x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Saab 9-3 Convertible

The Saab 9-3 Aero, like its parent company General Motors, is a curious mix of the good and not so good.

The Saab 9-3 has some annoying quirks but these are outweighed by its many endearing features.
The Saab 9-3 has some annoying quirks but these are outweighed by its many endearing features.

The Saab 9-3 Aero, like its parent company General Motors, is a curious mix of the good and not so good. Whether GM will hang on to the Swedish car maker in the recession or sell it off along with Hummer remains to be seen, but the company does some things really well. The new Chevy Camaro, the symbol of Australian motorsport that is the Holden Commodore and the boy-racer joy of the Corvette are examples of GM successes. On the flip side is a crowded range of too-similar cars, the debacle that has been the Saturn brand and incompetent management.

Cue the 9-3, a car that makes me hope Saab survives the recession, one way or another. The car was not perfect but it was lovable. Most of us have owned a car with quirks that inspire fond memories. In my case, a 1982 Mitsubishi Colt. It had a surprising amount of legroom but the window de-mister doubled as the AC and heater. My colleague Neil often reminisces, coincidentally, about a Saab he once had, boasting fist-sized rust holes. It sounds like the type of car where you could kick every panel and make some improvements. But there is always affection when he talks of his old Saab.

The 9-3 Aero is no tired old rust bucket but it is definitely a bit quirky. I was presented with a white convertible with a beige soft-top. I would have preferred black or navy for the soft-top, but I was planning on driving with the top down most of the time. The weather was still just pleasant enough to put the roof down and, frankly, it looks prettier that way. From the back, the black strips around the tail lights look like strips of gaffer tape but as I wended my way towards the front of the car, the looks improved mightily. The front of the car is sharp and futuristic, reminding me of the Star Wars storm troopers.

Inside, there's a fairly basic dash but the black and cream-grey seats look good and are insanely comfortable. The first thing I did was put the roof down, a simple 20-second operation. Then I turned the key, which is stuck down between the seats next to the handbrake. This is when I spotted the first quirk as my football-boot key ring got in the way of my attempt to release the handbrake. If Saab could just put the ignition back in its usual spot, it would be a great help.

The handbrake, while it fits in nicely with the minimalist black design of the centre console, is awkward to use and tends to pinch your finger on the way down. I had to develop a new handbraking technique, which does sound like a diva complaint, but given you use the handbrake every time you drive the car, that is annoying. Once you are on the road, the Saab becomes more loveable. With the roof down, there's that instant sense of freedom that comes with the first blast of warm wind and once I hit the open road on a multi-emirate jaunt that took me to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Umm al Qaiwain and Sharjah, the boundless joy that is the 2.8-litre, turbocharged engine took over. The torque was a thrill, reminding me of a colleague who once explained torque as "the force that makes you do this" and then imitated someone gripping a steering wheel, head thrust back, facial features comically stretched.

It's a car in which you can turn the radio off and thrill to the sound of the engine, although if you do want to keep playing a few tunes, the speakers are good enough that you can hear the music loud and clear, even with the roof down on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway. It's not quite the same sound quality, however, as the magnificent Mercedes SL Roadster in which you can drop the top and it will still sound like a concert.

Combine this with a stellar transmission and you have a whole world of driving pleasure. The manual option is fun and unlike a lot of these sequential shifters, it feels, sounds and performs like a stick shift. Using the shifter on the floor is the far better option for getting the most out of this six-speed box. You have the option of changing gears using the gear selector on the floor or paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Except that unlike most paddle shifters, whereby the paddles are tapped forward from behind, these paddles are chunky buttons on the steering wheel. And you have to press on them. And they are positioned too low down to be ergonomically effective. Yes, it's another quirk of the 9-3.

Boot space can be a concern in a convertible, especially with the roof down, but the 9-3 offers a fairly generous area, making it a great weekend-away car. The bag of golf clubs that car manufacturers like to use to demonstrate cargo space could certainly be transported in the 9-3. Sadly, the same can't be said for the cupholder, which one of my friends described as "entertaining but fairly useless". Push a button and a curvaceous black plastic frame will pop out at you like an angry gymnast, but try and transport a drink in it and it will probably drop out the bottom; another entry for the quirk list.

My friend played with the cupholder and mused that a Saab convertible has alway been his mother's dream car, though he finds them ugly. I disagree. While the front of the car is far more attractive than the back, I wouldn't mind owning one for a while. When I owned my old Mitsubishi Colt, I'd say: "Well, the AC's not working so I'll just blast some cool air through the de-mister, but it's super-reliable and solid as a rock."

If I owned the Saab, there would be similar excuses "The handbrake's a bit annoying and the cupholder caused Sprite to spill on my trousers, but wait until we hit the road with the roof off and listen to that engine." glewis@thenational.ae