2004 Saab 9-3 convertible Review, Pricing, and Specs.

2004, Saab, 9-3 convertible

It might seem odd to some that a company that started off building airplanes has graduated to building convertibles. Odd, till you know that Saab was purchased by General Motors and more than 20 percent of Saab's sales in the U.S. are convertibles.

It might seem odd to some that a company that started off building airplanes has graduated to building convertibles. Odd, till you know that Saab was purchased by General Motors and more than 20 percent of Saab's sales in the U.S. are convertibles.

According to Deborah Kelly-Ennis, President and Chief Operating Officer, with whom I had the pleasure of driving with, "Our goal was to make the convertible feel as comfortable as the coupe. Saab developed the 9-3 chassis from General Motor's Epsilon architecture with the intent of making it a convertible from the outset. The convertible was designed right alongside the 9-3 sedan. In order to do this we had to incorporate extensive structural reinforcements to make up for the loss of rigidity that comes with a folding roof." Being a homebuilt airplane guy I was comfortable in the "cockpit." Saab has a heritage with airplanes and their trademark is the airplane like feel the instrument cluster provides.

Unlike "muscle cars" of the 1960s, aircraft must be light to leave the ground. Raw horsepower, big blocked, supercharged, turbo driven engines can't lift a vehicle into the air if the power to weight numbers don't agree.
Saab aviation history is present in the 9-3. The drag coefficient, (the ratio of the drag on a body moving through air to the product of the velocity and the surface area of the body ), is equally as important for an automobile as an aircraft. The Saab 9-3 has a respectable drag coefficient of 0.28. The more aerodynamic a shape is, the more speed, with the same amount of horsepower being produced

Saab engineers must not eat lunch.
The Saab 9-3 an all-aluminum, (like my classic Thorp T-18 homebuilt aircraft) is a four-cylinder 2.0-liter engine, configured for 175- or 210-hp, is 33 pounds lighter than its predecessor and is smoother, quieter and more compact. It has a four-valve cylinder head, maintenance-free chain-driven camshafts, counter-rotating balancer shafts, a dual-mass flywheel and an integrated oil cooler. Saab has designed and delivered an automobile with modest present day horsepower that delivers 'seat-n-the-pant' thrill through a design of speed closer to my homebuilt aircraft than the horsepower-ad-infinitum-excessive engines of other automobile manufacturers.

Absolute speed is a factor of form; while raw horsepower for horsepower alone is irrelevant without an inspired concert of all-parts-for-one. Like my humble 40 year old design Thorp T-18 is known as a 'pilots aircraft,' the Saab 9-3 delivers equally in form, function, inspiration a vision incarnate - a drivers automobile.

There were some modifications that had to be made to accomplish this "Is that what is under the bonnet?" scratching-head-amazement of drivers of the Saab 9-3.

First, the Swedes thought of safety. Pop-up roll bars behind the rear headrests stand ready to deploy in the event of a vehicle rollover along with seat belt pre-tension at all four seating positions. The top itself had to be simple to use. There are very few people these days that will get out of a car and snap a bonnet on top of a soft-top. One can push a button, in the comfort of your front seat, and the 9-3's top folds up and under cover of a tonneau WITHOUT the driver buttoning, zipping anything.

As expected, the trunk will be smaller because of the room the top takes up. Saab did one better, they created a "cargoset" (self-expanding)trunk expander that folds up like an accordion when the top is up, creating more usable trunk space. Not bad for a country who has more bicycles than cars.

My ride-n-drive partner Byron Pope and I tested the 20 second top up/down Saab claim, with a pending thunder cloud ahead in the scenic Blue Ridge parkway environs. Although driving back from historic Asheville North Carolina Deborah cheered me on to "keep on driving' faster than the rain drops!" as we powered down a Georgia interstate under a late Summer cloud buster.
Another test accomplish; The Saab 9-3 interior looks as elegant in the wet as dry.

There would be a "squawk" in aviator speak, meaning an anomaly that grounds an aircraft for a system or part malfunctioning to prevent airworthy status, that keeps the airplane on the ground; but for the Saab 9-3 convertible automobile, 'grounded' is a compliment. The roads from Atlanta Ga. to Asheville NC. are sweepers (curves) that would bring grins to any motorcyclist. Equally, with grin on face, try as I could, I couldn't lift the Saab 9-3 into the air "wringin' out" this terra firma machine around rural two-laner-sweepers. A front-wheeled machine I could NOT pickup the backend. Stuck to the asphalt. Road surface was wet after a Summer cloudburst too. Stick; stuck - solid, the Saab 9-3 remained attached to the road.

The ride is smooth and predictable. The seat and 'rudder pedal' (brake, accelerator) area were confining for my 36" inseam legs, but hey I had to lower my Thorp's seat and cutout the bottom of the instrument panel so I could fit, so the Saab 9-3 is motor-home-room-big for the normal sized occupant. 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.

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.

The 9-3 sedan is available in three trim levels, giving you three very different sedans. 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 mated with a high-output turbocharger. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the Linear and Arc sedans; Optional is Saab's Sentronic five-speed automatic ($1,250) and features semi-manual gear selection. The Aero sedan sports a six-speed manual as standard or the optional five-speed automatic ($1,350) on the Aero featuring 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 is the five-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles ($1,350).

Crash impact resistance benefits from a series of new structural and occupant protection measures. Safety features for front seats include new seatbelts integrated into the seat frames, adaptive dual front airbags, two-stage side-impact airbags designed to offer protection for both the torso and the head, and Saab Active Head Restraints (SAHR). SAHR has been proven to be effective in helping to prevent neck injury during rear-end collisions. Volvo is the closest to coming to having a seat that falls back when in an accident. The biggest difference is that after the accident you have to buy a new seat with Volvo, with Saab you don't. Active safety is augmented by ABS (anti-lock brakes), electronic traction control (TCS), an electronic stability program (ESP), EBD (electronic brake-force distribution), CBC (cornering brake control) and MBA (mechanical brake assist), all designed to help the driver maintain control.

Revealing the new car at the Geneva Motor Show, Peter Augustsson, Saab Automobile's President and CEO said, "In many ways, our Convertible's appeal goes right to the heart of the Saab brand. It expresses our brand pillars - design, performance, control, safety and versatility - in a focused package. It is a sporty, yet surprisingly practical car."

The new Saab 9-3 Convertible will be built in a dedicated new production facility at Magna Steyr Fahrzeugtechnik, near Graz, Austria, and will reach the US market in the fall of 2003 as a 2004 model.

An automobile or aircraft designer strives to create Style and driving/flying pleasure. General Motors has given Saab the long overdue funding for better engineered cars, raising the bar in the 9-3 convertible class. The 2004 Saab 9-3 convertible has taken the company closer to a hybrid vehicle/aircraft. Meaning, the beauty of the 9-3 is firmly locked on the ground but the style remains airborne. After two days with the Saab 9-3 I kept looking for the "wings-out" button on the multi-functional instrument panel to appear. Maybe next year eh?

Audi A4 Cabriolet, BMW 3-series, Nissan 350Z Roadster, Volvo C70.

By Mark 'Stretch' Batchelor
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Images of the 2004, Saab 9-3 convertible

2004 Saab 9-3 and Thorp T-18
2004 Saab 9-3 and Thorp T-18
2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible
2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible
2004 Saab 9-3 unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show
2004 Saab 9-3 unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show