Saab 9-3 (2006) review

The well rounded 9-3 Cabriolet is a capable alternative to modern, metal-roofed opposition

While it may not offer the last word in handling and performance, the well rounded 9-3 Cabriolet is a capable alternative to modern, metal-roofed opposition. Not only is the Saab much more practical than many of its class competitors, but the economical diesel powerplant is smooth, too, complementing the comfortable ride. Only excessive wind noise spoils the relaxed feeling you get inside the cabin.

Things are hotting up at Saab. With a new-look 9-5 on sale, and the Aero X stealing the limelight at this year's Geneva Motor Show, the sun is shining on the Swedish firm. So what better way to celebrate than by launching a new convertible?

Meet the limited-edition 9-3 Cerulean - the first Saab drop-top to have a diesel engine. Powered by the same 150bhp 1.9-litre TiD unit found in the Vauxhall Vectra, the newcomer promises impressive performance, while still achieving a respectable 44.8mpg.

But, as a result of its fabric roof, is it in danger of being left behind by a new generation of better equipped and metal topped coupé-cabriolet rivals?

If the competition for pole position in this market was judged on looks alone, there's no doubt that the 9-3 would hold its own. Despite its aged underpinnings, the Cerulean variant has eye-catching metallic blue paintwork, 17-inch alloy wheels and specially designed leather seats.

The electrically operated roof now drops under a tonneau cover that in-cludes two aerodynamic humps, which are mounted directly behind the seats.

Inside, the handbrake is set too far back, and it's hard to judge the car's size from behind the wheel. Start the 1,910cc engine and it seems surprisingly noisy, sounding especially rough when the ignition key is turned. But as the four-cylinder unit fires, it settles to an a more refined idle. With 150bhp at 4,000rpm and peak torque of 320Nm available from 2,000rpm, power is easy to access. However, the tall ratios of the six-speed transmission, coupled with the restricted rev range, mean that you'll need to work the gearbox hard.

Still, on open, winding roads, the turbodiesel engine is both smooth and relaxed. The steering, while light on feel, is accurate, and the suspen-sion is tuned to provide a reasonable degree of comfort and stability. Overall, the handling comes as a pleasant surprise - although you can't say the same about the Saab's cabin.

Compared to more modern coupé-cabriolet rivals, the noise from the fabric top is extremely disappointing. The 9-3's roof does little to make long-distance driving comfortable and lets through so much wind noise we found ourselves repeatedly checking to see if the windows were fully raised.

With the top down, things are much better. The canvas stows more quickly and neatly than heavy, metal alternatives, and without compromising boot or rear seat space. It's this practicality, together with the impressive performance of the torquey diesel powerplant, that means the Saab 9-3 Cabriolet re-mains a force to be reckoned with.

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