BY ANDY ENRIGHT
What is it in the mere act of decapitating a car that instantly boosts its appeal? Show most prospective customers a used Saab 900 and 9-3 and they'll agree that it's a well-built, intriguingly detailed hunk of Swedish functionality but it's unlikely that they'll consider what lengths they'd go to get hold of one. Lop the roof off and you're instantly confronted with a motif of upward social mobility, something that's hugely desirable and is in steady demand on the used market. In this green, pleasant and frequently damp land, it's not easy to make a case for convertible cars. Indeed, when viewed dispassionately, they don't seem to make a lot of sense. Try telling that to Saab owners, though. With over 25,000 soft topped Saabs having found UK buyers in the last fifteen years, when many people think about a premium soft-top saloon, Saab seems to be on the money. With over 150,000 9-3 Convertibles sold worldwide, Saab dominates the market sector here in Britain, with almost every other four-door convertible sold being a Saab 9-3. Surprised? Consider this. BMW, who know a thing or two about premium convertibles, can only point to 5% of 3-Series sales as being attributable to soft top models whereas a massive 30% of all Saab 9-3s are sold with the option of sunshine (or sleet) as standard. The Saab 9-3 range is the mainstay of the company's recent commercial success. Aiming to compete head-on with the likes of BMW's 3 Series and Audi's A4 models, the 9-3 represents a slightly quirkier alternative. Since acquiring Saab, parent company General Motors have done an admirable job of improving quality whilst still allowing the cars to retain their inherent 'Saab-ness.' Its 900 forebear was no less successful and has established a good range of used models from which to select. Just be prepared to pay a considerable premium over what you'd expect to pay for an arguably more competent tin-top version.
Models Covered: (2 dr convertible, 2.0, 2.3, 2.5 petrol, [S, SE, Aero, Viggen])
The late 900 Convertible was introduced in September 1994. Engines were either 2.0 or 2.3-litre four cylinders (and a 2.0-litre turbo version) or the Vauxhall-made 2.5-litre V6. The turbo four was powerful (more so than the V6) and smooth, due to Saab's special engine balance shafts. There was a small upgrade for base model cars in February 1995 when colour-coded bumpers were added. 1997 model year improvements included larger, more supportive front seats with velour upholstery, a more precise gearchange, larger brake discs and heat-reflecting glass. Every version above 2.0-litres got a rear reflective panel inserted between the rear light clusters, and engine size badging. The 1998 year-model cars began to appear in time for the R-plate changeover, with the main change the dropping of the V6 engine. A heavily modified range appeared in March 1998, renamed '9-3', with changes centred on chassis modifications as well as a mild facelift. Two trim levels were offered in Convertible form, S and SE, and three engines. These consisted of 2.0i (130bhp), 2.0T (185bhp) and 2.3i (150bhp) petrol installations. The range was added to in June 1998 with the launch of a light-pressure turbocharged version of the 2.0T engine. Helpfully called the 2.0t, it developed 154bhp and replaced the 2.3i versions. In November 1998 another engine variant was launched, the HOT designation, basically a powerful 2.0 turbocharged unit developing 205bhp. June 1999 saw the launch of the Viggen 2.3i versions, which developed a mighty 225bhp and September 1999 saw the introduction of the Aero model with the 2.0 HOT engine. These models boasted a striking bodykit and a lavish equipment list. In August 2000, the 2.0t engine was improved with extra torque, though outright power dropped to 150bhp. Meanwhile, the Viggen was dropped due to poor sales and the Aero models upgraded. In late 2001 the appeal of the 9-3 range was boosted with some tweaks to standard trim and a rethink of gear ratios resulting in a 5% improvement in economy. In 2003 the 9-3 Convertible range was replaced by an all-new model based on the 9-3 Sport Saloon chassis.
What You Get
As far as the 900 Convertible is concerned, you can bank on archetypal Saab features. These cars are built for freezing Swedish winters and North American summers - Saab's two big markets. So you can expect the cars to have been designed to cope with almost anything you can throw at them. Build quality, safety and crash-worthiness are priorities for the Swedes and the 900 excels in all three categories. Turbos and V6s are fast but not too furious, while the normal 2.0-litre cars are honest and dependable transport, if not exactly capital-F fun machines. Equipment is good on all models; standard spec consists of ABS, electrically heated and powered mirrors, electric windows and driver's airbag. The SEs add air conditioning, alloy wheels and cruise control The 9-3 Convertible models display some evidence of being toned down in the wackiness stakes by parent company GM but the quirky DNA is still in evidence. You are still faced with a sheer wall of dashboard, the ignition key still slots home just ahead of the handbrake, and the chrome grille is in the classic wing shape. The Saab core values of safety and reliability haven't gone amiss either, with the cars still feeling bulletproof and a number of considered safety features being incorporated. These include twin front and side airbags on all models and SAHR, the Saab Active Head Restraint that aims to reduce whiplash injuries. In addition to championing these values, the all-turbocharged 9-3 range also looks to trump its German rivals in terms of value for money. Comparing a 9-3 Convertible's value proposition to that of a soft top BMW 3 Series it's not too difficult to see why Saab establishes such impressive open car sales figures.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
One area which is worth checking, especially on the more powerful models, is front tyre wear. As with any powerful front wheel drive car, expecting the front tyres to cope with the demands of steering such a weighty beast and transmitting all that horsepower to the ground is a serious task. A heavy right foot can see front tyres waving the white flag within 5,000 miles, dependent upon make. Check the hood for signs of rips, leaks or damage. Raise and lower it a couple of times to make sure the electric motors are all in good shape and haven't been damaged by ignorant users attempting to operate the hood manually. The hood on the 9-3 is a fully insulated triple-layer item with a proper heated glass rear window, and is one of the best on the market for insulating against wind noise. If there's a whistling or drumming at speed, the hood may well be damaged.
(approx based on a 1998 9-3 2.0i Convertible) It's apparent where Saab have taken a delve into the capacious GM parts bin. Certain items are very cheap, especially for a car that competes head on with the BMW 3 Series and Audi's A4. A clutch assembly is in the region of £250, and brake pads are £50 a set for the fronts and £35 a pair at the back. A radiator is a fairly reasonable £200, and a headlamp unit is comparable to most major rivals at £170. A starter motor won't see change from £180, whilst an alternator will only see small change from £260. An exhaust system is around £310, again, not unreasonable for a classy executive car.
On the Road
If there's a chink in the 900 and 9-3's armour it comes in the shape of their handling. The chassis isn't notably resistant to flex and you'll have to put up with a wobbly rear view mirror and a creaking scuttle as you corner and traverse surface irregularities. The 9-3 feels slightly better in this regard to the 900 which has an uneasy feeling of articulation, but neither will appeal to the keen driver. What's more, the exciting sports models are exciting for the wrong reasons. Any car trying to deploy 230bhp through its front wheels is on a sticky wicket and the Viggen models of the 9-3 range were never the happiest handlers, displaying chronic 'torque steer' - the condition where the car seems to veer about as its wheels scrabble for grip. Unless you find enormous tyre bills amusing, its best to stick to cars with engines no more powerful than the 185bhp 2.0T. The 2.0T models are a different story. Smooth, refined and well equipped, they are definitely the pick of the range. The turbocharged engine despatches the 0-60 increment in just 7.1 seconds on its way to a 138mph top speed - fast enough for most. The 2.0t motor is also worth seeking out.
Four door convertibles tend to be constructed around a number of compromises and often conflicting customer requirements. They must be spacious yet stylish, safe yet with a raffish carefree image and must also be affordable without gaining a downmarket tag. The 900 and 9-3 Convertibles have consistently managed to span these diverse criteria better than any other and that's why they sell so well. The base two-litre turbocharged models in both ranges are probably the cars to go for, but whichever model you choose, style, if not exclusivity, has always been a standard feature.