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Click to view picture gallery“The flagship 9-3
  Convertible Aero 2.8T
  can hold its head high
  alongside its Audi,
  BMW and Mercedes
  rivals. Buyers of
  four-seat prestige
  convertibles should
  credit Saab for giving
  them a genuine
  fourth choice...

DO YOU KNOW who makes the best-selling four-seater rag-top in the UK? Would you say BMW, Mercedes or Audi? You'd be wrong. Because actually it's Saab with the 9-3 Convertible.

Saab has been designing four-seat, four-season soft-top cars for twenty years. In addition to distinctive Scandinavian looks, the latest model also boasts a maximum five-star Euro NCAP rating and it is the first convertible to do so. Very Swedish, very safe, subtle and sexy.

And quick, too. The 9-3 Convertible is available with five turbocharged and intercooled engine options: three all-aluminium four-cylinder units offering 150, 175 or 210bhp, a 1.9 148bhp diesel and the top-ranking 2.8-litre V6 with a substantial 250bhp.

We tested the well-appointed 2.8 Aero V6. Aero being the sporty top trim specification model, which comes with all the kit — or at least enough of it not to disappoint buyers with 33,194 to spend. Our test car also came with the six-speed Sentronic automatic with manual override, likely to appeal to the majority of those in the market for a 'premium' convertible. Customers also have the option of specifying 'paddles' on the steering wheel for fingertip manual shifting.

The 9-3 Convertible is without doubt a classy looking lady throughout. From the tip of the chrome-edged three-section grille — crowning a deep front bumper-cum-lower valance — to the upswept line of the rear wing flowing up over the rear light cluster and neatly merging with the rear deck, the 9-3 Convertible presents a cleanly-honed stylised wedge-shape bodyshell that is enhanced by neat detailing such as the body-coloured door handles and trim around the door tops and rear deck, the perfectly-fitted rigid hood cover and the trim boot-mounted rear spoiler. Even the large-bore chromed tailpipes — one at each corner — are perfectly positioned to show attention to detail.

Hold down the remote unlock button and 20 seconds later the top will have automatically unlatched and packed itself away, the rear deck
will have closed with a flourish, and all four windows will have opened. You can then swing open the door to see a well-planned interior with excellent ergonomics. Drop into one of the inviting twin-tone, sports-style leather seats and you immediately feel at home. Side and thigh bolsters are pronounced and firm enough to keep you safely located during spirited driving but don't detract from the seat's comfort when cruising. The leather feels luxuriously soft to the touch.

Worth a mention is the 'intelligent' dual-zone air conditioning. The automatic climate control switches to manual mode, offering 11 settings, as soon as the soft-top is lowered. We should also mention that the air-con copes easily with al fresco travelling.

The dash has that driver-focussed look enthusiasts have come to expect from Saab, with pride of place top-centre of the fascia occupied by the information display. Sited close to the base of the screen, it falls easily into the driver's natural field of vision. The DVD-based navigation system deserves a special mention — not only is it easy to use but, even more importantly, it provides pithy verbal instructions and clear visual prompts in good time for the driver to take them in. Plus the information displayed on both the 5.8-inch colour display and the smaller SID screen atop the fascia is always readable: night or day; top up or down. The driver also has voice control of the radio, navigation system, integrated telephone (with SMS facility) and the CD. All of which makes it easy to keep your attention focussed on the road.

And one very neat touch was the 9-3's 'night panel' mode. Press a button on the dash and all non-essential information and displays — apart from the speedomenter — are masked. Warning messages, lights and driver alerts still appear when necessary, but the night panel mode minimises driver distraction for those times when only the business of driving matters. Try it on a pitch black night with the top down. With only the speedo illuminated, it's the next best thing to flying!

The leather-clad steering wheel with multi-function controls adjusts for reach and height and is nice to hold, with comfortable thumb pads at the ten-to-two position. The 8-way electrically-operated front seats have integrated seat belts, so there's no awkward reaching-over-your-shoulder just to get buckled up. The driver gets a 3-setting memory
for his seat including, usefully, lots of height adjustment. There's also
a highly-effective — and powered — lumbar support. And another welcome touch is the auto-dimming rear view mirror that can be switched on or off. Naturally, the door mirrors also dim automatically. So what did you expect? Remember — this is a Saab.

To subtly remind you that this is a Saab, the ignition key is still located down behind the gear selector. And if you haven't sat in a 9-3 before you may well wonder where the handbrake is. Don't worry. We nearly lost it! Artfully designed to blend in to the central console side rail, it features a 'pistol-grip' design — you squeeze the 'trigger' of the handbrake to lift or lower it. And there are lots of cubbies — including
a central centre storage box with a four-position sliding arm-rest — all nicely finished with smart anti-rattle rubber inserts. A 'hidden' leather pocket can be found on the leading edge of both front seat bases.
And very handy they are too, as was the air-conditioned glovebox.

Part of the 9-3 Convertible's appeal is that there are four 'real' seats. And 'real' adults can sit in all of them. The two in the rear are separate, well shaped, smartly upholstered and cosy — perhaps a tad tight on leg room for some, but your knees will naturally turn out towards the side of the car and there's lots of headroom with good elbow space too. It's also reassuring to know that behind the neat rear head restraints are substantial pop-up roll-over bars. Just in case.

Getting in and out of the rear is hassle-free, thanks to powered front seats that move by themselves once you tip the backrest forwards and hold the release lever. They also return to their original positions under their own steam.

In front, Saab's 9-3 Convertible has got safety well-covered. The roll-over bars, strengthened windscreen header rail and A-pillars able to withstand a 2.2 times greater loading than the weight of the car; active front head restraints to protect against neck injury, adaptive front airbags that deploy according to the severity of an impact and the seat position and two-stage side airbags for head and thorax. You know you are safe travelling in a Saab convertible.

There's always a degree of trade-off in choosing a convertible over a fixed head coupe. But in the 9-3's case, Saab has done its best to rectify this. If you raise the hood, the boot space automatically expands from 235 to 253 litres. And if golf is your thing, you'll be pleased to hear that you can fit in two golf bags!

Even with the top up the 9-3 feels light, airy and very habitable inside The beautifully-fitted light-coloured headlining helps. It's well-built, too, with no drumming at speed, thanks to its sturdy construction and substantial triple-layer fabric. A helpful touch is the integrated rain gutter sewn into the side of the top to prevent rain dripping onto the seats when a door is opened. And if you do get caught out by a sudden shower, you can close the top on the move at speeds of up
to 20mph.

Our test car's 2.8 V6 was fitted with Saab's new six-speed Sentronic auto-box and the optional paddle shifts. It's a first class teaming and shifts up and down are performed extremely smoothly. The paddles — neat tabs located close to the rim on the horizontal steering wheel spokes — are perfectly positioned for thumbing without taking your hands off the wheel. The left-hand paddle activates down shifts; the right-hand one effects up shifts. It's certainly an entertaining way to drive.

Even drivers weaned on a stick shift will find them easy, but you can just as soon flick the selector over to the left into its manual plane and then nudge it forward and back for up and down changes. And while the auto mode provides hassle-free changes, the Sentronic does provide noticeably more control. And, consequently, provides more driving pleasure. Whichever mode you decide to use, the selected gear is always clearly displayed in the 160mph speedometer.

When it comes to performance, the flagship 9-3 Convertible — as you would guess with a 250bhp turboed V6 under the bonnet — doesn't disappoint. Paper figures are 0-60mph in 7.7 seconds (7.2 for the manual 'box) and a top speed of 149mph. More significant in the real world is torque, and there's lots of it. Ninety per cent of the V6's
258lb ft is on call from 1,500rpm, with the full 100 per cent available between 2,000 and 4,500rpm. And it guarantees that punchy overtaking is always on call — just flex that right ankle. So, too, is effortless cruising.

Official consumption figures are 16.3, 25.5 and 37.7mpg for town, combined driving and touring respectively. A 13.6-gallon tank means a potential touring range of close to 450 miles. Our test results confirm the combined figure, with a liveable 25.3mpg recorded overall.

The highly-specified Aero model comes with lowered suspension and light — but accurate — steering that, combined with a competent well-damped chassis, serve it well. As you'll quickly find if you boot it down some twisty narrow roads. Do so and the 9-3 stays nicely shipshape. When the route opens out onto quicker A-roads, your pace will be satisfyingly fast and smooth. The turbocharged V6 delivers its power progressively, with no noticeable lag.

And with that much power driving through the front wheels, you could be expected to ask about torque steer. Not a problem, at least in the hot dry week of our road test. That doesn't automatically mean that hammering it out of a T-junction on a wet wintry day is a great idea. But that advice goes for most things putting out over 250bhp. And another plus point that contributes to the 9-3's overall driveability is the competent brakes. Pedal feel is good and full-on emergency stops are exactly that: very fast, and superbly fuss free. An electronic stability programme is also standard equipment on the Aero models.

The ride quality is pretty good and the Convertible feels sharp in town, thanks to good visibility and a 10.8-metre turning circle that requires less than three turns lock to lock makes it easy to place and park.
For such a large roofless cabin the 9-3's bodyshell feels reassuringly sturdy and, top down, refinement is first class. Nowhere is it better appreciated than when cruising along motorways. Which is when you realise just how good the seats are. They start out comfy and get better the further you drive. Driving long distances top-down is no hardship either, as wind rush is minimal and the legal limit requires just 2,000 rpm. The two front heated seats are good enough to dismiss
the chilliest of winter days.

The 9-3 Convertible's evidently sporty stance can easily hold its own against the three premium German convertibles usually to be found inhabiting executive car parks. It has a likeable, unruffled character and despite the power to hand, it rewards like for like with a smooth driving style. The best thing is that when you need 'fast', it's served
up refined, never rorty. Buy one and you'll get a cultured summer convertible that's more than willing and able to deliver an enjoyable drive for the other three seasons too. The 9-3 Convertible's forte is that it shines on days when the sun doesn't.

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Saab 9-3 Convertible 2.8T
| 33,194
Maximum speed: 149mph | 0-62mph: 7.7 seconds
Overall test MPG: 25.3mpg | Power: 250
bhp | Torque: 258lb ft
Visit Saab's website Click to go there now

------------------------------------------------------------ Saab 9-3 Convertible