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2004 Saab 9-3 Compact Near Luxury Convertible

Car Review of the 2004 Saab 9-3 Compact Near Luxury Convertible

Base MSRP Range: $39,995 - $42,500

Base Invoice Range: $37,715 - $40,078

MSRP As Tested: Not Available

Versions: Arc and Areo

Vehicle Category: Compact Near Luxury Convertible

Engine Location: Front Engine

Drive Wheels: Front-Wheel Drive

Standard Engine: 2.0-liter, Turbocharged, Dual Overhead Cam, 16-valves, Inline-4 cylinder, 175-horsepower at 5,500rpm and 195 lb-ft torque at 2,500 rpm.

Optional Engine: 2.0-liter, Turbocharged, Dual Overhead Cam, 16-valves, Inline-4 cylinder, 210-horsepower at 5,500rpm and 221lb-ft torque at 2,500 rpm.

Transmission As Tested: Optional 6-Speed Manual, Standard 5-Speed Manual and 5-Speed Automatic with Saab Sentronic manual selection, with optional steering wheel controls.

Fuel Economy (city/hwy): Manual 23/33, 4-speed automatic 21/29, 5-speed automatic 21/30.

Standard Safety Features: Driver and front passenger, front airbags, four channel ">Antilock Brake System, Traction Control Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Saab Active Head Restraint system, In-Trunk Emergency Trunk Release, Remote Keyless Entry.

Competition: BMW 3 Series Convertible, Audi A4 Cabriolet, Mercedes-Benz CLK Cabriolet, Toyota Solara Convertible

Vehicle History

The previous Saab 9-3 Convertible was the sales-leader in the entry-level, premium convertible market. It sold well compared to other pricy convertibles, or Saabs in general. Saabs are known for, and very proud of, their quirky designs. But that quirkiness has limited sales because consumers either love them, or hate them. When Saab developed the 9-3 Convertible from the sedan, they had a winner that everyone liked. The design worked particularly well with a rag top.

As a testament to its popularity, the 9-3 Convertible became the best selling cabriolet in Europe, and the United States, during its model run. And we knew it was a popular design, as every time we drove it, people complimented us on it.

Automotive industry statistics show women buy more convertibles than men. Perhaps that is because they know a convertible is like a fine piece of jewelry; enhancing the beauty of anything it adorns. The 9-3 Convertible is no different. It has been very popular with women.

Saab says their open-top cars must represent the company's core marketing themes, just as their other vehicles do. They nned unique designs clearly distinguishing them from other cars. They must have turbocharged performance, handle well, and give the driver a strong sense of control. The Swedish safety and versatility heritage has to be maintained. Saab consistently delivers on the promise of building fun-to-drive vehicles that are practical and uniquely designed.

The 2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible has been improved in every way. The handling and performance are better. It is lighter, yet bigger by 51mm in overall length. It is 70mm larger at the wheelbase: this is one of the reasons the car handles and rides so much better than its predecessor. And the styling is much better.

The 9-3 is available as a convertible, or a sedan, for now, though they are planning many variations. For example a 9-3 Sport-Hatch concept car was introduced at the 2003 Frankfurt Auto Show. The Sport Hatch is a futuristic, five-door, four-seater with a fastback. It draws its inspiration from the Saab concept premiered in 2002, the 9-3X crossover coupe.

Exterior Styling

The 2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible is more refined, aerodynamic and sportier than its predecessor. The car retains the rounded, coupe-like look of the sedan. The doors are large, like on a coupe, giving the car a cohesive and sporty look without too many seams. The roof's shape is smooth and flowing when closed. It all looks so good together it makes us think a coupe version should be in the making.

The 9-3 Convertible's grill is standard Saab fare. It has two small side air intakes and a single, large split-center one in the middle. The headlights share a similar shape, so the front looks just like a Saab sedan, up to the A pillar. From there back it is a completely different car and really looks like a two-door coupe configuration.

It only takes 20 seconds to open the high-quality, soft-touch retractable top. Instead of the Toneau cover opening upwards, like a lid, it slides backward. We had the opportunity to test the roof mechanism under fire. While traveling through the hills of Georgia we were hit with a sudden, and intense, rainstorm. We pulled to the side of the road, put the car in park, and activated the roof. In less than 30 seconds we were on our way, and still dry.

The high-quality, soft-top roof has three layers. On the outside is a waterproof layer. On the inside is a light colored headliner that is very nice to the touch. In the middle there is a layer of thick fleece good for weather and sound insulation.

When the roof is closed the Toneau cover integrates well into the rear seat headrests. It also camouflages the pop-up rollover bars giving the car the roadster-like look of an old Thunderbird. The way the Toneau cover integrates with the headrest and the rear deck is fantastic. It's indescribable, so you'll have to go into a dealership to take a look at it yourself. It's an elegant high-tech design that flows into a small, rear spoiler integrated into the trunk lid.

If winter sports are your thing Saab offers an optional CargoWing, which is a rear spoiler to which skis and snowboards can be attached.

The taillights are similar to those found on current Mercedes-Benz and Honda cars; clear plastic, backup-light lamps float in the middle of red ones for the brakes.

Surround Trim, as Saab calls it, is another design cue that defies description. Essentially it is body molding that delimits the car's exterior from the interior. It is part of what makes the Toneau cover invisible when the top is down, giving the car clean lines. Surround Trim comes standard with a black matte finish. For a more integrated look it can be ordered in the same color as the body.

Interior Styling

The 2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible's interior design began with the driver. They call this Driver Focused design. What they mean is that they want the driver to feel connected to the vehicle, and ready for a twisty road at any time (even if you're stuck in traffic.) The idea is to be able to do something fun when possible.

The dashboard has the feel of an airplane cockpit. It wraps around the driver, then downward, forming the center console. The controls are angled so the driver can see them easily.

The Saab Information Display is on the top of the dashboard, just below the windshield. The display provides information about the entertainment, heating and air conditioning systems, and the trip computer data. These controls are all conveniently placed for front passenger use, rather than the driver.

The 2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible has always had good supportive seats, a necessity in sporty cars. These seats were specially designed for this product. They have seat-integrated belts. When the front seats are folded forward for second row access, there is no belt to get in the way of the person climbing into the back seat.

The driver and front passenger have a good amount of seat bolstering to keep them in place during spirited driving. However Saab front seats are wide enough so most people, regardless of size, will be comfortable on long drives. The rear seats are smaller and comfortable for most with the exception of someone over 6' tall. They probably won't be comfortable in the second row on a long ride.

Leather seating surfaces are standard. The entry-level accessory package called Linear has cloth door panels. The luxury Arc, and sportier Vector packages both have leather door inserts.

The roof features Saab's CargoSET self-expanding trunk. When the roof is closed you have access to the entire trunk for cargo. When the roof is open a hard cover automatically separates the it from the remaining cargo area.

Engine Performance

There are two engine options for the 2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible. Both are 2.0-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder, turbocharged engines. The 2.0T, a light-pressure turbo, generates 175-horespower and 195 lb-ft of torque. The 9-3 2.0T, a high-pressure turbo, provides an additional 35-horspower for a total of 210, with 221 lb-ft of torque. We recommend the 210-horsepower, 9-3 2.0T, not just because it's fun for racing around, but because it provides very good overall performance.

We liked the performance of the 9-3 with the 2-liter turbo. However it would be nice to have a little more horsepower, and low-end torque. At one point on our test drive we stopped next to a truck we wanted to pass. When both of us began to move again, we accelerated hard, dueling for first place. The truck almost beat us! Given that we were headed uphill we felt we could have used a little more grunt (power) to get moving.

Saab recently showed a 9-3 Sport-Hatch concept car at the Frankfurt auto show with a 250-horsepower engine. That engine would provide the perfect horsepower for the convertible - hint, hint Saab -- it needs to find its way into the other 9-3s.

Two transmissions are offered: a Sentronic 5-speed automatic, or a 6-speed manual. If you choose the Sentronic you can still change gears yourself. But if you want more fun, get the 9-3 with the optional steering-wheel-mounted gear change controls. That's a really cool feature.

Ride and Handling

The 2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible is much more responsive to driver input than the previous model. Its ride is smooth and comfortable without isolating the driver from the road.

The handling is much improved helped by the car's lighter weight. Driving the twisting roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway between Atlanta, Georgia and Asheville, North Carolina, the handling was exceptional. We felt confident taking corners at quick speeds. The steering was precise. The car goes where you tell it to, and nowhere else.

To help the 9-3 Convertible carve its way around turns, Saab incorporated the ReAxs passive rear-wheel steering system. Basically the system points the rear wheels in the opposite direction of the steering input to prevent understeer. This allows the rear of the car to better follow the front around a corner. Similar to how a shaped ski works.

There was plenty of power for good acceleration, even from corner to corner in tight turns. A very advanced braking system makes the car nimble - quick starts coupled with quick stops. Passing other cars on the highway was easy. The high-pressure Turbo is the best choice for this vehicle if you want near-BMW ride, handling and performance without a BMW price tag.


The Saab 9-3 Sedan just received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's "Good" rating and "Best Pick." These are the highest ratings available on their Frontal Off Set Crash test. The convertible is as safe structurally, if not better, than the sedan because of all the work done to reinforce and stiffen the chassis, necessary because there is no support from a roof.

There is a full compliment of airbags available, including adaptive front airbags. These determine whether or not to deploy, and what stage to use. Front-seat passengers have side-impact airbags with two chambers; one to protect the chest, and the other to protect the head.

Soft-top vehicles, like the 9-3 Convertible, have the added challenge of protecting the passengers in the event of a rollover. Though these types of accidents are rare, they have to be considered. Saab has what it calls the DynaCage Rollover Protection System. It consists of heavy A Pillar reinforcement. This holds the windshield, and two spring-loaded, pop-up rollover bars. Unlike other similar rollover systems using two pyrotechnic charges -- one to release the bars and the other to pop them up - Saab's only uses one. Their system releases the bars and pushes them up at the same time, engaging the rollover bars. This lowers repair costs as the bars are much easier to reset.

The 2004 9-3 Convertible has the company's second-generation Saab Active Head Restraint (SAHR) system. Whiplash, or soft-tissue neck injuries, occur when the head is thrown forward and backward violently in a rear end collision. Ouch! This simple mechanical system helps to prevent that type of injury by keeping the neck and head from moving backward too far. When the occupant's lower back is pushed into the seat during the initial impact of a collision, the head restraint moves forward meeting the head, preventing the neck from hyperextension. The system even helps those people who don't have their head bolster set at the correct height.

In Conclusion

The 2004 Saab 9-3 Convertible is a great open top car. The car competes well against other entry-level, premium convertibles like the Audi A 4 and BMW 3 Series. But it would be a stretch to compare it to the Volvo C70 or Mercedes-Benz CLK convertibles. However the 9-3 is competitive against the former.

Editors Ratings

Pros: Sexy, sporty, well-integrated design. Fantastic roof - fast open and close and a pleasure to touch. Great cargo options, like the CargoWing, for those with demanding hobbies.

Cons: Needs more horsepower.

Ratings (1-10)

  • Style: 8
  • Performance: 6
  • Price: 8
  • Handling: 8
  • Ride: 8
  • Comfort: 8
  • Quality: 7
  • Overall: 8.6

More Data

Where Built: Trollhatten, Sweden

Major Options: On Star, 5-speed automatic transmission w/manual-shift capability, Power sunroof

Seating: 5

Number of Rows: 2

Crash Test Ratings:

  • NHTSA Frontal Impact/Driver Crash Test Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • NHTSA Frontal Impact/Passenger Crash Test Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • NHTSA Side Impact/Front Seat Crash Test Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • NHTSA Side Impact/Rear Seat Crash Test Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • NHTSA Rollover Resistance Rating: Not Yet Tested
  • IIHS Frontal Offset Crash Test: Not Yet Tested

Length in Inches: 182.3

Warranties: 4 years/50,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 10 year/unlimited miles corrosion protection, 4 years/50,000 miles free Roadside Assistance, 3 years/36,000 free scheduled maintenance.

Weight in Pounds: 3,200

Cargo Capacity in Pounds: Not Available

Gross Maximum Vehicle Weight in Pounds: Nota Availble

Towing Capacity in Pounds: Not Available

Gas Tank Capacity in Gallons: 16.9

Destination Charge: $675