If Tiger Woods’s new driver were three times as stiff, he might whack the ball 450 yards. If Mark McGwire’s bat had been three times as stiff, he might have hit 90 home runs in a season. If a Saab 9-3 convertible were nearly three times as stiff, it would be the 2004 9-3 convertible you see here, a whole lot nicer and better-behaved machine than any previous Saab convertible.

Saab, which was your basic Swedish hatchback car company until recently, abandoned its hatchback coupes with the advent of the new 9-3 last year, a Saab built on GM corporate architecture-the Epsilon platform that is shared by Opel and Saturn. So the raw material that was used to build a convertible was in fact a four-door sedan.

They kept the dimensions, the front-end sheetmetal, and much of what was underneath it, but starting at the windshield, “We built a whole new car from there on back,” according to one Saab official. The convertibles will be built for Saab by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, not in the Swedish headquarters at Trollhättan.

The resulting Saab 9-3 convertible is one of several European four-seater, all-weather ragtops varying in price from $40,000 to $50,000 in base trim. They have tops that are tighter-fitting, better padded, and quieter than any previous convertible tops and that disappear behind the second seat. Cowls trail off the rear head restraints for a more sporty look. Some, including the new Saab, use electronic signals from the key fob to open the top and drop the glass while you’re walking toward the car.

There will be two Saab models, the Arc, at $40,670, and the Aero, at $43,175. Both are built around the 210-hp, 2.0-liter Ecotec corporate engine that puts out 221 pound-feet of torque, although Saab uses only the Ecotec block and provides all its own internals, turbocharging, and mapping. Its power will be more than adequate for most of Saab’s traditional turbo customers.

The Arc version comes with a five-speed manual and 16-inch tires, the Aero with a six-speed manual, 17-inch tires, and five additions to the Arc’s specs: OnStar telematics with the first year of service free; a sport body kit and exhaust tip; a sport chassis with tire-pressure monitors; matte chrome trim with a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel; and a 300-watt, 13-speaker sound system replacing the Arc’s 150-watt, seven-speaker setup. A Touring package is available for either model at $1195 and includes rain-sensing wipers, parking assist, an in-dash six-CD changer, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a garage-door opener. A Cold Weather package of heated front seats and headlamp washers goes for $500, and a five-speed automatic transaxle, with floor shifting on the Arc and floor or paddle shifting on the Aero, is available for $1250. All models now have standard electronic stability control, along with automatic rollover protection bars that deploy in 15 milliseconds.

We drove both Arcs and Aeros, manual and automatic, top up and top down, and we liked them all, with a few reservations. This convertible is 200 pounds heavier than the previous model, almost all of it in chassis and body reinforcements that make it almost 200-percent more resistant to twisting and bending, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving car. The old convertible had all the structural rigidity of shredded wheat and was prone to massive torque steer, especially the Viggen version. You could cross a railroad track and vibrate for the rest of the afternoon. That kind of ricketyness has been banished completely. When the new six-bow top is down, it’s beautifully integrated inside and out, from end to end.

This one also goes, for the most part, exactly where you point it, with just a momentito of steering lightness when you first mash the pedal and the nose lifts up. Like no other Epsilon-based car, the Saab has passive rear-wheel steering built into the rear bushings, and it helps make the car feel sure-footed in everything from quick jinks to 100-mph sweepers. Top down, you can talk to your pals without shouting. The new seats hold you like your mom did when you were three and are just as comfortable. The new convertibles will be in Saab showrooms in September.


VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-passenger, 2-door convertible

BASE PRICE: $40,670-$43,175

ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve 4-in-line, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection

Displacement: 122 cu in, 1998cc
Power (SAE net): 210 bhp @ 5300 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 221 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 5- or 6-speed manual, 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 105.3 in Length: 182.4 in
Width: 69.3 in Height: 56.4 in
Curb weight: 3600-3700 lb

Zero to 62 mph: 8.0-9.5 sec
Top speed (drag limited): 140-143 mph

European combined cycle: 24-26 mpg

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