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LOOK AT MANY OF TODAY'S CAR ADVERTISEMENTS and you could be forgiven for thinking that just about everyone lusts after cars that are as quick as superbikes, and that most drivers would much rather have a 'quake-causing stereo than something that cleans up their emissions. Well, times, as Bob Dylan once famously sang, "they are a-changing"…
Understandably, people want to drive good-looking cars which is why, high on many drivers' wish lists, you'll find a convertible. And now Saab's latest 9-3 Cabriolet a long-time favourite with UK flip-top enthusiasts comes, thanks to new BioPower engines, with built-in 'green' appeal to enhance the already strong pull of its clean-cut good looks. Richard Branson, he of the Virgin Empire, is already a staunch fan.
To look at, the BioPower is very much like any other new 9-3 Cabriolet: a handsome four-seater crowned with a fully-automatic traditional cloth top that operated electrically via a single switch on the fascia folds away, with customary Scandinavian grace, completely out of sight. A neat touch is the rear deck panel that covers the soft-top's storage well it slides discreetly back instead of lifting up. Raised, the triple-layer fabric roof offers excellent weatherproofing. Not only that but, despite the mass of 'missing' overhead metal, the open-bodied Cabriolet comes with a five-star Euro NACP rating.
We've already reviewed the 9-3 flagship convertible, the Aero 2.8T equipped with Saab's six-speed Sentronic automatic, so this time round we're evaluating the recently-added BioPower model available with either a 173 or 197bhp turboed engine. We tested the 197bhp version that, despite running on something that's brewed from agricultural crops, zips up to 60mph from standstill in a crisp 7.9 seconds and maxes out at exactly twice the UK's legal limit.
The Unique Selling Proposition of BioPower, compared to today's commendably efficient diesel units or hybrids, is that not only does it provide more power and torque, but at the same time CO2 emissions are substantially down typically 50-70 per cent lower than when running on petrol. However, when drinking straight unleaded the 2.0t BioPower emits a very un-green 203g/km. We started our week-long test with a full tank of E85 and averaged 27.9mpg overall.
If there's no bioethanol available you can, because Saab BioPower is a 'flex-fuel' solution, simply fill up with regular unleaded. Or any blend between 100 per cent unleaded and an 85% bioethanol:15% petrol mix. At present there isn't a lot of E85 around in fact, just 21 fore-
courts in the UK currently sell it. Sweden already has over 850 E85 pumps; understandable when you consider that sales of BioPower engine variants accounted for around 85 per cent of Saab's total 2006 Swedish sales! For the record, of the UK's 21, five are in Somerset,
five in East Anglia, three in Scotland and the other eight are dotted around the UK (check for updates at saabbiopower).
So then, a result for The Environment? Well, not exactly. There have been serious questions raised recently as to the environmental cost of producing bioethanol. TIME magazine, for one, said: "Politicians and Big Business are pushing biofuels as alternatives to oil. All they're really doing is driving up world food prices, helping to destroy the Amazon jungle and making global warming worse." [See The Clean Energy Scam by Michael Grunwald in TIME magazine].
That said, the second-generation of biofuels currently coming to market (which use only agricultural 'waste' such as straw as opposed to wheat, corn, grain, sugar beet, and sugar cane) are, and need to be, more sustainable if we are to continue making cleaner fuel without sacrificing food crops to do it. Saab, as you would expect, supports the development of a robust sustainability certification scheme to ensure biofuels are sustainably produced and that sensitive habitats are not placed at risk.
Drive the 9-3 Convertible a hundred miles an enjoyable task! and you'll appreciate that the 2.0t BioPower not only has strong and flexible mid-range performance (made better by the easy-changing six-speed manual 'box) but is also structurally solid and very well put together. You'll also quickly come to take pleasure in its civilised driving char-acter and adequately supple ride which feels a tad more accommod-ating than that of the saloons. It's no tiresome boy-racer's car this
9-3, but that doesn't mean it can't provide driver satisfaction dynamically it serves up a likeable combination of turbocharged perfor-mance and nicely-honed chassis. The brakes, too, are equally well-fettled and deliver fuss-free, reassuring bite, while the steering is light but accurate.
Top up or top down, the cabin's a fine place to be, whether you're the front passenger or have control of the well-shaped, leather-rimmed sport steering wheel with it's handy multi-function buttons for the audio and on-board computer. Drivers will value the no-nonsense user-friendliness, crystal-clear instrumentation and displays, cruise control, on-board computer and excellent driving position.
For the record, our test car was fitted with about £6,000 worth of extras that included dual electric seats with driver's 3-position memory, auto dimming interior and exterior mirrors, power folding mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, DVD SatNav with voice control and a 6.5-inch colour touch screen (superb), soft leather sport interior with heated seats, Bi-xenon cornering headlights (visibly beneficial), 18-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels, a blue hood (decidedly smart) and a premium 300w audio system with 6-disc CD autochanger and 10 speakers.
Drivers will also enjoy good visibility to the front and side, and even rearwards in spite of the higher boot due to the 9-3's flowing wedge-shaped profile. Both door mirrors automatically dip down for reversing particularly helpful.
Both front occupants will be thankful for the comfortable, multi-adjustable and powered seats that seem to improve the longer they're sat in, the efficient dual-zone automatic climate control (especially on a hot day with the top down), the indispensable 'keep your drinks chilled' cooled glovebox, the pleasantly warming 2-stage heated seats and, handy if it suddenly pelts down with rain, the fact that the roof can be raised and closed while travelling at speeds of up to 20mph.
No more pulling over and getting well and truly drenched while you
wait for the roof to close. And passengers of all ages will want to see the balletic front cup-holder pop out of the fascia and do its fancy pirouette before accepting a cup.
On the subject of top-down driving, an al fresco 9-3 is a pleasant place to spend time, even for seriously long trips 'four-up'. However, passengers with long hair would be well advised to don a baseball cap (or something tight-fitting) to prevent 'hair lash'. That said, even at motorway cruising speeds the wind rush never becomes irksome. With just two in the front and the mesh rear wind-deflector in place behind the front seats no doubt the manner in which many of these convertibles will be driven then progress is pleasure. Luggage wise, there is room for 258 litres with the roof down and 352 litres if you're travelling top up.
As already mentioned, safety is well addressed with a five-star NCAP rating, and standard equipment includes active head restraints
(claimed to reduce neck injuries in rear-end impacts by as much as 75 per cent), adaptive dual-stage front and head/thorax side airbags
and pop-up roll bars behind the snug rear seats, seat belts built into the front seat frames so no awkward over-the-shoulder stretching for front seats users or dangerously dangling belts to trip unwary rear passengers. Naturally there's also ABS and an Electronic Stability Programme.
People who drive Saabs are not so much interested in being seen behind the wheel of a car with the 'right' badge as of being behind the wheel of the 'right' car. And the 9-3 Convertible is undeniably stylish and comfortable enough to qualify as the 'right' car to been seen in and, more importantly, to spend time travelling in.
Despite the 9-3's front-wheel drive set-up and the 197bhp generated by the turbocharged engine, you'd have to drive like a hooligan to provoke any upsetting levels of torque steer. Technology has long since tamed that particular gremlin, and helps explain the 9-3's 'soft' in the nicest possible way disposition. But then smooth driving comportment is exactly what 9-3 convertible buyers want. Add in the refreshingly uncluttered looks and newsworthy 'clean 'n' green' credentials and you have a convincing case for spending £30,370.
Saab 9-3 Convertible 2.0t BioPower | £30,370
Maximum speed: 140mph | 0-60mph: 7.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 27.9mpg | Power: 197bhp | Torque: 221lb ft
CO2 203g/km | VED Band F £210 | Insurance group 17E