Motoring: Soft top, hard landing

Fasten your seatbelts, says Michael Booth, as readers test Saab's 9.3SE Convertible. Photographs by Teena Taylor
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Nobody understands how difficult it is being a

motoring correspondent. Week in, week out,

we have to try out the newest models, consumer test them to within an inch of their lives, and then concoct bon mots by way of description. Trouble is, most new cars are simply too good. It is impossible to find fault, for example, with a new Audi. They just do everything so perfectly. These days, with almost any new car you can be sure that it will be fast and safe, that it will stop properly and be reasonably comfortable. Noise levels will be unobtrusive, there will be umpteen places to store change, and a profusion of airbags. So it's nice to come across a car with some serious, old-fashioned faults. And the Saab 9.3SE Convertible is one.

But let's begin positively. Saab has always produced cars whose appeal is, in part at least, that of the unconventional, and it is a credit to the design team that the 9.3 is instantly recognisable as a Saab both facially and in profile. Traditional Saab features also remain inside, such as the ignition switch on the centre console (so keys don't dangle), and the instrument light dimmer switch which, when turned down, renders only the speedo and fuel gauge visible, to protect tired eyes.

Grisling over boot room in a convertible, especially one with an exceptionally easy-to-operate electric hood, is pointless - of course it's not going to be as roomy as the saloon. But the 9.3 scores significantly over its rivals in its rear seat space which is ample even for six-footers. With the roof up you can see practically nothing to your rear, but with it down the car is almost as civilised as the hard-top version, and a detachable baffle, which fits behind the front seats, keeps wind noise bearable even at high speeds. At around pounds 31,000 (depending on spec - heated seats, for example, are a must), it is also considerably cheaper than its pounds 36,000 Mercedes CLK rival, and, with turbo power, faster too.

But it is with the turbo that the complaints mount, making this car a road-tester's dream. Saab was the turbo pioneer in the Seventies, so you would have thought it would have eradicated the problems of the system by now, but the 9.3's acceleration can still come violently and suddenly which, though exhilarating if you're in the mood, can otherwise terrify. There is awesome power on tap here (at over 80mph particularly this thing just flies), and traction control is desperately needed to help tame the turbo's bowel-loosening propensity to unstick the front tyres. You would have thought, too, these days, that car manufacturers would be able to make a rigid convertible. Actually most can - all except Saab, whose soft-top shudders and shimmies over the slightest bump. To have "scuttle shake", as the phenomenon is known, on a pounds 30,000 car is totally unacceptable.

These last two are serious deterrents to buying a car, even one with the individuality, roominess and cute indicator click (the sound of a guinea pig munching a carrot, if I'm not mistaken) of the 9.3. If you want a four-seater convertible you can definitely do better than this

The verdict

Tim Mills, 38, from Romford, market research consultant. Currently drives a Citroen DS

Saab's aircraft heritage and quirky design appealed to Tim who spends much of his driving time on motorways, "I quite like the ugliness of Saabs, I like a car that's a little bit different, unlike BMWs or Audis. A Saab is on my shopping list at the moment but I'm not sure this one would be practical because I have a 10-week-old baby. The ride is good and it's very quiet for a soft-top but the controls feel a bit loose and it doesn't pick up well in second gear."

Monica Wells, 37, from Kent, photographer. Currently drives a Triumph Spitfire

A convertible aficionado, Monica felt immediately at home in the Saab, "I love convertibles but I really need something with four seats so this would be very practical for me, and I'd really like to have something that's a bit more powerful than my car. This feels small to drive but it is very difficult to park, actually, because it's so long. I think the styling is beautiful, nice and streamlined, but I wouldn't necessarily know it was a Saab. Yes, I'd definitely buy one."

Gill Hoggard, 44, from Derbyshire, maths instructor, school inspector and part-time magistrate. Currently drives a Peugeot 504

Safety and comfort are top of Gill's list when buying a car so she appreciated the Saab's "chunky and solid" feel but felt that in convertible form it might attract a little too much attention: "I'd worry about people being jealous, and vandals. I always think cars like this are designed for making a statement more than anything else, they're not very practical around town but absolutely wonderful on the open road." Like all our drivers Gill had difficulty with the car stalling in the first gear, "but that's the only thing that would really put me off. When I'm rich and famous I'll definitely buy one."

Jonothan Starkey, 52, environmentalist from the Isle of Wight. Currently drives a Toyota Litace van

"I suppose that's what you call a rising wedge," observed Jonothan. "It's a very nice shape, right down to the gentle curve of the door handles. I like the stereo controls on the steering wheel but like any car now it has acres of plastic inside. It does go though, doesn't it? I love that turbo boost, it gives you that feeling of safety, that you could get out of trouble quickly. I'd expect to see a yuppie type at the wheel, but I'd say it is a non- gender-specific car over all. Convertibles have the inherent security problem though don't they?"

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

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