Saab 9-3 Convertible Road Trip

Tackling rural Australia in a soft-top Saab

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • 1200+ country kilometres in the Saab 9-3 Convertible
  • Aerodynamic noise at high speed
  • Flexible (if not powerful) 2-litre turbo engine
  • Very comfortable over long distances

In a previous road test (New Car Test - Saab 9-3 Linear Convertible) we sampled the Saab 9-3 Linear Convertible and came away impressed by its comfort, accommodation and composed ride.

But how well does a Swedish convertible cope on long stretches of rural Australian road? Can this pretty drop-top hold its own in kangaroo country – or will it drop its bundle and head for the nearest café?

We found out on a 1200+ kilometre return trip from Adelaide to Mount Gambier.

In the first leg of our two person trip – from Adelaide to Tailem Bend – we get reacquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the 9-3 Vector Convertible. The flexible nature of the DOHC 2-litre turbo engine (which can often be heard whooshing and fluttering), the centre-mounted ignition switch, rubberised indicator switch and the confronting wall of switchgear ensure this car has a very non-mainstream feel. We've packed the boot with a large soft bag, laptop and tripod and there's plenty of room to spare – just so long as we don't try to retract the electro-hydraulic roof...

Our biggest criticism at this early stage of the trip is aimed at the cruise control. On the undulating terrain spanning Adelaide to Tailem Bend, the engine works hard to maintain 110 km/h – every rise is greeted with an audible rush of boost that’s sure to have a negative impact on fuel consumption.

Fortunately, the terrain levels out on the next leg to Keith and the cruise control performs smoothly. The reception of our favourite metropolitan radio stations comes to an end about 150km from Adelaide in Tintinara, which is about where we lost signal strength in a locally built Holden Adventra. It is at this time we realise the Saab’s CD/tuner and other controls are far from intuitive.

But, despite the loss of most radio stations, this is never going to be a silent trip.

Road noise at high speed is considerable. Aerodynamic noise is always present through the multi-layer fabric roof and there’s an occasional rustling noise where the rear quarter window joins the C-pillar – there’s a protruding edge that causes this noise. Redemption comes in the form of the wonderfully soft and comfortable seats which receive our praise for the duration of the trip. The ride is also excellent – there’s some impact harshness from the Vector’s 45-series tyres but the ride is always composed and compliant.

The overtaking lanes along the Riddoch Highway are the perfect place for the turbo engine to showcase its flexibility. With abundant low-end and mid-range torque (265Nm from 2500 to 4000 rpm), the Vector isn't slow on the uptake in an overtaking manoeuvre. But with a modest 129kW peak output, we are unable to complete these manoeuvres with a surplus of space. Responsive and initially quick, but in these conditions lacking the sheer top-end grunt. More impressive is the trip computer showing 6.6 litres per 100km since being reset at Tailem Bend.

As darkness descends on the South Australian Limestone Peninsula, the Saab’s adjustable height headlights step up and performed beautifully. On low beam there’s a bright and even spread of light and high-beam pierces the darkness w-a-y into the distance. But on this unfamiliar and winding stretch of blacktop we notice a subtle fault in the Saab’s steering. At the straight-ahead position, the steering is too light to avoid inadvertent steering inputs (which are inevitable when driving at high speed on a bumpy road). We find ourselves making lots of small steering corrections.

After about five hours at the wheel, we arrive in Mount Gambier feeling relaxed (despite the on-going steering corrections) and very comfortable. As we reach the door of our accommodation, the trip computer is showing 7.8 litres per 100km – the last few hundred kilometres involved more on/off throttle driving and a higher average speed.

The next day brings a change of pace for the Saab – it is a day devoted to sightseeing around Mount Gambier. This involves lots of stop-start driving to enjoy the aptly named (and pictured) Blue Lake, Valley Lake, Umpherston sinkhole and the attractive architecture of the town.

This type of driving highlights the Saab’s poor rear-quarter visibility (when the roof is up) and the occasionally dull response of the electronic throttle control. Since off-loading our luggage, we are able to retract the roof and enjoy some patches of sunshine – opening and closing the roof is a single-touch operation that takes about 20 seconds. When the roof is retracted, there’s minimal in-cabin buffeting and turbulence, regardless whether the windows are up or down.

Part of the day’s sightseeing also involves a trip to the rugged coastline of Port MacDonnell. Many of the roads around the Port are very poorly maintained and, for the first time, we feel the Saab’s A-pillars and steering column shudder when attacking corner apexes. Even so, these appallingly rough roads never cause a squeak or rattle from anywhere in the cabin – very impressive for a convertible.

The Saab corners well largely thanks to its Continental SportContact2 225/45 17 tyres and, when grip is breached, the chassis settles into mild understeer. Electronic stability control effectively pulls the nose into line when you’re being ham-fisted. Certainly, the 9-3 Convertible has the feel of a safe car. With four airbags, active roll-over protection and active front head restraints, it comes as no surprise it’s credited with a 5-star EuroNCAP crash rating.

When pushing the limits, it becomes obvious that the 9-3 Vector Convertible isn’t intended as a pure sports machine. The engine simply doesn’t have enough grunt to slingshot the 1600+ kilogram kerb mass (0 – 100 km/h takes about 10 seconds), the suspension is relatively soft and, inevitably, the convertible doesn’t have the chassis rigidity of a normal car. But it comes close. The optional 5-speed Sentronic auto transmission performs very well when left in Drive but we feel there's little gain using the sequential shift branch of the selector. There is also a pair of shift buttons on the steering wheel which we find fiddly to operate.

The heavy-throttle driving on our sightseeing day results in a considerable increase in fuel consumption – our trip average goes from 7.8 to 8.5 litres per 100km. Fortunately, we find premium unleaded available at most large petrol stations in the area – it seems high-octane is now quite widely available in rural Australia. Still, in a worst case scenario, the Saab can tolerate normal unleaded.

With a full tank of fuel, the Saab turns back for Adelaide the next morning.

Again, the turbo engine shows its overtaking flexibility (if not outright power), the seats provide total comfort and the suspension remains utterly composed over some gnarly bitumen. After more than 1200 country kilometres, the 9-3 Convertible enters Adelaide with a total trip fuel consumption of 7.7 litres per 100km. This is pretty much what you’d expect from an aero-efficient 2-litre turbo car over a long distance – but we were a bit disappointed that it didn’t achieve something exceptional.

As we hose off a sun-baked layer of insects from the windscreen and bonnet, we can’t help but admire how well the soft-top Saab coped in an environment that would show glaring deficiencies in lesser machines. It didn’t record the brilliant fuel consumption that we'd hoped for, the on-centre steering is a bit light and it’s a shame it’s impossible to retract the roof when the boot is loaded - but, overall, the car maintained brilliant comfort and composure. We would happily turn around and do it all again tomorrow.

So while the Saab 9-3 Convertible looks at home parked on the latte strip, it is equally in its element bounding through rural Australia. An impressive performance.

The 9-3 Vector Convertible was supplied for this test by Saab Australia

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