2004 Saab 9-3 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Convertible blows lid off great sports sedan.
Saab completely redesigned and re-engineered its 9-3 sedan in 2003, transforming the once quirky-looking hatchback into an honest contender in the sports sedan sweepstakes. For 2004, the 9-3 convertible gets the complete makeover. The 2004 Saab 9-3 convertible features all of the parts and looks that make the 9-3 such a hot sports sedan, plus a folding soft top that's a model of efficiency.
Saab has always dared to be different. Influenced by its aeronautical background, Saab cars have traditionally featured wraparound, near-vertical windshields and aircraft-style dashboards with instrument lighting that could be switched off at night. Small map lights looked like they came from a cockpit. Outside mirrors were bent at the edges to reduce blind spots. Even when American buyers stopped wanting hatchbacks, Saab stoically shipped them over.
General Motors absorbed Saab a few years back, but it didn't turn out to be the deal with the devil the Saab faithful feared. Granted, the idiosyncratic styling cues have been softened somewhat, edging the car closer to the automotive mainstream. In exchange, GM funded a long-overdue development of newer and better-engineered cars.
Model year 2003 yielded a vastly improved 9-3 sedan that's unmistakably a Saab. For 2004, worshippers of the sun get an equally impressive convertible that raises the bar for the class.
The 2004 Saab 9-3 line comprises a four-door sedan and a two-door convertible.
The 9-3 sedan is available in three trim levels. The 9-3 Linear model ($25,995) is powered by a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine rated at 175 horsepower. The Arc ($30,090) and Aero ($32,590) sedans are powered by a 210-hp 2.0-liter engine that uses a high-output turbocharger. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the Linear and Arc sedans; Saab's Sentronic five-speed automatic ($1,250) is optional and features semi-manual gear selection. The Aero sedan sports a six-speed manual; the five-speed automatic ($1,350) on the Aero features steering wheel-mounted shift paddles.
The 9-3 convertible comes in two trim levels, the Arc ($39,995) and the Aero ($42,500), both powered by a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine pumped up with Saab's High Output turbocharger to produce 210 horsepower. The standard transmission on the Arc is a five-speed manual; the five-speed automatic ($1,250) is optional. Aero comes standard with the six-speed manual, optional with the five-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles ($1,350).
Standard equipment on the Arc models includes no-charge scheduled maintenance during warranty; automatic climate control; cruise control; power windows, door locks and outside mirrors; a 150-watt stereo with CD player and seven speakers; power front seats with driver memory; and front fog lights.
Options on the Arc include a Touring Package with rain sensing wipers, parking assist, upgraded stereo, remote window and top operation and auto-dimming rear view mirror; 17-inch wheels with a tire pressure monitor; a Cold Weather Package ($500) providing heated front seats and headlamp washers; metallic paint ($500); bi-xenon headlights ($500); and OnStar ($699), GM's cellular telephone-based roadside, travel directions and emergency assistance and warning system. The convertible offers a blue top ($500) that replaces the standard black top; and a color-matched tonneau ($300) available only with the metallic paint.
The Aero list of standard gear adds 17-inch wheels and tire pressure monitors; exterior body kit; Sport exhaust; a 300-watt, 13-speaker sound system; and leather-faced seats. The option list for the Aero adds to the Arc's crowded list a five-speed automatic ($1,350) with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles.
From the front three-quarter view, there is no mistaking the new 9-3 for anything but a Saab. Unlike Saabs of old, the windshield is steeply raked. But the sloping, wedge-like profile, the shape of the windows, the sleek, integrated headlights, and the distinctive grille are all unmistakably Saab.
The rear fascia no longer presents the edgy, Saab-signature look. Instead, a smoother, more rounded, monochromatic body panel integrating the bumper houses taillights somewhat reminiscent of earlier Saabs, only now wrapping around to the trailing edge of the rear quarter panel. It's a perfectly pleasing look.
The side profile shows a clearly defined wedge shape with the lower edge of the side windows picking up the slope of the hood and following it through to the high trunk line at the rear.
The convertible's top merges cleanly with the car's lines, retaining all the proper proportions and relationships with windshield, wheel openings and wedge profile. With the top down and tucked away beneath the solid tonneau cover, the rake of the windshield draws the eye naturally over the passenger area to the tonneau behind the rear seat head restraints that tapers into the trunk lid. The soft top features a glass rear window with a defogger.
Big, oval-shaped, open-grip door handles are finger friendly and integrate well into the design. Conspicuously absent from those door handles are key holes. Yes that's right, Saab has done away with a key for normal entry of the car. Instead one has to rely on the remote key fob. But don't worry, if it ceases to function there is a back up key buried in the key fob and a hidden keyhole in the driver's door only.
Okay, the most important thing about a Saab is the location of the ignition key. Saab fans need not worry, as it's still located down on the center console behind the gearshift between the front seats. Those who have not experienced this unique placement of the ignition key don't know what they are missing. It is really sensible as it avoids the irritating jingle from the dangling mass of keys so many of us has on our key chains. It's also safer as it prevents the possibility of getting keys jammed in ones knees in a severe accident. Thankfully, Saab no longer requires the manual transmission be in reverse before the key can be removed.
Saab has taken a refreshing approach to the headliner in its new convertible, replacing the traditional black fabric with a light tan. The intent is to boost the perceived interior space, especially the front seat headroom, which in fact gives up almost a full inch to the top's mechanicals. The deception succeeds, as there's not the claustrophobic feel so common in convertibles when their tops are raised.
Beyond that, the Saab 9-3 interior is pretty much what one would expect in a near-luxury convertible, although certain Saab styling cues remain. The instruments are arrayed in an easy-to-view layout with a big speedometer in a sweeping instrument panel that blends into the center console. It's still a relatively high dashboard compared to that in most other cars, but it's long been a signature styling cue of Saab cars so it's nice to see it retained. The buttons and switches are smaller than in many cars. Nonetheless they are all well placed for the driver to reach while driving.
An extra set of warning gauges is mounted on top of the dashboard in the center in a small pod, locating them more directly in the driver's line of sight. Radio settings are also displayed here.
The glovebox is one of the largest we have seen in a long time.
At first blush it's easy to miss the parking brake. It's located on the center console, but it has a unique arced shape that mirrors the grab handle on the passenger side of the console so that it looks as though it is a sculptured design feature. Once you know it's there it operates just like any other hand parking brake; take care, though, when releasing it, as inattention can result in a thumb pinched between the tip of the handle and its resting place in the console. The matching grip on the passenger side contains a slot useful for temporarily storing a CD or parking lot ticket, which is a clever piece of design.
The front seats are firm but comfortable, with side bolsters that restrain during spirited motoring without restricting while climbing in and out. The optional, more aggressive Sport seats are better suited to bodies tending toward the slim end of the scale, however.
Overall quality of the interior appears to be very good. The convertible leaves most of the wood trim to the sedan (it appears only on the Arc convertible's steering wheel, accenting the leather wrap), going with a matte-black finish throughout. Door handles and the center console gearshift surround are trimmed in brushed chrome. The Aero steering wheel is fully wrapped in leather with brushed chrome trim on the spokes.
Rear-seat passengers in the convertible do not fare as well as those in the sedan. The convertible gives up nearly 10 inches of hip room and nearly 3 inches of legroom. A center console can be folded down between the rear seats that contains cup holders and a map storage area.
The sedan offers an impressive 14.8 cubic feet and it's very usable space. The sedan uses goose-neck hinges for the trunk, but they are hidden in a cover so they do not crush luggage when the trunk lid is closed. A small pass-through opening is provided for carrying skis and other long items. The 60/40/ split rear seats can be folded for versatility when carrying one rear-seat passenger and cargo. Trunk space drop.
The Saab 9-3 handles surprisingly well, with a nicely balanced neutral feel. It feels tight. The convertible exhibits virtually zero cowl shake, thanks to the extensive bracing designed into the platform, which the convertible shares with the 9-3 sedan.
The steering is a little light, but not enough to detract from the fun-to-drive factor. The passive rear-wheel steering architecture in the rear suspension design keeps the rear tires dutifully following the front tires in quick lane changes and through rapid transitions when driving quickly on twisting roads. Directional stability is good over almost all road surfaces, even when equipped with the wider tires.
The ride is smooth. Little road or wind noise invades the cabin. This is also true in the convertible when the top is up. When the top is down, conversing with the person beside you can be done without shouting, even at extra-legal highway speeds. The rake of the windshield and a removable wind-block behind the front seats combine to reduce buffeting. Rear quarter vision is impeded by the broad expanse of fabric top that occupies the space normally filled by the sedan's much-slimmer C-pillar. All in all, though, it's a car with no real quirks or foibles.
One area in which the 9-3 excels is its suppression of torque steer, a disconcerting trait afflicting many front-wheel drive cars where the steering wheel either tugs at the driver's hands under hard acceleration or resists corrections in the midst of a corner. (To many drivers this is not a concern, and some say it adds excitement.) Saab engineers worked hard to eliminate it in the newest 9-3s, and they appear to have been successful. A modicum of tugging and some resistance is apparent while accelerating over uneven pavement or out of a tight corner, but for the most part, and for most drivers, it's a non-issue.
With the High Output turbocharger's 210 horsepower, the 9-3 has all the punch it needs, and can use, in today's driving environment. Torque, too, is more than adequate for those urgent passes on two-lane roads and for getting up to merge speed on highway onramps.
The several hundred additional pounds in platform stiffening and occupant protection the convertible carries over the sedan is evident when the two are driven back-to-back, but it's an acceptable price to pay for the joys of top-down driving. If you like doing your own shifting, stay with the manual transmissions. The longish clutch throw takes some getting used to and the six-speed feels a mite rubbery, but you'll save yourself more than a thousand dollars and have much more fun.
Saab has mastered turbocharger technology so well that most people would not even realize the engine is turbocharged, as there is virtually no turbo lag, that delay you experience after stepping on the gas pedal. What's more there is no boost gauge to give the game away.
The 2004 Saab 9-3 convertible is the car to buy for anyone wanting a four-passenger, near-luxury drop top. Closed or open, it's a delightful driver, with creature comfort features galore and intuitive fixtures. With the top down, it wraps its occupants in the panorama and aromas of the world around (and whizzing by), setting a new standard in all respects for the class.
Saab purists might bemoan the softening of the once-quirky character and look of 9-3 (and 900). Others, such as us, do not, and believe this newest line of Saab 9-3 models is the best the company has ever produced. The new 9-3 still stands apart from the crowd. It somehow manages to remain a Saab in more than name alone.
Saab 9-3 Linear Sport Sedan ($26,090); Arc Sport Sedan ($30,185); Aero Sport Sedan ($32,685); Arc Convertible ($39,995); Aero Convertible ($42,500).
Trollhattan, Sweden; Graz, Austria.
Options As Tested
Convertible Touring Package ($1,195) includes rain-sensing wipers, rear park assist, in-dash six-disc CD changer, remote window and top operation, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, programmable garage door opener; Cold Weather Package ($500) includes heated front seats and headlight washers; color-matched tonneau cover ($300); metallic paint ($500); bi-xenon headlights ($500).
Saab 9-3 Aero convertible ($42,500).
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