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RUMBLE SEAT / DAN NEIL

Hip eye from the Swede guys

Saab's 9-3 convertible gets a makeover. Under plenty of new styling there remains the same Scandinavian soulfulness -- and that's not a bad thing.

October 08, 2003|DAN NEIL

Saab calls the color of our 9-3 Aero convertible test car Lime Yellow, a name that hardly does justice to its eye-crossing intensity. How about Hyperbaric Chartreuse? Metrosexual Melon?

By any name, the new paint option -- featured in the company's press materials and advertising for the car -- makes a bold statement about the redesigned 9-3 convertible: It's here, it's Swedish, get used to it.

In an effort to grab a bigger piece of the premium, $40,000-and-up convertible market, of which Los Angeles is the sun-damaged capital, Saab has given its 9-3 convertible a "Fab Five" makeover.

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Step 1: Add a dose of styling Botox. The crisp character lines of the previous model have been relaxed so that the car, while retaining Saab's high shoulder line and gentle wedge profile, has a fuller, more voluptuous form.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Saab review -- A review of the Saab 9-3 convertible in Wednesday's Highway 1 section mistakenly said the engine in the Volvo C70 convertible was naturally aspirated. The Volvo model actually has a turbocharged engine.

Compared with Saab's previous offerings, which were limned in Scandinavian cool but a little esoteric, the new car is less an acquired taste. The target-audience needle has moved from "Swarthmore professor of comparative lit" to "Sony studio executive."

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Step 2: Drop the hemline. The bottom edge of our sport-package Aero model was ringed with racy "ground effects" -- ground-hugging body valences and sill extensions meant to improve the car's aerodynamic stability, or at least its cosmetic appeal. Saab's Euro competitors, such as BMW and Audi, offer sport-tuned variants with lots of ground effects, but the inspiration for the 9-3 seems to be the hovercraft-like bodywork of Asian tuners.

Combined with the new car's more athletic musculature -- 2 inches wider with almost 3 inches more wheelbase over a slightly shorter overall length -- and the Aero package's lowered sport suspension, the ground effects package gives the ragtop a hip, streetwise beauty.

Ground effects usually are packaged with bigger wheels. To my eye, the 9-3 Aero's 17-inch alloy wheels and tires seem a little undersized amid all the composite bodywork. But the wheel wells are large enough that upsizing the tires an inch or two shouldn't be a problem.

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Step 3: Get a new hairdo. The 9-3's soft-top is a substantial piece of engineering. The automated top mechanism performs a lovely bit of ballet, set in motion at the touch of a button -- no manual latching of the leading edge of the top to the windshield header.

Rather than pivot up on rear-mounted hinges, which is typical with hard-tonneau cars, the C-shaped tonneau cover (the bodywork behind the rear seats that covers the folded top) slides back like the lid of a Bang & Olufsen CD player. The top then deploys in a speedy 20 seconds, quick enough to get the job done at a stoplight. With the top down, the tonneau seems to vanish, integrated cleanly into the rear deck. A line of contrasting trim surrounds and defines the four-seat cabin.

The whole idea here is to eliminate the negatives of convertibles: the gawky-looking top, the noise and heat and gloom of a ragtop, the fiddling with latches. Mission accomplished. This is as slick a soft-top as you will find on the market.

Built into the contours behind the rear-seat headrests are spring-loaded roll hoops that will, if the car's computers sense an imminent rollover, pop out with the help of a pyrotechnic charges. This technology is similar to that used in Mercedes SL roadsters. Theoretically, the roll hoops and windshield A-pillars can support the car's weight.

Ever the safety geeks, Saab engineers have reinforced the convertible 9-3 with lots of extra steel (accounting for the weight gain of more than 200 pounds, to 3,696 pounds, over the sedan) and endowed it with the company's "active" head restraints (headrests that move forward to limit head movement in rear-end impacts); adaptive front air bags and seat-mounted side air bags; and something called "self-repairing bumpers," which can sustain low-speed impacts without damage. Look out, Galleria!

And for those fashionistas who always overpack, the 9-3 convertible provides a huge boot equipped with what Saab calls a "self-expanding trunk." When the top is up, its bellows-like storage well is retracted, expanding the trunk capacity from 8.3 cubic feet to a whopping 12.4, easily the biggest in its class.

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Step 4: Accessorize. Our 9-3 Aero convertible was loaded with great features, including Bluetooth communication for wireless devices and pre-wiring for hands-free cell phone; leather heated power sport seats with integrated shoulder harnesses; OnStar telematics system with a free year's service; power everything; a 300-watt CD sound system; a $1,195 Touring package including rain-sensing wipers, parking assist, in-dash six-CD changer; and -- just for kicks -- an air-conditioned glove box.

The interior ambience reflects a cautious updating of Saab's long-standing aesthetic. The mood is serenely technical, with soft green backlighting in the instruments, LCD displays and button icons. Favoring stark sophistication over simplicity, Saab ergonomics take some getting used to.

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