I didn't need much encouragement to get behind the wheel of the Saab 9-3 SE convertible. This beauty carries a 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder turbocharged engine that puts out 205 hp at 5,500 rpm and 209 lb-ft of torque at 2,200 rpm.
A Trionic 7 engine-management system uses a 32-bit microprocessor capable of 2 million calculations per second to control the direct ignition, fuel injection, turbo boost pressure, and the electronic drive-by-wire throttle, eliminating turbo lag. However, trying to get a closer look at the powerplant is an exercise in futility. The engine compartment is loaded with black plastic beauty panels. There's even one covering the battery. While I'm sure these panels keep noise down and are aesthetically pleasing, it's a little annoying for gearheads who want a closer look.
The 9-3 SE is a joy to drive. The gearing on the five-speed manual tranny is tight, but not too close, and clutching is firm. But an annoying idiot light on the instrument panel insists on telling you when to shift. After a couple of days I managed to ignore it.
For 2001, standard equipment includes traction control and OnStar with one year of premium service. The all-speed traction-control system adjusts braking and throttle to help give the wheels a firm grip on the road during bad weather. Unfortunately, the weather during the test-drive week was beautiful, so I didn't get to experience the system firsthand.
Conversely, the beautiful weather gave me plenty of opportunities to drop the top. A simple pull on a handle that sits between the passenger and driver visors releases it. Then, pushing a button activates the hydraulically operated top. It is magnificent to watch. As a matter of fact, every passenger I had was forced to stand outside and watch this engineering marvel whether the top was going up or down.
The 9-3 carries a front suspension with MacPherson struts, gas shock absorbers, and coil springs. Split lower forged aluminum wishbones and a stabilizer bar help keep the wheels on the road during cornering. The rear suspension has an H-formed semirigid torsion-beam rear axle with inner and outer stabilizer bars outfitted with sport-tuned coil springs and gas-shock absorbers
A quirky, fun feature is a button that puts all four windows down simultaneously. Also, the night panel displays instrument information on an as-needed basis, with a choice of illumination modes and brightness. According to Saab, this system has its roots in aircraft ergonomics and reduces the strain of nighttime driving. I tried it out late one night with the top down in an area with no streetlights. It was an eerie feeling.
Base price for the 9-3 SE convertible is $39,995. With options and destination charges, the final price is $42,910. For those looking for style, luxury, and premium performance, this car is for you.