The doomsayers saw problems for Saab, the quirky Swedish carmaker, when General Motors bought the company a few years back. But GM seems to have let Saab keep its quirks, while it matures nicely under corporate guidance. Now, Saabs are filled with what can only be called "nice touches" â things even GM could include with its American models. The Saab 9-3 Aero convertible offers a case study of things done right. Prices: US $42,500 base; as tested, $45,670. Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles.
The barefoot woman gingerly walking across the hot asphalt parking lot at the beach looked at the 2004 Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible being photographed there and paused a moment. "Interesting color," she said with a smile. She wasn't alone. Admiration for the car's lines was expressed to this test driver in a week behind the wheel, but most comments were directed at the "lime yellow metallic" paint scheme. Combined with a black fully automatic ragtop, the color made the car stand out among more drab colored models that populate most parking lots. This bumblebee turned heads. For those who asked to go beyond skin-deep beauty, the Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible could be spoken of in more meaningful ways. Yes, it's attractive, but it has some of autodom's best ergonomics. It also has a collection of top-notch safety features. It's overcome some problems past Saab convertibles had and deserves anyone's serious consideration if a near-luxury 4-passenger convertible is desired. Pull out the remote control electronic key, press the "unlock" symbol and let's climb in.
In the Driver's Seat
The 2004 Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible has only two doors. So, before you climb into the driver's seat, consider how a passenger might enter the rear seat. In almost every other car, there is some kind of plastic lever low on the side of each front seat. Pull it up and the seat back flips forward. Perhaps the seat slides. Wait, there's a better way. Atop the front seats of the Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible are shiny aluminum handles, within easy reach. Lift up a handle and the seatback folds as the seat moves forward. Step in and sit down. The front seat returns to its preset position and you, the driver, are ready to sit on your two-tone leather seat. In front, the dash instruments wrap slightly toward you, like space capsule controls. On the windshield to your left is a plastic clip to hold notes in place inside the car but visible from outside. Lowering the top is fully automatic. There's nothing to release. Just press a switch and the top moves through dances of raised lids, dropping canvas and closing lids. And that fact creates the only problem with the 2004 Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible. There is very little trunk space left after the top is lowered. Now put the key into its slot on the floor between the front seats.
On the Road
Forward of that floor-mounted ignition switch is the shifter for the six-speed manual transmission in our tested model. Under the hood is a smallish 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that packs a solid 210 horsepower. That's all a front-driver like this can handle without dangerous torque steer. This car is plenty quick, while returning 21 mpg city and 30 highway. The light clutch engages easily and shifts are effortless. Traction control is standard and those are high-performance tires on 17-inch alloy wheels. The white-on-black instruments include a boost measurement for the turbocharger. You are surrounded by safety features â front air bags, front seat head and side air bags (very rare in a convertible), popup rollbars if needed, anti-lock brakes with computer assist, special seat and head restraint design. Convenience features include air conditioning, a 300-watt stereo system with 13 speakers, cruise control, a three-spoke leather steering wheel with redundant controls and full adjustments for seats and steering wheel. At night, instrument lighting can be selectively dimmed while projector-beam halogen headlights light up the road ahead. The center arm rest contains a 12-volt outlet. There are front and rear fog lamps.
As you park the 2004 Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible, note how the parking brake lever is part of a continuous, attractive metal rail alongside the center hump. It all makes sense - the parking brake design, the location of the ignition switch, the handles atop the front seats to ease entry into the rear seat area, the plastic clip inside the windshield. It's Saab that's had the better idea and other companies should copy these features. It wasn't always that way. Older Saabs had a convertible top design so poor that rear seat passengers had to exit before it was raised or lowered. A solid bar in the top would sweep forward all the way to the back of the front seats. And Saabs were just quirky, not filled with better ideas. They also produced unacceptable torque steer. No more. The 2004 Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible feels solid, performs well, offers maximized safety for an open-top car, and is priced with comparable near-luxury convertible cars. An added bonus for some drivers will be the fact that you won't see your car at every stoplight. And you'll draw comments. "Interesting color." Yes, it is. Can I explain the ways in which this car is terrific? There's a little Tiki hut down the road with great tropical drinks...