"Holy s**t, it's like a f***ing airplane," announced my hockey buddy as she slid into the cockpit. Like it was 'born from jets' or something.

Even given that the above expletives came courtesy of a foul-mouthed Canadian who isn't terribly car-savvy, our friend's first impression of the 9-3 Aero Convertible tester shown above would undoubtedly play like music to GM's ears. Which is just as well, because inserting the funky ignition key and listening to the satisfyingly subtle rumble of Saab's turbocharged 2.8L DOHC V6 as it fired up was music to ours.

 

Consider the addition of the Aero's turbocharged V6 for 2006 a much-needed bump in a segment where Saab has been trailing the pack. With just a high-strung turbocharged 2.0L 4-banger on offer, the Saab was down on cylinders, but worse-- it showed. As it gave chase to the German competition (BMW's 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz's C-class, etc.), the previous model's 210 hp and 221 ft.-lbs. of torque didn't inspire when compared to the BMW 330i's inline-6 (226/214) and the Benz C320's V6 (215/221). While a little lighter than both, the front-wheel drive and 40-60 weight distribution (to say nothing of the turbo lag) caused the previous Aero to come in third in many a comparison test.
 

Even for those who rue the day GM bought into the fair Swede, the new 250 hp Australian-sourced Ecotec aluminum engine in the 9-3 Aero (a version of which also powers the Cadillac CTS) is hard to complain about. The water-cooled twin-scroll turbocharger and variable intake valve timing raises the bar on horsepower, and the 60-degree dual overhead cam is out to get optimal power while netting decent fuel economy... at least according to GM. In reality, our tester has been managing about 20 mpg, despite doing a lot of highway driving (of course, the fact that we've got a heavy throttle foot has nothing everything something to do with it). 

To accommodate the extra power rendered by the improved powerplant, Saab has added stiffer anti-roll bars, tweaked the steering and tightened up the suspension, choosing to add a four-link independent setup in the rear. It's certainly difficult to make a convertible handle as well as a similar hardtop, the prime culprits being weight differences and a loss of rigidity without the hardtop, but GM asserts that its engineers developed the 9-3 convertible alongside the sedan and Sport Combi, ensuring that driving dynamics remain stellar.
 

On paper, at least, the Saab's plenty fast thanks to some of the company's best technology. But let's stop for a moment to examine exactly how fast it looks. Despite its expected role as hauler of golf clubs (a page in the manual is actually devoted to giving instructions on how to fit two sets in the trunk), the Aero's aggressive stance, wedge-like profile, dual exhaust pipes, 17-inch flat-spoke alloy wheels and gaping air dams make it look like a contender. The roofline of the convertible top follows the sedan's, more or less. But with the top down... hoo boy! We've been wondering exactly what to do with a Detroit-bound convertible in February, but the look of it with the top down just might encourage us to put the heated seats, HVAC system and wind isolation to the test.

The specific test model we received boasts Saab's Electronic Stability Program, traction control, front seat head and torso side airbags, automatic roll-over protection, active head restraints in the front, ABS, mechanical brake assist and cornering brake control, an anti-theft system, cruise control, heated outside mirrors and projector beam xenons, among other perks. Of special interest to our directionally-challenged selves is Saab's navigation system, which, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), requires the vehicle to be at a stop in order to program it. All in all, those bennies and the $720 destination fee bring the original $41,900 base MSRP up to a total amount of $47,065.

So how's the sound system? What's it like in the interior? How does the traction control really play out? Is the turbo truly smoother than the previous model's as GM claims? Stay tuned for more when we take the Saab 9-3 Aero out for a spin or 20 later this week.