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The Independent Culture
EUREKA, open motoring beckons once again! Just think of it, the tantalising tickle of diesel soot in the nostrils, the siren song of your fellow-motorists' stereos at nervous-breakdown volume, the playful banter of happy dustmen at the traffic lights! All these pleasures and more are available to you once you take to ragtop transportation, and the industry is putting out nicer convertibles in the Nineties than it has done for years.

Though it's up against some plausible rivals from BMW and Audi, the Saab 900 convertible has vaulted to the front in this territory, and it looks a lot nicer than the 900-series hatchbacks, which are far more anonymous vehicles than the eccentric and much-loved 900 models that were built by Saab before General Motors bought 50 per cent of the Swedish company. It also looks nicer than most of its convertible rivals, which is a big factor in a corner of the auto market that is pretty image-oriented.

Prices start at pounds 20,000, so it isn't a giveaway, but its considerable virtues include: remarkable quietness for a type of car normally seriously afflicted by wind-noise; a roof operation that a mechanical dyslexic could cope with; substantially increased body stiffness over the previous 900 soft-top, cutting down the traditional rattles and squeaks; and a heated glass rear window in the hood, which at one stroke makes winter driving a lot easier than it commonly is in cars built for half-year driving.

The car does have some quirks that might get on your nerves. Suspension is distinctly knobbly, and the effect on bad roads takes away quite a lot of the relaxed sensation induced by the refinement of the rest of it. The handbrake release is too close to the seatbelt anchorage, so reaching it is like trying to put a glove on one-handed. The anti-theft device is a gearshift lock whereby you can't remove the ignition key when you leave the car unless the shift is in reverse, which is something of an acquired taste.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. This is a very good-looking, well-performing and intelligently-conceived automobile, one that is designed as a convertible rather than being simply a sawn-off saloon, and a lot of extras come for the money, too.

GOING PLACES: free-revving but very torquey General Motors 2.5 litre V6, sacrilege to traditional four-cylinder Saab diehards, but highly suitable for this elegant and quiet convertible; 0-60mph in approx 9 seconds, 50-70pmph overtaking burst similar; adaptable engine to most road and load conditions, relaxing to drive.

STAYING ALIVE: bodyshell substantially rethought for convertible use, stiffness increased without much weight gain - Saab claim 30 per cent better roll-over protection from strengthened windscreen rail over the previous 900 soft-top; side-impact protection as good as the Saab coupe; handling generally good, not as sharp or precise as a BMW or the Peugeot 306 cabrio; steering response excellent, well-weighted, though a little frisky on bumpy corners.

CREATURE COMFORTS: remarkable quietness for a convertible, wind-noise low even at motorway speeds with the top down; very comfortable interior, swivel rear-seat, reading lights; driving position good; excellent boot space; fully folding rear seat; heated rear window; superb American-designed hood, very easy to operate. Rear passenger space above average for this type of car.

BANGS PER BUCK: good value against the comparable Merc and BMW opposition, with all versions featuring anti-lock braking, driver's airbag, power steering, central locking, electric windows and mirrors, powered hood, heated glass rear window, fully-folding rear seat with ski-hatch, electrically adjustable headlamps with wash/wipe, good stereo, and leather seats. Average fuel consumption around 34mpg on motorways, 23mpg in town.

STAR QUALITY: superb appearance, excellent V6 engine, good hood design.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: bouncy ride, average handling for the class, awkward anti-theft lock .

AND ON MY RIGHT: BMW 325i Convertible (pounds 29,000): very good-looking, sharper performance and handling, though less spacious; Audi 2.6E Cabriolet (pounds 23,796): safe, but a bit chunky looking, performance dull and it's cramped at the back; Peugeot 306 Cabriolet (pounds l8,215): smaller than the rivals (but with just about room for two in the rear) and has less storage space, but with superb handling it's good value and great fun.