Believe it or not, the UK is one of the biggest markets in the world for convertibles, despite our changeable climate. And Saab has done very well from our wind-in-the-hair fetish. First with the 900 Convertible, then with the 9-3 Convertible, Saab has always sold well and occasionally topped the sales charts in the premium convertible sector.
In its best year, nearly 4,000 Saab convertibles were bought in the UK and until recently its only real challenger in terms of sales volume was the BMW 3-series convertible.
However, Saab would argue it does a better job of selling soft-tops than anyone, as a percentage of the total number of Saab cars sold in the UK, the number of convertibles is disproportionately high.
It means the Saab 9-3 Convertible has a high level of awareness with the buying public, and it hasn't deterred the company for aiming even higher with its latest model.
Based on the 9-3 Sports Saloon launched last year, the new Convertible is expected to reach 4,000 units next year, reaching a peak of 5,750 by 2006. Saab views the BMW 3-series convertible and the Audi A4 Cabriolet as the main rivals for the 9-3, but is aiming to lead the pack for value with standard equipment levels emphasising its list price advantage over its rivals.
Linear and Vector trim levels are offered in the 1.8t and 2.0t variants, with the range-topping 2.0T Aero a single model variant.
The 2.0t will go on sale first in August, with the entry-level 1.8t (a 2.0-litre engine badged as a 1.8 to signify its lower power output) and a range-topping 2.0T Aero joining the range shortly after.
However, there is no diesel engine offered. Historically, there never has been but Audi seems to have the market to itself with its A4 2.5 TDI Cabriolet, and so far the other rivals in the sector seem to be playing a wait-and-see game to gauge its success before committing themselves.
If the market justifies the introduction of a diesel, it is unlikely to be the current 2.2-litre turbodiesel, which lacks many of the latest developments that maximise efficiency and refinement.
However, a new generation of diesel engines is expected next year through parent company General Motors' partnership with Fiat Auto, which could lead to a diesel Saab 9-3 Convertible.
The body structure of the new 9-3 Convertible is three times stiffer than the outgoing model that has run alongside the new 9-3 saloon for the past 12 months.
Saab claims the fastest soft-top operation (electric, naturally) in its segment, and unlike some rivals the extra space in the boot stolen by the folded roof is liberated automatically when the roof is raised.
There is a choice of two colours for the roof headlining to ensure the interior feels more like a coupe than a convertible, while the standard cloth trim has a water-repellent coating for those regular UK showers.
Front seats are electrically- operated and the motors move them forward to aid entry into the rear, while the automatic climate control adjusts heat levels according to whether the roof is up or down.
Added safety features include pop-up roll hoops behind the rear head restraints that spring into action if the car is at risk of turning over. Indeed, Saab expects the 9-3 to be the first five-star EuroNCAP convertible when it undergoes official tests.
Behind the wheel
ALTHOUGH the 9-3 Convertible is a handsome car, it cannot match the simple purity of the lines of an Audi A4 Cabriolet, or the soothing curves of a Mercedes-Benz CLK Cabriolet.
But it is still a head-turner and the flush-fitting hard tonneau cover with integrated twin fairings for the rear head restraints give an overall impression of neatness and solidity.
The interior is similar to the 9-3 saloon, with the same high dashboard, 'pistol-grip' handbrake and its awkward-looking fixed plastic twin on the opposite side of the centre console.
Rear passengers are a little short-changed in terms of leg room, but that is also the case with the 9-3 saloon. The boot will hold 352 litres of luggage with the roof up, but this shrinks to 235 litres with the roof down – both figures are respectable in this class though.
The car is well screwed together, but some of the plastics just don't feel expensive enough for a premium car. And a more rigorous test of how solid it felt would take place once on the move.
The 2.0t and 2.0T Aero models were available to test and the five-speed automatic version of the 173bhp variant seemed to purr along nicely. The automatic transmission is effortless and the engine, while lacking the silky silver-tongued nature of a six-cylinder unit, is remarkably refined.
The Aero unit does not feel a great deal quicker than the 2.0t, and while slick, the ample torque on offer negates the need for a six-speed manual transmission. It wouldn't really matter if it were a three-speed gearbox, so easy is acceleration.
Losing satellite navigation instructions halfway round our initial route through operator error led to a freestyle course back to our starting point taking in a couple of level crossings. If anything were to bring scuttle shake out into the open it would be the jarring effect of bumping over a railway line.
However, the 9-3 Convertible was unfazed and there was neither a squeak nor rattle anywhere in our test car. Other than the occasional cheap-looking piece of plastic trim, the 9-3 Convertible feels as solid as anything else on the market, and with the roof up does not feel dissimilar to driving a coupe.
Wind noise around the hood is minimal and the roof does not creak according to movements of the car.
However, the convertible, with its extra weight over the saloon, feels a little more unwieldy than its brother. It is not as involving to drive either, but compared to its immediate rivals, only the 3-series is better in that respect.
THE 9-3 Convertible is an attractive soft-top with little of the traditional compromises. It feels solid and has decent luggage space, while the engines are refined and offer strong performance.
|Saab 9-3 COnvertible fact file|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||148/5,500||173/5,500||207/5,300||207/5,300|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||177/2,500||195/2,500||221/2,500|
|Max speed (mph):||n/a||137 (135)||143 (140)|
|0-62 (sec):||n/a||9.0 (10.5)||8.0 (9.5)|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||n/a||31.7 (29.1)*||31.0 (29.1)*|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||n/a||214 (233)*||217 (233)*|
|Service intervals (miles):||18,000|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||62/13.6|
|Transmission:||6-sp man/5-sp auto|