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Saab 9-3 SE Convertible (2001)

SEE ALSO: Saab Buyer's Guide

By Tom Hagin


     Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price              $ 39,995
     Price As Tested                                    $ 42,515
     Engine Type        DOHC 16-valve 2.0 Liter Turbo I4 w/SMFI*
     Engine Size                                 121 cid/1985 cc
     Horsepower                                   205 @ 5500 RPM
     Torque (lb-ft)                               209 @ 4800 RPM
     Wheelbase/Width/Length                  102.6"/67.4"/182.3"
     Transmission                              Five-speed manual
     Curb Weight                                     3375 pounds
     Fuel Capacity                                  17.0 gallons
     Tires  (F/R)                          205/50ZR16 all-season
     Brakes (F/R)                          Disc (ABS)/disc (ABS)
     Drive Train                  Front-engine/front-wheel-drive
     Vehicle Type                        Four-passenger/two-door
     Domestic Content                                  2 percent
     Coefficient of Drag (Cd.)                               N/A


     EPA Economy, miles per gallon
        city/highway/average                            22/30/25
     0-60 MPH                                        7.0 seconds
     1/4 (E.T.)                          15.5 seconds @ 94.0 mph
     Top-speed                                           130 mph
                 * Sequential multi-port fuel injection

The Saab 900 began life in 1968 as the Saab 99, an 87-horsepower workhorse with an unusual body shape and a focus on safety. The company began its corporate makeover in 1977 by slapping a turbocharger on the 99 and making it a sports sedan.

Ten years later, the company first offered a convertible to an eagerly awaiting public, forever modifying its image of being a safety- first, utilitarian sedan builder. This week we test a 9-3 convertible.

OUTSIDE - We've described Saabs having unusual shapes as an example of functionality. A 1993 restyle giving it its current profile had more than a hint of that original premise. Since then modern features such as lower side sill extensions, front and rear fascia redesigns and 16-inch five-spoke alloy wheels (standard on SE models) have made its familiar silhouette look fresh. What makes it so Saab-ish is the tall tail, trapezoidal chrome grille and wide, angled headlamps that connect to large wraparound turn signal indicators. The power top is lowered by releasing a single latch at the windshield header and pushing a button between the seats. It's a heavily insulated unit that folds into a well behind the rear seats. A rigid cover clicks down over the receptacle.

INSIDE - Even with the recent excitement Saab has injected into its cars, we can't ignore their ergonomics. The tall, flat dashboard is filled with easy-to-read analog gauges, audio controls that are clearly marked and positioned high in the dash, and a climate controls system that is intuitive and extremely effective. A unique "Black Panel" button douses all gauges but the speedometer, a nighttime safety feature. Of the many "quirky" things about Saab cars, one of the most unusual is the between-the-seats location of the ignition key, a Saab tradition. Standard 9-3 SE features include automatic climate control, leather seating surfaces, cruise control, multi- function computer, power windows, OnStar communications, power door locks and mirrors, remote central locking, telescopic steering column and an AM/FM/CD/cassette.

ON THE ROAD - The standard 9-3 engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that uses a light-pressure turbocharger to produce 185 horsepower and 194 lb-ft of torque. That's an impressive output from a small engine, but stepping up to the SE model brings more power. The same 2.0-liter engine is under the hood of that version, with its dual overhead camshafts and 16 valves, but the SE motor produces 205 horsepower and 209 lb-ft of torque. Saab calls this its HOT engine, short for High Output Turbo. It's also dubbed Ecopower because of its unique combination of performance, low emissions and good fuel economy. And like the turbocharged Saabs of the past, the turbo makes it great fun to push the throttle down to the floor and to eventually feel a furious rush of power after the rpms rise. But as in most high performance front-wheel-drive cars, there is a bit of torque steer under heavy acceleration, but Saab does its best to control it with advanced engine management technology. An all-speed traction control system is standard on all 9-3 models.

BEHIND THE WHEEL - The unibodied 9-3 is based on a heavily revamped version of the second-generation 900 chassis that bowed back in 1993. MacPherson struts are the suspension components up front, while a simple torsion-beam axle controls the rear. Both ends get anti-roll bars and gas shocks, while SE models receive high-performance Michelin-brand all-season tires. Rack-and-pinion steering nicely communicates road feel back to the driver. As with any car with a majority of weight over its front wheels, however, it understeers in tight corners. Fortunately, its grippy tires don't howl in protest when this happens. Braking is handled by four-wheel discs with a standard anti-lock braking system (ABS). Also standard is Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), a system designed to automatically apply extra braking force in a panic stop.

SAFETY - Dual dashboard and side airbags, whiplash protective headrests, ABS, traction control, front seat belt pretensioners and EBD are standard.

OPTIONS - No options on this vehicle.