Saab Story: 2009 9-3 Aero Convertible

From an objective point of view, Saab has no reason to exist any longer.  The Swedish manufacturer “born from jets” has been controlled by General Motors for nearly two decades and has been in steady decline for just about the entire time.

This year, Saab ranks only 36th among the most popular brands in the U.S. – behind Smart! – and its sales have shrunk by one-third in the past 12 months.  Lesser known but equally disheartening is the Saab quality story.  This year, Saab finished 31st among 36 brands surveyed by  J.D. Power for initial quality, reflecting problems reported by owners after they have driven the car for 90 days.

To add injury to insult, Saab’s aren’t even Swedish any more.  The 9-3 convertible I drove recently was assembled in Austria with an engine from Australia, a transmission from Japan, and other parts that are 33% German in origin.  Sweden only contributed 19% of this model’s content.  That kind of mixed heritage is a turnoff for buyers of high-end cars, who want a  glorious history to go along with the inflated sticker price.

That’s all too bad, because the 9-3 convertible I drove is, in my estimation, the finest car ever to wear the Saab badge. This 9-3 has become more sophisticated since it was introduced in 1998. when it  seemed most at home in the parking lots of small New England liberal arts colleges.  It is the kind of car that you can take anywhere, without seeming too poor or too flashy. In this age of restraint and sustainability, its EPA highway range of 19 to 29 mpg is entirely acceptable.

Saab’s functional and design eccentricities – square control stalks, console -mounted ignition switch –  have been nicely modulated into an up-to-date package that rewards all the senses.  The GM-designed turbocharged 2.8 liter six cylinder engine delivers smooth power without any traditional Saab torque steer;  the leather-trimmed interior is pleasing to look at and comfortable to sit in, and the body exhibited none of the usual cowl shake when the convertible top was stowed.

Unfortunately, all that overseas content makes the Saab fairly pricey.  My test car stickered out at $49,780, which puts it smack up against the 335i convertible made by BMW, a brand that many luxury car buyers prefer.  Still, for those who want to own something a little different that may be a vanishing piece of automotive history,  this Saab wouldn’t be a bad choice.

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