear-wheel steering system
Wheels and tires: Front: 7.5 x 17 five-spoke, alloy wheels, 235/45 R17 94V all-season radial tires Rear: 7.5 x 17 five-spoke, alloy wheels, 235/45 R17 94V all-season radial tires
Brakes: Front: V ented discs 11.81" diameter Rear: V ented discs 11.42" diameter
Hydraulic, dual-circuit with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), mechanical brake assist (MBA), vacuum booster, anti-lock braking system (ABS), traction control system (TCS) and electronic stability program (ESP)
Overall length: 182.4"Overall width: 69.3" Overall height: 56.4" Curb weight (lbs): 3,480 - 3,700
EPA mileage estimates City/ Highway:17/28