Had it not been for one man, Robert Sinclair, then president of Saab-Scania of America, the Saab convertible might not have happened until some time later – or not at all. Sinclair envisioned the car when Saab headquarters in Sweden tried to push the low-end 900 coupe into the American market. He knew the car would never sell in the states and took it upon himself to convert the coupe into a convertible using the American Sunroof Corporation. The first Saab 900 convertible was shown as a concept at the 1983 Frankfurt Auto Show and response was overwhelmingly positive. By 1986, the first 900 convertibles for America went on sale and sold out immediately – the 1987 U.S. allotment then sold out before production even began, and Saab even had orders for the 1988 and 1989 models while deliveries of the first batch were being made. The 900 convertible was an important and defining car for the Swedish automaker and is responsible for helping to improve the status of today’s Saab brand.
Saab has had twenty years to fine-tune the convertible, and to celebrate this milestone it has introduced a limited edition 9-3 convertible. Only 400 examples of the unique Aero 20 Years Edition will be built, each one painted Electric Blue with subtle color-matched leather inserts for the interior. Saab also opted to keep the anniversary edition discreet, so you won’t find any badges attached to the bodywork identifying it as such. Instead, Saab chose to have each car wear a subtle etching in the rear quarter glass window. Other telltale signs of the anniversary model are the unique paint color, and the special dual five-spoke alloy wheels. Saab keeps track of each commemorative edition, but each car is not individually numbered outside of the engraving on the rear quarter glass.
The big news for the 9-3 this year, besides the introduction of the anniversary model, is a new 250-horsepower V6 with 258 lb.-ft. of torque under the hood. This new engine is a perfect fit for the convertible. The power from the turbocharged motor is smooth and pulls the car effortlessly through each gear. Saab gives buyers the option of a six-speed manual or automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, further enhancing the 9-3’s appeal. Whether you’re an enthusiast opting for the manual or a commuter choosing the automatic, any driver will appreciate the smooth shifts and instant response from the engine. The new V6 delivers 258 lb.-ft. of torque at just 2,000 rpm and delivers 90 percent of that torque at 1,500 rpm. The turbo spools seamlessly and instantaneously, and power comes on before you have enough time to contemplate your next move. Engineers have also done away with torque steer and have engineered a delightful compromise between ride and handling that produces both comfort and performance.
Unfortunately for Saab, some still view its cars based on an image of the past. The challenge for Saab is to dispel that reputation by getting people behind the wheel. Based on our test drive, those that drive the new Saab 9-3 Aero are sure to walk away with a totally new outlook and admiration of Saab cars and will appreciate what twenty years of engineering and design can do for a car and company.
Nuts and Bolts
Saab’s most important upgrade to the 2006 9-3 is the new 250-horsepower, 2.8-liter, high-output turbo V6 engine. Power delivery from the almost entirely aluminum V6 can only be described as exceptionally smooth and responsive. A water-cooled, twin-scroll turbocharger delivers nine pounds of boost and 258 lb.-ft. of torque through the front wheels, and the engine feels like it has more than the 250 stated horsepower. This new engine is a vast improvement over the old 210-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that was previously available.
Power is run through a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. A large, easy-to-read LED displays gear selection front and center on the instrument panel in case you experience short-term memory loss or just get caught up in the excitement of the drive.
A lot of attention was paid to chassis stiffness, and it shows. Engineers have done a commendable job eliminating cowl shake on the Saab 9-3. The chassis is very stiff and showed no shake or flex worth mentioning, even over some very rough roads along our route, thanks to substantial reinforcement of the A-pillars for safety purposes. An all electric, three-layer top keeps things quiet and cozy during inclement weather and can be raised and lowered in just twenty seconds.
Engineers chose to stick with a tried-and-true hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering setup. Brakes are four-wheel-disc with ABS, EBD, and MBA (mechanical brake assist), and the Aero models get ventilated front and rear rotors. Traction and stability control are also standard, and the Saab 9-3 rolls on both 16-inch (standard) or 17-inch (Aero) alloy wheels equipped with all-season tires. Suspension is comprised of MacPherson struts, gas shocks and an anti-roll bar up front while at the rear an independent four-link suspension with gas shocks and an anti-roll bar work with Saab’s Re-Axs rear-wheel steering geometry.
Like many Saabs before it, the 9-3 gets a plethora of safety equipment. Standard dual front airbags, two-stage side-impact airbags, reinforced A-pillars, pop-up roll bars, and active front head restraints start off the list. Then add traction control, stability control, ABS with brake assist, and Cornering Brake Control (CBC).
Saabs have always been a little quirky when it comes to exterior design and the 9-3 sticks to this tradition. Saab deserves praise for adhering to a design theme year after year, one that enables its cars to stand out from the crowd. Whether liked by the masses or not, Saab designs do their job by getting instant recognition that results in positive brand awareness.
No real exterior changes have been made to the 2006 Saab 9-3 Convertible with the exception of the 20 Years Edition model. It gets unique Electric Blue paint, double five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, a parchment leather interior with matching blue inserts, and a Touring Package that includes power front seats with driver’s side memory, express windows, remote top opening, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rain-sensing wipers, and rear park assist.
Inside, designers have given the 2006 Saab 9-3 an exciting yet functional look. The first thing you’ll notice has to be the large diameter leather-wrapped steering wheel with the faux aluminum trim. It’s not only stunning in design but comfortable to hold as well. Comfortable also describes the leather seating, and the 9-3 convertible’s high quality textured plastics and metallic trim blend to present a sporty yet upscale interior. Small things, like the way the passenger airbag is designed to deploy from a small one-inch foot-long strip in the dash instead of a big boxy cutout, really add to the Saab’s clean design and upscale look.
Dropping the top has been made easy as well. A fully automatic, one-touch button raises and lowers the canvas top in just twenty seconds. Like most convertibles, trunk room is limited with the top stowed but room for a couple of soft-sided bags remains. Designers have continued the Saab tradition of locating the ignition in the center console but have surrounded it with better quality materials that don’t show as much wear as in the larger 9-5. Also worth noting is the quality look and feel of the switches and knobs throughout the interior. Overall, Saab has done a good job retaining the quirkiness of past designs but has improved upon them with added quality and user-friendliness.
As far back as we can remember, Saabs have always had comfortable seats, and the 2006 Saab 9-3 is no different. Well bolstered, soft leather seating greets the driver and passenger, delivering that comfort mile after mile. After spending over five hours behind the wheel, we arrived at our final destination with no TBS (tired butt syndrome) and could have gone back out for another leg of driving. The same couldn’t be said for back seat passengers. Rear seat space in all areas – knee, foot and leg – is minimal. Those sitting alone in the back will find themselves sprawled across the rear bench seat to get comfortable.
The Saab’s suspension does a great job of delivering a smooth ride while still enabling the 9-3 to tackle the twisties when the opportunity presents itself. Wind noise and buffeting with the top down are minimal and with the top up, noise is almost reduced to that of a hard top. Visibility is good with the top up or down, with no noticeable blind spots in the side mirrors.
Inside, we found the center console height to be a bit tall for comfort. It also interferes with shifting the manual transmission, requiring an elbow tuck into your rib cage with each shift. Soft touch surfaces on the console and door do aid in the driver’s comfort, as does the well-designed steering wheel.
The new 2.8-liter V6 engine and six-speed transmission also contribute to occupant comfort. The engine’s smoothness at highway speeds and the lack of buzzing thanks to the six-speed transmission make for an enjoyable drive. Several times we found ourselves cruising at 4,500 rpm, not realizing we were still in fourth gear. The engine is that smooth.
Fortunately for us, southern California’s recent spate of rainy weather broke and we were able to drop the Saab’s top and hit the back roads of Santa Barbara’s wine country along the same route covered in the movie Sideways, which also featured a Saab convertible. Navigating the rolling hills, twisty roads and burgeoning vineyards couldn’t have been a better adventure and the Saab 9-3 Aero was the perfect car from which to enjoy the gorgeous weather.
The 9-3 Convertible’s chassis is stiff and flex is non-existent with the top down. No twitching or shaking was evident over the sometimes-rough roads of the backcountry. At speed in the early morning, the wind chill did get cold enough that we raised the top because the front seat warmers and a strong heater just weren’t enough to stave off the cold. With the top raised, wind noise was surprisingly minimal thanks to Saab’s three-layer top design.
Powering around the back roads of Santa Barbara, Solvang, Buellton and Los Olivos really let the new 250-horsepower V6 show its stuff. The new V6 is so smooth you might catch yourself forgetting to upshift, as we did a couple of times along the route. At higher revs, the engine is smooth with no annoying buzzes begging you to shift up to the next gear. The six-speed transmission is smooth whether driving the automatic with the paddle shifters or navigating the manual transmission’s gates, but Saab needs to increase the size of the steering wheel paddles, which we found to be easy to lose track of during hard cornering. Also note that you’ll experience very little delay when shifting with the automatic in the manual mode. Power is available throughout the rev range and downshifting is minimized due to the available low-end torque. Just add throttle and the car launches smoothly up to your desired speed.
The Saab 9-3 can also handle any corner that gets between you and the glass of cabernet at the next winery. Slight understeer is evident but add throttle at the apex of the turn and the 9-3 shoots out of the corner. Saab has also done a good job of balancing the firmness of the ride, maintaining handling but providing a comfortable ride that is suitable for long trips. Steering feel and response at speeds under 70 mph is good but gets too light at higher speeds. Still, the Saab 9-3 loves to run at 80 mph and if you’re not paying close enough attention it will sneak up on triple digits in a hurry. Fortunately, the brakes worked well enough to keep us from contributing to California’s revenue base at a couple of points along the drive route.
FAQs and Specs
What does the 2006 Saab 9-3’s new V6 engine offer that the previous turbo four didn’t?
Not only does the new V6 offer more horsepower and torque, but more important is its silky smooth delivery. This new engine does a remarkable job of powering the Saab 9-3, pulling hard throughout the rev range. Less downshifting is required because of the amount of torque available at the low end, with 90 percent of maximum twist available at just 1,500 rpm. Upshifts will also be reduced, though subconsciously because the engine is so smooth at higher revs that you’ll forget to use 5th and 6th gears.
What designates the difference between the 2006 Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible 20 Years Edition and the standard model?
The biggest difference is the unique blue paint and dual five-spoke wheels. The interior also adds matching blue leather inserts and an etched designation is located on the rear quarter window.
Convertibles can be noisy with the top up. How does the 2006 Saab 9-3 stand up in this test?
Saab uses a three-layer top that does a remarkable job of reducing wind noise. There is still some noise but nothing that will interfere with conversation at 70 mph. The most impressive part of the top is the way it is finished on the inside. No bare bars and canvas seams here, and the top lowers and raises in just 20 seconds.
Test Vehicle: 2006 Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible 20 Years Edition
Price of Test Vehicle: $44,615 (including the $720 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 2.8-liter turbocharged V6
Engine Horsepower: 250 at 5,500 rpm
Engine Torque: 258 at 2,000 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic
Curb Weight. Lbs.: 3,480-3,700
EPA Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 21/29 mpg
Length: 182.4 inches
Width: 69.3 inches
Wheelbase: 105.3 inches
Height: 56.4 inches
Leg room (front/rear): 41.4/32.3 inches
Head room (front/rear): 38.1/37 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: Four
Max. Cargo Volume: 12.4 cu.-ft.
Competitors: Audi A4 Cabriolet, BMW 325Ci Convertible, Chrysler Sebring, Mini Cooper Convertible, Pontiac G6 Convertible, Toyota Solara, Volkswagen Eos, Volvo C70
Photos courtesy of Saab Cars USA