A Saab 9-3 and a bonus
A decade ago, and long before The Miles Driven existed, a convertible Saab 9-3 left a lasting impression.
The crumpled brown envelope had the usual boxes filled with Saab 9-3 Aero written across the top and a series of pen strikes below from the oily fingers of a workshop technician too busy to mark each box with a full tick. The task ahead was a 150-mile trip to a small village that had a name so long it could only be in Wales. The navigation on my phone proved me wrong, I wouldn't cross a border today, but I would meander along the invisible border line of the two nations. The company fuel card was relinquished with the usual bitterness as if me gaining possession of the golden piece of plastic would result in a wild party at the local BP filling station and a daring raid of the flapjack aisle with a wink to the cashier seeing a months supply of oats added to the fuel bill.
These were the early days of my automotive career, long before I would write about them or create online content about the imperceptible differences of four wheels rolling along a road. Back then I was a clean-shaven salesman that hadn't driven a convertible more than a few yards around the sprawling display area of the near one thousand cars we attempted to squeeze in. Saab meant little to me at the time, the company was on very rocky ground financially but was still clinging to life, although the writing was already on the wall for the firm. With my brown envelope of service history and important documents, a full tank of fuel, and loose instructions to either take the car home that night or return it I headed out to see a customer that was willing to sign a 'no haggle' deal upon seeing the car and it being as described. This sort of deal would rarely be approved by a sales manager 'if they are serious, they will drive here' was the usual response for any request to be shown a vehicle. An exception was made on this day for two reasons - one, the customer had just been rear-ended and his car written off by the insurance company, leaving him both desperate for a vehicle and with a sore back and whiplash that rendered him unable to drive for another week, and (much more important to my sales manager) it was the last day of the month to get a deal on the board, and our target had only just limped over the threshold for his bonus commission with some very shaky deals that may fall out of bed any moment. This deal was one he could count on, with the customer happy to pay the whole amount via bank transfer that afternoon as long as the car was as good as I had said it was in a phone appraisal. He would collect in a couple of weeks, which would be a problem as our target was paid only for 'delivered' units, however, a fully paid car sitting in the dark corner of our collections area away from senior management's eyes would also count.
Onto the car, and my long legs swept beneath the wheel and found a comfortable position. A first plus point for the Saab, they know how to make a car for a tall driver, and even though the first few miles couldn't be classed as visceral, as they would be a month later when I would be trusted with a Nissan GTR, the Saab in Aero spec started to get under my skin. The 2.0-litre turbo was a torquey unit that wasn't keen to chase a redline, but at 7/10ths had a way of making you feel you had more power than you really did. Backroads turned to highways and the late spring air swept through the cabin without a beating intrusion that some poorly constructed convertibles include as a no-cost option. Even some much newer designs from manufacturers that should know better have channelled the air into your face as if they thought wind surfing was the sensation drivers were looking for. Saab mastered the trick of experiencing the open air, without it leaving you feeling exhausted from the experience.
Progressing along at overtaking speeds on a motorway can become a bit hazardous in a Saab, not because the car can't do it, but because the overall feeling of solid build quality can make you forget how exposed you are if anything were to go wrong. A return to cruising speed brought about my first complaint. The larger wheels on the Aero trim are great for looks, but the smaller wheels on the Vector Sport model have most of the same aesthetic appeal without compromising ride quality. If asked what surfaces the car was driving it would be possible to call out every conceivable surface blindfolded. Moving back to the overtaking lane solved most of this issue as the heavy vehicle that trample the inside lane were banished from compromising the tarmac over there.
Moving along at a brisk pace the challenge of the countryside arrived, and with it, beaten asphalt that twisted around farmer's fields. Even today I hope Saab is one day saved because of the memory.
There are much faster ways to move along these lanes, sweeping corners throw you towards tighter turns before laying open a few hundred yards of straight road before repeating themselves. A BMW M3 would have vanished, a Golf GTI would be gone, and yet, with the roof down I couldn't care less in the Saab. The reward was smooth sailing, albeit not as smooth as it could be with slightly smaller wheels, but you enjoyed the miles, savoured the corners and didn't need to arm wrestle the speed limit to lift the corners of your lips towards your eye sockets. Push the engine to 4,500rpm, and shift a cog early, waiting for you in the next gear is another swell of torque. Braking, turning accelerating, none of it was arduous, but all of it was fun in a steadier manner. A year later I drive the V8-powered Audi S4 convertible, an altogether more serious affair, and although the Audi had a premium feel I don't remember smiling. Instead, I wore the serious face of a politician, not the silly smile of a morning TV presenter. Back to that moment and at a young age, I was handed a lesson that my contemporaries would spend the next decade learning. Yes, you can have lots of fun in a raucous powerhouse of a car, but the joy of doing it all a step slower wasn't worse, it was merely a different kind of joy, and after all these years, I start to wonder if we've been fooled by speed, much like fast food, it has its place, and we all enjoy a drive through burger every now and again. However, that slower service of a bygone era, it may or may not amount to a better meal, but while waiting, you become lustful of what you know is ahead, that greasy burger somehow looks better. The Saab 9-3 convertible didn't compete with the German, American, and British convertible four-seaters because it didn't want to play on them on their turd. Instead, it carved out a field in a bit of Swedish land and asked people to come and play, and you know what, they mastered their little area of the market, unfortunately there just weren't enough people interested in playing its game. Saab made better cars and more historically relevant cars than the 9-3, however, in the ten-year production run, the 9-3 held its own, and went down fighting, much like the company. Today, a modest sum of money gets one on your driveway as a second car on a summer's day. If you have the means, and you prefer to enjoy the miles ahead of you, we could all do a lot worse than a Saab 9-3 convertible.
Note from Miles
The ride was probably not as bad as I remember, and sadly many of these cars have fallen into the territory of shoestring ownership. If there was anything other than how unfortunate it is that Saab is no longer with us to take from this story, it is that open-top motoring is an on-road experience like a few others.
P.S The customer paid up that day and happily collected their new car two weeks later after it won a game of hide and seek in the collections area against the top management. We hit our monthly target and the next day started the month-long battle to get a bonus once again.