It’s a stereotype but Saab convertibles have been known more for being driven by hairdressers than people into performance. Even with turbocharged engines long available in Saab soft-tops, the perception has always been about looking good rather than going hard. But all that’s now changed. With the release of the 2.8 litre turbocharged V6 Aero, Saab just got serious.
But it’s damn hard to pick the gun car – there are no badges that say anything about a V6, let alone turbo. Instead you need to look for the Aero badge, twin exhausts and the big brakes. But behind the steering wheel there’s no confusion – put your foot down and feel the 6-speed auto snatch a down-change, the boost gauge immediately rocketing around the (uncalibrated) dial, the steering wheel twisting a little in your grasp as all the Newton metres are channelled through the protesting front tyres. The engine – creamy smooth and with an exhilarating exhaust note – surges the car down the road with a wave of torque for each gear. Saab knows turbocharging very well and with a technically sophisticated, all-new V6 at their disposal (courtesy of parent GM), there’s no holding them back.
In fact it’s a source of astonishment that the all-alloy 184kW 2.8 litre engine is simply a downsized and turbocharged version of the 3.6 litre threshing machine found under the bonnet of the Holden Commodore. The intercooled Mitsubishi TD04 turbo runs 0.6 Bar boost and gives the smaller engine immense grunt everywhere in the rev range, with 90 per cent of peak torque available from an incredibly low 1500 rpm! It’s vastly more refined and sweet than the engine used in the Holdens and it’s also more economical, especially in cruise. Over the 1100 kilometres we did in the week with the car, it turned-in an average fuel consumption of just 10.3 litres/100 km – very good with the available performance and the high 1737kg mass. In fact, the only criticism that can be made of the engine is that when started from dead cold, it’s a little rough in idle – it feels almost as if it’s running a lean air/fuel ratio to warm the cat converter. (Saab says that air injection occurs into the exhaust manifolds for the first 30 seconds after a cold start, but that doesn’t really explain the engine roughness in these conditions.)
Nought to 100 km/h is claimed at 8.1 seconds but the Aero always feels faster than this – and it’s the in-gear performance which is really exhilarating. We’ve got almost no complaints about the engine – and in fact would rate it amongst the best turbo engines we’ve ever driven – but the Aisin AW 6-speed auto trans optionally fitted to the test car isn’t quite as effective.
A thinking trans with adaptive control logic, in the main it does a good job. It’ll hold single gears up long hills and will respond more quickly if you’re booting it. But at times when the car is accelerated from a walking pace it selects first gear with a real jerk, and can engine brake in a clunky way on long descents. Manual control of the trans is available by pushing the selector across to the left and there are also buttons on the steering wheel to effect changes. Don’t get us wrong - the trans works very well with the engine but it could be improved still further with a little more software development.
The handling is up to the performance but the 9.3 Aero is not really a car to drive by the fingertips, adjusting the handling attitude with tiny throttle and wheel movements. Instead, what you have is just lots of grip – the tyres are huge 235/45 Sport Contacts and the Aero-specific sports suspension is set up to have very little roll. The steering is quick and the combination gives turn-in that occurs with alacrity and high cornering speeds. However, go beyond the level of grip and the car stodgily understeers, the stability control system reining-in the movement with fairly unsubtle corrections.
Mixing oddly with this handling behaviour is a steering system with lots of feedback – probably too much in fact. Driven along a bumpy road with the hands momentarily off the wheel shows it has a life of its own – twisting and jiggling constantly. The suspension is also damn firm and with the roof folded down (which also introduces some scuttle shake), the steering and ride collaborate to reduce refinement considerably. Put it this way: it’s the sort of car that on a smooth road urban test drive you could think extremely refined; but put the car onto a broken bitumen secondary road and the story dramatically changes.
Brakes are bigger on the Aero than the other 9.3 convertibles with 314mm and 292mm ventilated discs used front and back, respectively. They’re controlled by ABS, brake assist, and stability and traction control systems.
So there’s plenty of performance and grip but what about the reason that people buy soft-tops - dropping the roof? The convertible roof is operated by a single button – there are no latches to manually unfold. Simply press the button downwards and accompanied by the quiet whir of hydraulic motors, a short time later the roof is gone. It’s seamless, practical and fun. Space for the roof is provided in the boot, which is another way of saying that when the roof is folded, half the boot space disappears. (If you try to fold the roof with the boot full, the system stops before any damage occurs and a warning comes up on the dash.) We can see plenty of people packing the boot full for a trip then when they reach their destination, unpacking and folding back the roof for some fun touring.
With the roof up, the convertible has near sedan levels of noise suppression and comfort. Some road noise gets through the fabric (most noticeably on freeways with other traffic close by) but there’s no extra wind noise or whistles. The rear window is glass, so you won’t get the creased yellow plastic window that appears after a few years in lesser convertibles.
The rear seat is quite usable. Drop-down rear windows are provided (although, oddly, they’re not under the control of the rear passengers) and even with the roof up, the rear space is not claustrophobic. Leg room is a little tight, but with the front seats moved forward a bit, even that is fine. Front seat space is good (although what in a rear-wheel drive would be the transmission tunnel is rather wide) and the glovebox and door pockets are large and usable.
The roof must cost a lot because while the equipment level of this AUD$92,400 car is adequate, it’s certainly not outstanding. Navigation isn’t offered (even as an option) and there are only four airbags. However, other safety issues are addressed with auto pop-up rear roll bars and active front head restraints. Leather is everywhere and you get a 6 disc in-dash CD stacker and a 7 speaker premium sound system. The Aero also gets dual electric seats, the drivers’ seat having three memories. But take a look at the dash and you could be forgiven for thinking the car is packed with equipment – that’s quite a complex panel you’re looking at! However, most of the controls are easily mastered and the night lighting is particularly effective. The digital displays are also clear, even in full sunlight. Unlike previous Saabs we’ve sampled, the trip computer is no longer operated by multiple buttons but unfortunately, the single rotary knob that has replaced them is also not very easy to use – it’s difficult to turn it one increment at a time without overshooting.
Overall, the Saab 9.3 Aero is an impressive machine. It’s about as practical as a soft-top four seater gets, goes hard and handles competently – and all without drinking like a crazed sailor on shore leave.