Our last moments with the Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible were bittersweet... hearing the engine purr, hauling ass off the line to pass unsuspecting BMW and Acura owners, and stopping on a dime at the next red light almost brought tears to our eyes when we realized that GM's minions would soon repo our topless Swede. Too bad.
Far and away, our 9-3 Aero's defining performance characteristics are its horsepower and mid-range torque. That is, once the turbocharger kicks in. The 60-degree V6 packed 'neath the hood has the unmistakable lag associated with most turbocharged mills, but the Mitsubishi-sourced unit's uptake is smoother than those belonging to Saabs of yore. The engine's 250 horses and 258 lb.-ft. of torque easily chirrup the front wheels, both off the line and in particularly sharp turns taken a little fast in search of a bit of slightly un-P.C. fun (this, despite Saab's Electronic Stability Program). And hey... from where this author sits, any sport sedan that doesn't allow a little harmless slippin' and slidin' has no business being in the segment.
The 9-3 Aero convertible we had in the Autoblog Garage arrived sporting Saab’s 6-speed “Sentronic” automatic transmission, which affords drivers the option to manually shift gears via steering wheel buttons or gearshift. While it was fun to use at first, the 6-speed automatic was more than eager on its own, easily adjusting to an aggressive driving style without feeling like it was hunting around on-edge. Quite frankly, the automatic mode did a much better job than we could in manual mode as we pressed buttons and waited for the lag inherent in the manual mode to pass. The only time the buttons seemed to make sense was in heavy traffic – using the transmission to slow down the engine certainly beat stomping back and forth between the gas and brake (though brake fatigue is cheaper than driveline wear, admittedly!).
Because gas mileage has become more of an issue within the last year or so, we’re happy to report that mileage leveled out between 21 and 22 mpg despite some really spirited driving. With premium gas, a full tank in Michigan topped $33 and had a range that could get you from Detroit to Chicago and then some. Saab claims MPG to be 18 city/28 highway with the MT, 17/28 with the automatic.
If complaints are to be made, the steering is nervous and prone to understeer, making the handling something of a challenge, and the feedback is a little muted. The Saab does route its substantial 250 horsepower through the front wheels, and any steering that can keep up with that without flailing about like a bass on a line is a-okay in our book, but it's one of those things that puts the competition slightly out of reach for Saab. Despite the fact that the vehicle is a convertible, however, the body was plenty stiff, which helped with handling. Obviously, Saab's steadfast adherence to front wheel drive is one of the things holding it back from the ever-present BMW 3-series benchmark. By giving the front wheels too many jobs (steering, motivation, etc.) and a 40-60 weight ratio, Saab has handicapped the handling a bit, though those from icier climes will likely take the tradeoff.
Alright. So Saab doesn't follow the standard 3-Series recipe for performance sedan nirvana. The engine is force-fed and pours its gumption through the front wheels. But what would the world be like if everybody drove the same thing, or if all car companies plied the same products? For the rebel at heart, this is a fine choice. Quirky Swedish heritage, a characterful engine, solid power and handling, and distinctive styling all combine to make the Saab 9-3 Aero a viable alternative to the competition.